Wednesday 21 March 2012

Jack Kerouac

Ah, Jack Kerouac, the literary love of my life. Kerouac is the author of my all time favourite book - The Dharma Bums (1958). Kerouac is simply the most inspirational writer I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Inspiration, insight, confusion, joy, despair and existential wonder - I’ve experienced all of these things and more from Kerouac’s writing. 

Jack Kerouac first came into my literary orbit when I was in my early 20’s. A ripe time to get into the Beats one would think, but despite the allure of the two louche figures arm in arm on the cover of On the Road (1957) the book failed to really interest me. The tale of a loner leaving home and embarking on an odyssey across the bulk of America, with its hip anachronisms, Americanisms and the obsession with cars and jazz just didn’t do it for me at the time. I finished it and moved on, slightly disappointed.

A few years later a friend slipped me a copy of The Dharma Bums, after a night of red wine and other frivolous indulgences. Seems I was ready for Kerouac this time. The Dharma Bums connected with me on some deep previously unknown level. Responding to nebulous yearnings I didn’t really understand I totally connected with Ray Smith, the spiritual seeker character based on Kerouac himself (nearly all of Kerouac’s novels are autobiographical). Ray Smith travels mostly around the west coast of America, hooking up with his friend Japhy Ryder, who is exploring Buddhism. The highlight of the novel comes when they climb a mountain and talk about nature and Buddhism. Kerouac’s prose here is amongst the most beautiful and inspired I’ve ever read. The novel also created a conflicted duality within me. I simultaneously felt incredibly inspired and also depressed that I wasn’t living my life to the fullest.

I went back and read On the Road and this time I totally connected with Kerouac’s special turn of phrase, the rolling flow of words, the liveliness, joy and fervor. It was like I’d stumbled onto a new way of seeing the world, a totally unique perspective. Recently I flicked through it and read some of the descriptions of Sal and Dean freaking out to jazz in sweaty clubs. Now that I’m heavily into jazz it’s about time I read the original scroll version (the book was written on a roll of paper fed into the typewriter so that Kerouac would not be interrupted by having to change the paper). For newcomers, however, I recommend the original novel.

Kerouac’s writing is replete with beauty, insight and innovation, as well as despair, ugliness and dysfunction. Some of his books can be infuriating, but when he hits his stride his writing is transforming. He’s certainly had his critics, with Truman Capote famously referring to his writing as “typing.” I refute such criticism however; the spontaneous prose style he developed allows for a direct insight into the complexities of what it is to be human and that certainly includes both the exulted and the banal. When you read Kerouac you are reading the moment – its pulse, flow and rhythm. The prose can, as Kerouac desired, be like listening to Jazz.

Kerouac’s bibliography is filled with inspirational works and also others that are impenetrable or best tackled as a seasoned reader of Kerouac. Kerouac was prolific, so I’ll discuss only a few of his works here. For the novice I recommend both On the Road and The Dharma Bums. The short story collection – Lonesome Traveler (1960), which is actually entries from Kerouac’s travel journals, is beautiful and evocative. Desolation Angels (1965), written and set when On the Road was published, suffers slightly from fractured digressions, but provides insight into Kerouac’s internal struggles. Particularly poignant are the sections when he is stationed on a remote mountain (Desolation Peak) working as a fire lookout in Washington State’s wilderness areas. Here Kerouac faces his demons before descending back into an America that is busy reading the just published On the Road.

The Subterraneans (1958) is a novella that delves into the jazz scene and finds the protagonist, Leo Percepied (Kerouac) in a relationship with an African American woman. Utilizing Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style, the book acts as a fine snapshot of what his writing was all about. Big Sur (1962) presents Kerouac – aka Jack Duluoz, as a post fame alcoholic attempting to find solace in a cabin in Big Sur, a central coastal region south of San Francisco. Some of the same characters from his earlier works once again appear, however the tone of the book is dark and at times harrowing. It’s very sad to read about Kerouac’s decline but it does make his humanity shine through. It’s well worth reading but is more enjoyable if you are familiar with Kerouac’s earlier works.

Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, his autobiographical rawness, the jazz like rhythm and flow of his writing will certainly not appeal to all readers; however if you want to immerse yourself in 50’s American beat culture then look no further. With friends like William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg, Kerouac was right at the centre of this fascinating underground culture. Most of its key figures appear as characters in Kerouac’s books, providing insight into a rebellious culture that foreshadowed the 60’s hippy movement.

An early shot of Kerouac (second from left), Ginsberg and Burroughs.

The key to reading Kerouac is to just let your self be pulled along by the flow of the prose, to accept its flaws and to be open enough to revel in its triumphs. What Kerouac’s writing represents is an authentic exploration of the human spirit in all its existential glory. In this way his writing can be exceptionally inspiring. It can also be maddening and erratic, but this is part of its charm. If you want to try something different, then Kerouac’s writing is an adventure waiting to happen.

Monday 12 March 2012

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark (1961)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a deceptive book. Its effortless style is so perfect that the themes presented only reveal themselves gradually. I cruised through most of the book admiring the writing but wondering just what was the point of it all? It wasn’t until to two thirds of the way through that the full ramifications of what Spark was presenting hit home. I soon realized that the book is an example of psychological fiction at its best.

