When I picked up On the Road the first thing that struck me was the unique way it was written. I was mesmerized by the Kerouac's prose that felt so much as poetry. The novel is dynamic, one event happening after another, one crisis followed by another. If you miss even one paragraph (because your mind wonders someplace else) , you may totally got lost in the events. There is something very raw about this novel, perhaps because it was supposedly written in only 3 weeks. This strange mix of poetry and rawness really fascinated me. Naturally, I knew about Kerouac, the beat generation and all that. I read with fascination and interest until I felt that something was bugging me. Something didn't feel right. What is that, you might ask?
The novel is brilliantly written, the characters feel very much alive and there is so much freshness in it. You can almost hear the jazz music, smell the fresh morning air somewhere in American wilderness, feel like you're there in that car travelling with the protagonist of this novel. You can feel the excitement of the characters, their nervous energy and their search for something. Everything is happening so fast, but it feels right. The words flow but they have a sense of direction. That is how I felt about it when I started reading it.
Kerouac based his characters on real people. The novel focuses on adventures of two young men, Dean and Sal. Dean was based on Cassady, a friend of Kerouac while Sal was based on Kerouac himself. At first I found their friendship to be terribly touching, but as the novel progresses I started to wonder about it. What was Dean really like? Was he really a dark angel? Was Sal a dark angel? What was his impact on people? What is the nature of relationship between Sal and Dean?
Their connection seems to be the foundation stone of the novel. All the other relationships seem to come and go, but they friendship is what remains. Or is it? The more I read, the more it all seemed uncertain, but I kept my concentration on the plot because it does take a focus mind to follow all that madness. Fortunately, this type of madness is so compelling to read about ...perhaps it is because of the way the novel is written and maybe just maybe it is because it is pure at heart. Whatever the reason may be, it makes you feel like you can't resist it.
It is like the writer has discovered a new way of writing and he himself is crazy about it. You feel like you must like it as well. What could I possibly dislike? Yet, as I progresses I felt a feeling of tiredness coming over me. As nearer I was to finishing this novel, the more tired with it I felt. How can a masterpiece make me feel tired? I was puzzled with my own reaction to it. Who am I to say there is something wrong with the novel? After all, it is considered (by many) to be one of the best novels of the last century. I admire the way it is written, the boldness of it.
I'm sure that the author experimented with different techniques of writing. It is clear he has put so much energy into this novel. He may have written it in only 3 weeks ( I personally believe that), but he must have been carrying it in his soul for much longer. They say Kerouac used to carry little notebooks and write stuff down during his travels. That explains that natural flow this novel has. I also read that he was inspired by long letters written by his friend Cassidy and that he even used parts of them in his writing. Autobiographical writing can be tricky, but as far as writing goes I think he got away with it. As I said, I do think the novel is exceptionally well written.
As fascinating as this novel is, I must say I expected more. I expected more depth, more growth, more answers and less hysteria, madness and semi-conclusions. Yes, I do think the characters are described perfectly and very convincing but what is it all about? They are flawed, but what are their redeeming qualities? Kerouac insisted on catholic mysticism, but I don't see in the novel. I'm sorry, but I've read a lot of catholic mystics and I don't see any mystical experiences in this novel. Poetical? Yes. Strong? Yes. Raw? Yes. Powerful in its rawness and poetry? Yes. Yes. Yes. Spiritual? I'm sorry but I'm not so sure.
I believe that the writer spiritual experiences were somewhat imagined. If not imagined, then exaggerated. He imagined himself and his friends to be saints of some-sort. It takes a lot more than contempt for the world to make one a saint. 'Experiences' don't make you a saint, not even 'spiritual experiences'. It is how you deal with those experiences and how you build yourself.
That all being said, I must honestly say that I liked this novel. Something didn't seem right, but maybe that is how it should be. I think it is a good sign that it made me think so much. This review took forever to write. I liked it but I'm not sure that I can say that I loved it, perhaps because I expected more. I could bet around the bush, but I won't. I find it lacks depth. It is not that the characters are immoral. I don't think that literature is supposed to send a 'moral message'.
The protagonist of this novel are certainly often so selfish that it is unbelievable. That's not what has been bugging me, although it might be one of the things that made me feel tired while I was reading this novel. Not that I didn't enjoy reading it, yet I did feel at times like I have to invest a special effort to read it. The writing feels fluid, but it is fluid in an irregular way, if that make sense. Imagine sea when there is a storm. Reading it felt like sailing while there is a storm. That's the best metaphor I can think of at the moment.
The author claims the protagonists are on a spiritual journey and I do believe he thinks that but I'm not sure whether it is really a novel about finding God. They may be set to search for spiritual experiences but often they end up searching for kicks, don't they? Experimenting with and misusing drugs and alcohol to get their 'experiences'. I'm not saying that anyone who made mistakes is a bad person, but their craziness is a bit too much at times. Too selfish, too self-centered. There was even a point in the book when I thought to myself that these two guys are latent homosexuals (Cassady attraction to teenage girls seems to suggest that) but I may be wrong. I'm probably wrong, but I must admit there was a cynic in me that reawakened a few times while I was reading this (and I'm not that keen on cynicism so maybe I was even irritated it awakened).
It is obviously not as simple as that and their problems wouldn't disappear if our protagonists hooked up. What is clear, however, is that they have a very strange relationship to woman. What is really changed at the end of the novel? What is its message? I'm not sure. That is the part that bugs me. Not the immorality of the characters or their selfish actions ( and yet with all their craziness I must admit there is innocence in them) but the feeling that the novel is lacking a message.
Are characters a message of their own? Do they capture the essence of the beat? Are our protagonists the purity that needs no explanation? Perhaps not as much as the author himself proposes, but there is purity in their hearts. It is not a spiritual journey, but it is an emotional and touching one. In the end, I'm happy I've read this novel and I do think it is a fine work of literature. I just don't think it is one of the best novels of the last century. Saying that it is might just be pushing it too hard. I don't consider to be a masterpiece. Not by far.