The Beatless

I picked up The Great Gatsby three times before I actually enjoyed it. It only took a second read to get The Sun Also Rises. I gave them both second chances because people haven’t shut up about either book since they were published, and if I wasn’t going to find out I’d be wrong before, at least I’d be able to hone my reasons for disliking the books. Win/win. And people I respected—as writers, as readers, as humans—liked them, said I was crazy for not liking them. Hell, when I told Michael Chabon that Mysteries Of Pittsburgh was my Goodbye, Columbus (it made me write my first book the way Goodbye made him write his), he said, “Wow. Really?” and then told me I should read Gatsby. I’m glad I was wrong, and I’m glad I gave the books second (and third) chances. I’m all the richer for it now. I’ve revisited no end of books, bands, movies, shows, and whatnot because someone else’s enthusiasm made me think I’d gotten it wrong. So when someone who by all accounts is smart—clever, even—likes Kerouac intensely, it makes me think I’m the problem.

Back in the early aughts, I took a train to Boston for spring break. Because I’m an idiot, mostly. I boarded with a copy of On The Road that I hadn’t read yet, and if I hadn’t already been barreling north on a train, that book would have made me bolt from wherever I was and drive somewhere far away. It was beyond good. I haven’t reread it since, but reading that book was a magical experience. Then I tried to read Desolation Angels—I think; it might have been Dharma Bums—and didn’t get more than a few pages in. It was the lack of commas. And periods. And that, when there were commas or periods, it followed no system that I could figure out. But that was years ago, and I still have fond memories of reading On The Road, and Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar made an album inspired by Kerouac’sBig Sur, and I read Gravity’s Rainbow and lost most of my respect for entirely sensible sentence construction, so it seemed like the right time to revisit Kerouac’s writing. I’ve got a real taste for discovering new things that 19-year-old me was wrong about, and when you bring a CD up to the register at a music store, and the cute girl behind the counter says she loves that album, it gives you an even better feeling about the purchase: I’ve made the right decision here.

But then you get the CD home and there are no separate tracks, just one goddamn 53-minute track that you have to fast forward through manually, searching back and forth to see where the songs begin and end. I tried to find out through the Oracle at Google whether or not Kerouac ever revised his writing, ever edited his work, to see if I should be more or less angry than I was, and came up empty-handed. This is sort of a redux of what I thought about You Deserve Nothing, but to the nth degree: the absence of commas makes them more noticeable and, worse yet, makes the ones that are still on the page pop out like road flares. What’s the system being used? Why? Is it just Kerouac writing, probably drunk, and thinking, “Who the fuck cares where I should be putting commas?” I can’t figure it out. I don’t know how much of it is intentional because I can’t think of a single reason there are commas in some places and not in others, besides, maybe, that he was just doing it arbitrarily, when it felt right. And then there are the em dashs that stretch a little bit further across the page than they’re supposed to. Or maybe it’s an optical illusion. They set off asides that aren’t really asides and then dump the reader back into a sentence that was already rushing past them before they were detoured through an unpaved back road. Not to mention (a great way to preface mentioning something) the mysterious disappearing apostrophes in “cant” and “doesnt” and so on, when “it’s” remains unmolested, making the entire thing seem less intentional and more like laziness. “Tho” instead of “though”? I… I just can’t.

The imagery and the prose are beautiful when I’m not having to stop and figure out where the pauses are supposed to be. This would probably make me Public Enemy #1 with the Beat Generation, but I truly believe, with all my heart, that a book should tell you how to read it. That’s not to say all writing should follow the same rules, but the proprietary rules of a piece should be taught as the reader reads through it. Pynchon is particularly good at this: Gravity’s Rainbow chucks the standard rules of prose out the window, but there is method to the madness, and you learn how to read the book from the book itself. There’s no such guidance in the first thirty-five pages of Big Sur. It gives me the feeling that Kerouac kind of didn’t give a shit if the reader got it or not, like that would be the test the reader’s worth. The imagery gets bogged down because nothing is happening, for the most part, and there’s this hateful gland somewhere in me that loathes overwhelming amounts of exposition; it’s a self-preservation thing. Honestly, what I dislike about Kerouac’s writing (and this goes for Murakami, too, and to a greater extent) is what I dislike about my own tendencies as a writer. I spend a lot of energy making sure I don’t run off at the mouth describing things and feelings and the like, and when someone else doesn’t, it drives me nuts. Unruly, bad drunks drive me up a fucking wall as well.

The thing that kills me is this: if Kerouac were here, reading this to me, I’d probably love it. Not because, hey, it’s the daddy of the Beats, but because he would be adding invisible commas as he read. There is no beat without commas, without persistent punctuation, the way a song would be impossible to follow if the drummer never gave any indication that there was a tempo being followed. Actually, what really kills me is that as much as I stand behind what I’ve just written here, I’m still half-convinced I’m the one who’s missing the point.