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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

On the Road

Monday, February 16, 2009

Jack Kerouac's On the Road is not a great formal work of literature. Its narrative line is repetitive, with little discernible development across the four books and separate road trips. Characters - including the narrator - are flat, popping up out of the background as we meet them, hitching a brief ride in its plot, before departing as specks in the rear view mirror of the book's incessant forward momentum.

But what it lacks in aesthetic sophistication, it makes up for with its wild-horse power, a fund of energy tapped from the collision between intense, young hearts - yearning, adventurous, sexually potent - and an American land and cityscape capable of satisfying their desires, but in a too-brief flare of passion.

Europeans are used to seeing America from a distance, down the telescopes of the space age, music, Disney, Sky News and, today, the internet. From this angle, America is perceived whole, with a glossy narrative of a unified republic of peoples. On the Road presents America from the other end, giving us unique individuals who seem full of character, but whose stories remain incoherent, hidden and untold behind the drive of the prose. It looks out onto America through a moving lens, which has the effect of distorting space and time, compressing and focusing America's landmass into a few miles of tarmac and a few pages of print which nevertheless contain multitudes:

"Whooee!" yelled Dean. "Here we go!" And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move And we moved!

The distortion of space and time is echoed in the print by the use of commas to splice together what should be separate sentences, as if even language cannot sit still on its own full stops. For all its aesthetic flaws and rough edges, then, there is undoubtedly a poetry of sorts here.In a passage like the following, it is easy to understand why the dust jacket of my edition (the 2000 Penguin Classics edited by Ann Charters) likens Kerouac to Walt Whitman:

There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour and it would come streaming through the Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was Frisco; and beautiful women standing in white doorways, waiting for their men; and Coit Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market Street, and the elevel teeming hills.

The movement here from local geography (the bay) into a spectra of the mind (the unknown young man), which then roams from the local (the place names) to the mythical (the eleven teeming hills) is not unlike the psychological transcendence of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

With authorial connections like this, coupled with a style which is at once flawed and its great achievement, it is difficult to place On the Road in the Western or American canon. Perhaps Old Bull Lee is the character who might represent the uneasy status of the book as a whole. Lee experiments with boiling down bird seed to smoke as dope, sits with Shakespeare on his lap whilst reading Mayan codices, has tried narcoanalysis and discovered his seven different personalities, from an English Lord to a raving idiot who must be restrained by chains. Like the novel, Lee is a confused but bold experiment, trying to find which of many possible identities might be best placed to study America as it rushes past in a blur of history:

He had studied medicine in Vienna; had studied anthropology, read everything; and now he was settling down to his life's work, which was the study of things themselves in the streets of life and the night.

Wallace Stevens meets Don DeLillo, the plain sense of things hidden deep beneath the belly of a glossy American life and letters.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:42 pm


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