Set in 1930’s Edinburgh the novella (it’s only 126 pages long) examines the relationship between a teacher  - Jean Brodie and her ‘set’; six ten year old girls. Brodie has an unconventional attitude toward teaching, which mainly involves interactions based on her opinions and experiences, with a touch classical education thrown in to broaden their minds. Each girl is described as being famous for something – Rose is famous for sex (in the future, not at ten!) and Sandy is famous for her English vowel sounds and notorious for her small, almost non- existent eyes. They fair better than Mary, who is famous for being a “silent lump, a nobody that everyone could blame.” The principle thing they have in common is their loyalty to Miss Jean Brodie and how that influences their lives both while they are at the school and into the future.

Brodie’s influence over her set continues even after she stops being their teacher, inviting them to her home for supper and for long walks. The girls are gradually drawn into an adult world of which they only had limited insight previously. The headmistress, who is judgmental about Brodie’s methods, pumps the girls for information about Brodie that could be used to dismiss her. Brodie presents herself as being in her prime and the girls refer to it continually. It becomes a catch phrase that justifies Brodie’s behavior. Meanwhile a love triangle develops between Brodie, the one armed art teacher and the music teacher. This adult world of duplicity, lust and self-deception casts an increasingly dark tone over proceedings.

Spark is a subtle writer. The themes of power, narcissism and fascism are the subtexts that give this slight book an impact that comes seemingly from nowhere. Brodie travels to Italy and Germany and speaks highly of the benefits of fascism in those countries. She admires how organised they are and talks of what a great example they set. It only takes a subtle shift on behalf of the reader in order to start viewing Brodie’s efforts to influence her set as something akin to fascism.

Spark’s prose is beautiful and succinct, a style that lulls the reader with its charms, all the while pulling the reader into its darker subtexts. Spark also liberally uses the technique of flash forwarding - moving the narrative forward in time suddenly in order to reveal a character’s future or fate. Rather than being disruptive this technique is quite effective and gives the reader further insight into the influence that Brodie has on the girls later on in their lives.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an impressive achievement and I can understand why this book is regularly included in lists of the greatest books of the twentieth century. After reading The Man Who Loved Children (1940), also set in the 1930s, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie felt like a literary holiday, but now I’m not so sure! The book has recently been published as one of those $10 orange Penguins, a small investment to make for a book with a lot to say about human nature and the perils of the transition from youth to adulthood.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Marrow – Robert Reed (2000)

Marrow has come as a complete surprise to me. Although I do love science fiction and have been reading it since before I reached the age of 10 (inspired by all those great science fiction movies of the late 70’s, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind) my knowledge of what’s out there has diminished over the years. When I saw Marrow at my library I grabbed it because it has one of those great old school covers of a vast space ship – it always appeals. I’d never heard of Robert Reed and assumed that he was a new author. In fact Robert Reed has been around since the eighties and his first novel – The Hormone Jungle emerged in 1988.

Marrow’s premise is simple - future humans detect a massive ship heading towards the galaxy and they manage to board and commandeer the deserted ship before other galactic species manage to beat them to it. The ship is impressively huge – bigger than Jupiter, and is totally mysterious in terms of its origin, purpose and destination. The ship (it’s always just referred to as ‘the ship’) is so multifaceted, so huge and so much a part of this novel that it is entirely appropriate that the opening section is told from the perspective of the ship.

Marrow is divided into sections. The second section, which is appropriately called Marrow, begins with the introduction of Washen - just one of the great characters that populate this entertaining tale. Washen, like all of the humans that live during this time, is virtually immortal thanks to gene therapy that has transformed the human body into a healing powerhouse. The way that immortality is dealt with in Marrow is impressive, exploring both the practical and existential issues that come with it. Reed’s imaginative powers are excellent and he combines it with a hard sci-fi sense of what might just be possible. At times I found myself thinking of Iain M. Banks and his Culture novels, which display a similar imaginative prowess.

The immortal humans may have technology on their side but Reed makes them all too human, with a broad range of subtle and interesting characterizations that help make characters such as Washen (rebellious and complex), Miocine (intense and bitter) and Pamir (an unconventional and ugly individualist) easy to relate to. Such engaging characters are important because the scope of the novel is so huge. The Marrow section, for example, details events over nearly five thousand years, but despite this you are with the characters all the way. This section is easily the most impressive of the book, with tension building continually around the mystery of what lies at the heart of the ship. The mystery behind the ship and its core is brilliantly compelling and is woven into the narrative so well that you never want to put the book down.

Along the way there are plenty of weird aliens and awesome technology on display. The humans take the ship on a tour of the galaxy, picking up paying alien passengers, which sometimes leads to interesting problems. The ship is filled with habitats, including one suspended above a hydrogen sea contained within a tank the size of a moon. Such entertaining distractions are not relied upon by Reed however, as the plot is well thought out and brilliantly executed.

By the time you get to the last third of the novel the tension and mystery is almost unbearable. When the tension is finally released during the novel’s intense endgame it comes almost as a disappointment. Fortunately there is a sequel – The Well of Stars (2004), which no doubt explains some of the unsolved mysteries left dangling at the conclusion of the novel.

Marrow is an impressive achievement, overflowing with great characters and an intricate plot. Reed’s imagination is equal to the task of making the space opera a fresh proposition. It has been quite a while since I’ve enjoyed a science fiction novel as much as Marrow and I thoroughly recommended the book to those whose disposition lends itself to science fiction.