Many academic articles have been written on Kerouac and the sense of place and time evoked in On the Road. I’m sure a great part of that reason is that place and time are very integral to the format of the book – so it makes a lot of sense. Even I noticed that place and time were super-important to how the story worked.
On that note, the note of place and time, there were two things that kept going through my head as I read the book: the myth of the lotus eaters and the most recent Star Trek movie.
Time like The Lotus Eaters
For those of you who don’t know the myth of the lotus eaters, I’ll give you the Percy Jackson-ish (also seen recently on the True Blood: Season 3 premiere, I might add) version: The lotus eaters seduced/encouraged/forced people to eat this flower. The victims ate and lost all sense of time. They descended into hedonism. Years went by in a matter of hours.
There are no fairy creatures forcing Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty to eat and be hedonistic – they do that all on their own – but, instead, the reader is the victim in this revelry. You pick up the book and are bombarded by the characters’ actions, which take years to go through, but the book reads like they’re moving from one day/one adventure to the other. According to Kerouac, he was on the road seven years. Almost an entire decade. And the book reads like just a few weeks…even though there are obvious passages demonstrating time has passed. Once you hit the road, you have devoured the lotus and all that exists is the road.
Place like Star Trek
There’s a line in the new Star Trek movie where Spock shows Scottie his own formula for warp teleportation. Scottie says that teleporting someone onto a space ship traveling at warp was like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet blindfolded (or something along those lines). Spock shows the formula. Scottie says something like “Huh, it never occurred to me to think of space as the thing that was moving.”
That is what reading On the Road feels like.
Imagine a pencil. Imagine the pencil tip resting gently on an American map, at the dot representing New York. Now, try to trace a line from New York to San Francisco without moving the pencil. How do you do that? You move the map, right? The pencil stays in the same place, doing the same thing.
The pencil is the characters in On the Road. They don’t change. They party from one coast to the other.
The map is the road, moving along underneath them. They see the scenery change, they appreciate the shift, but they are still the pencil.
Now, this brings up a difficulty to me – both of these elements emphasize that the characters don’t change. This is problematic because, as we all learned in school, characters need to change to have a good story, right? If you go into Goodreads and look at the criticisms of this book, you’ll notice that there are a lot of one/two/three star reviews. The basic arguments are related to being bored, the characters behaving like jerks, etc. Basically, the criticism relates to the two elements noted above: place and time. The story doesn’t work like a normal story.
Well, I think the thing to take away is that Kerouac isn’t telling an everyday kind of story. It is more of a memoir and we never really know where we change in life until we come at it from experience. Kerouac wrote this book in the throes of living it, so the lack of perspective, or the change, isn’t really there.
However, I don’t think this is necessarily a flaw. It’s just a different way of writing. And not one that’s easy to pull off. In fact, I can’t think of another writer that I’ve read who writes like Kerouac, or who sees the way that he sees. I love my friends, but I don’t think I could present them in the loving way that Kerouac presents his friends, while still being honest about their flaws. I love America, but I don’t think that I could be as worshipful of the landscape without making some kind of cutting, Sarah Vowell-esque remark about the history of the places.
So, you see, I’m kind of torn. I recognize Kerouac as a skilled writer. I acknowledge the beauty of the language. I appreciate the biographical elements of his writing. But I struggle with defining On the Road as good story.
But then I wonder if the point of the story isn’t just: it is what it is.