Posted by: Yorgos | March 14, 2008

Text 9 – On the Road

I’ve been reading for the past few days Kerouac’s On the Road and I have to admit that it is a slow and boring process. I am still around page 90 and the average number of pages I read every day is small. I don’t want to demerit the book. It is beautifully written, Kerouac has a very interesting blunt way of using the English language and the characters strike me as extravagant, but they are supposed to be like that, so it is perfectly fine. Except for a few attempts at elaborate language that fell short, it seems to me that this book deserves to be highly regarded.

Then what is my problem with this book? My problem is that I am becoming angry at the way the characters think and act. The protagonist, so far, is a burden on others, relies on the good will of his friends, of his family and of people he doesn’t know, he never has any money, yet he gets drunk every chance he gets. He does not consider that a problem, though, since this is the way he wants to live, being on the road is what he wants to do, barely making enough to eat and to party.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot either relate or sympathize. When he has problems, I cannot but think that he brought this to himself with his choices. How can you feel sorry for a person who decided on a whim to go across a whole country just to party with his friends without having any money? I can’t and I don’t. Maybe it is the way I was raised, maybe it is the fact that I rarely, if ever, take risks, but I don’t see freedom from an oppressive world in this way of living. I see merely an exchange of one form of slavery for another. And in this way, this book cannot carry me into its world, a world I don’t find seductive at all; hence my boredom.

However (there is always one of those), in my case my slavery in the modern world and the modern way of living is concealed under a veil of promised happiness; a happiness that will never come or, if it comes, it is only a fake one. In Sal Paradise’s (that’s the protagonists name) world, happiness is always within reach and on the borderline of utter misery (where it – most probably – actually is). So, do I find this book boring, because the modern man has lost the battle the beat movement was fighting? Or am I merely afraid to choose sides on an ongoing never-ending battle, being too comfortable in an inert awareness?

All I know is this. This book is successful, but I will never like it. I am not trying to change, maybe because I don’t believe in the ideals of On the Road. A blinding certainty is more appealing to me than an everyday madness. Both are slavery. The one is slavery to an establishment, the other is slavery to oneself. When you are afraid of total misery, then you give up extreme happiness as well, settling for everything that is mild. I do this by choice, even though I know I am wrong.


  1. I should probably think about this more carefully before I respond, but I don’t have loads of time so I’ll take my chance at some haphazard and emotionally-motivated comments.

    As you well know, On The Road is one of my favourite books of all time. That said, I can see why one might find it boring. I don’t think that has anything to do with the failures of modern man, I’d be willing to bet it’s the style that doesn’t speak to you. Just a thought… I have a recording of Kerouac reading parts of the book and it sounds to me more like music than prose.

    One question — when you say that modern man has lost the battle that the beats were fighting, what do you mean exactly?

    Another thing — I don’t think you’re meant to sympathize with Sal, or with any of the characters for that matter. The book isn’t trying to make any kind of argument and it doesn’t want to moralize. In fact, I think it makes a significant effort to not moralize — and by that mean, almost, anti-moralizing, if that makes sense. It’s an attempt to recreate a lived experience in the most “authentic” kind of way. Did you know he wrote it in only three weeks, on a single long scroll of paper that he fed through his typewriter?

    I see in your post (and this is not meant to be a criticism of your methods) a tendency to read the characters and plot from a moral standpoint. Going back to my point that I don’t think the book is trying to moralize, that it is trying to recreate a lived experience, I think its true value lies in the text as a cultural document. It gives us access to the hipster movement and the culture of American modernism, and we can use it as part of the context against which we read other texts.

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