The past two weeks have gone by in a whirlwind of text. I’ve delved into Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, and admittedly, I am already suffering from shortness of breath. This is due to Kerouac’s syntax-less free-verse, which runs thick with ego and thin with message; leaving me in a state of mental asphyxiation as I attempt to parse out plot amidst his ceaseless, uninterrupted tides of “suave-sad-boy-saint” soliloquy.
In my English class, we recently discussed the differences between “writer-oriented” writing, and “reader-oriented” writing. The Subterraneans is undeniably “writer-oriented”: it caters to the understanding of the author/protagonist, and fails to fill in the connections that readers cannot make because they lack the knowledge that the author has about the world within the work.
One thing can be said of the novella, for sure: we at least get a good sense of the protagonist (Leo Percepied) because we’re immersed in his nonsensical stream-of-consciousness, through his frantic efforts to document every emotional detail of his life. In the cryptic wash of syllables we unmistakably come to understand how Leo sees himself and other people, if nothing else.
As a piece written by one of the most iconic beat poets and published at the peak of the literary movement, The Subterraneans is contextually relevant to my work and research–but I chose to read it specifically because of its content, which is what makes it so significant. The novella is a semi-fictional account of Kerouac’s affair with Alene Lee, an African-American woman of the beat generation–represented in the text by Mardou Fox; the woman with whom Leo Percepied has his fling. Other characters in the story are fully based on members Kerouac’s social circle, which consisted of other highly influential artists and writers. Many such people–Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and William S. Borroughs, to name a few–are core characters in The Subterraneans, sporting different names.
Since the work is primarily autobiographical, we come to know Kerouac to some extent, as he sheds light on the authentic, (though archetypal) san-franciscan, 50’s hipster–in a first-hand account that directly illustrates the racial dynamics I am trying to understand.