This afternoon, I finished Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The experience was a familiar one. To begin with, everything about the book was interesting: the language, the characters, the setting. But as it went, you got the increasingly powerful sense that everything described was pointless. The desperation of it is captured by a section from the end of part three:
All the cigarette butts, the bottles, the matchbooks, the come and the gone were swept up in this pile. Had they taken me with it, Dean would never have seen me again. He would have had to roam the entire United States and look in every garbage pail from coast to coast before he found me embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes of my life, his life, and the life of everybody concerned and not concerned.
Nobody was really doing anything, and it wouldn’t have mattered at all if everything described just hadn’t happened – disconnected stories and disconnected lives. The constant hyperbole on the part of the narrator contributes to that sense that nothing fits together, that everything is the superlative form of its genre, and that every statement has no real relevance beyond the moment in which it is made.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book was the sort of communal madness described between the characters: when they seemed to understand one another while exchanging stories and meanings that were opaque to everyone else. You have to wonder if there’s anything to it, or whether both speakers and listeners are deluded about the content of their exchange. Whether they’re just talking to themselves in insane tongues, prompted by the noises around them. It makes you wonder if whatever mechanism that clicks to one side or another in the brain, separating the plausible from the inaccessibly strange, actually operates according to some comprehensible logic, or just based on strings of obscure past cues and approximations.
I probably came to the book looking for the wrong thing, not a glimpse into a previous and mad generation but some kind of message for the present. I suppose most such messages end up being cautionary ones, about how lives can just whiz around infatuated with destructive madness. By the end, I was reading it much too quickly. I was sick of the road long before the characters were ever able to be.