BOOKS: Jack Kerouac – ‘Lonesome Traveler’

“There’s nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom”

My first attempt at this book (collection of short stories/diary entries recording parts of world travels) was summer 2013, and I think I got to story no.3 ‘Mexico Fellaheen’ before giving up. If this is to be your first Kerouac attempt, probably don’t do it. I tried again with The Dharma Bums the next summer and so was borne the epiphany that I need to get through all beat gen literature. One day soon (probably this summer, I feel like summer is prime beatnik time) I’ll re-read The Dharma Bums and write it the ode it deserves. I DIGRESS: this is a trialling read, I’ll explain why forthrightly, but it’s been the most rewarding and enriching trial of a book since my encounter with Lord of the Flies.

Lonesome Traveler consists of 157 pages of 8 stories:

0 Author’s Intro

1 Piers of the Homeless Night

2 Mexico Fellaheen

3 The Railroad Earth

4 Slobs of the Kitchen Sea

5 New York Scenes

6 Alone on a Mountaintop

7 Big Trip to Europe

8 The Vanishing American Hobo.

The true battle comes when reaching The Railroad Earth – I’m pretty sure only the brave make it to New York Scenes. This is autobiographical recording of a fast life on the road, ie., some parts are written in stream of consciousness trance. There is sparse punctuation, block pages of text, constant description consisting of no storyline; such is life. Chapters 3 and 4 are true examples of writing for yourself and no one else; though slightly voyeuristic I’m glad for the insight. I lost my bookmark out of The Railroad Earth at one point and couldn’t for the life of me find where I’d left the night before. I theorise that these parts might be the hardest to read – being blatantly unnarrativised – because it was at these points he was working to save money for further travel, albeit while traveling, and wasn’t free to spend days alone just on observation and that’s where the delving thought he does so masterfully is usually cultivated.

The rest are a lot more easy-going in comparison, some more than others. My undoubted favourite is always going to be 6, ‘Alone on a Mountaintop’. I get lost in knowing that’s where I want to be one day, and Kerouac’s time spent there was definitely the inspiration (or one point of) for Ray’s expedition to desolation in Dharma Bums. There are so many earmarked pages that I’ve saved in this book and most come from here, when Kerouac spends 3 months alone on a mountain range learning to live in desolation and ultimately learning that he no longer needs it – “No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true inner strength.”; “And I realized I didn’t have to hide myself in desolation but could accept society for better or for worse”.

I love the way the other beat movement writers appear in and out of his writing; there will be casual mentions of staying with William Seward Burroughs or meeting up with Neal Cassady in any corner of the world and the larks they get up to before parting ways and being comfortable in the knowledge that they’ll meet again soon like the most beautiful admirable security and loyalty.

I’m definitely enchanted with beat lit because it exemplifies what I think is true humanity: being free and being able to be free while having strong bases in people world-over. The last story, ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ is more a social commentary on why and how this is not allowed to happen any more: moral panic over strangers, the commodification of humans, then an expression of disillusionment with people as cogs in capitalist machines, which I’m seeing emerging as a pattern ever more in my reading. Kerouac watched the ‘bum’ as he knew it die over his lifetime, coming to a head in the 1950s; while postmodern lit today contains traces of the same frustration (see The Dream, the last chapter of Barnes’ A History of the World…).

If you want some pure insight into life as it is meant to be lived – doing what you want to do, when you want to, given that it serves a good honest truth – try this. You’ll find me working through Kerouac’s lifetime work if you need me. 8)

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BOOKS: Margaret Atwood – ‘The Edible Woman’

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

This curious tale was read as a set text for my Gender & Sexuality module at uni; hence my well-loved, pre-owned £3 copy! I read up a lot of Goodreads reviews after I finished the book and the overwhelming consensus was “strange”. Maybe it was the fact that I had a good idea of what was coming, or that I found protagonist Marian actually startlingly relatable, but I didn’t think that about it at any time during the reading process. I found this novel incredibly easy to swallow. (-Not sorry for that great pun)

From the beginning, I admired Atwood’s unrivalled observation skills and her ease of putting it to paper. I read in passing that The Edible Woman was her first novel, and that she wrote it aged 23; which I’m sure is thoroughly impressive to everyone who has read it. Her astute analogies and quaint ways of noticing and describing minor details are really charming and kept me interested for the duration of the text.

The undercurrent of feminism (or protofeminism as Atwood described it; as it was written prior to the 1970s first wave feminist movement) contributing to Marian’s condition here maybe wouldn’t be so apparent if I hadn’t studied it academically. The story follows Marian, a young woman in her 20s, who upon becoming engaged finds that the loss of her identity in pleasing her fiance and conforming to societal expectations of a betrothed woman causes her to lose her appetite almost entirely. Marian’s observations of her friend Clara and her landlady who lives downstairs instil in her a panic and crisis of what she will be expected to become once she is married and has children, which dominates her mind and manifests itself in a rejection of food which some compare to anorexia nervosa, though is never addressed as such. Blatant sexist situations occur throughout, such as Marian’s dismissal from her job prior to her wedding, and a conversation with Clara’s husband in which he muses that women should not be allowed to go to university so that they don’t feel their studies are wasted after marriage, that clearly situate the text in the protofeminist era that Atwood identifies as ahead of its time. Marian’s physical repulsion in response to her oppression is a powerful analogy of the illness that sexism causes to women, men and society; and is not uncommon. It echoes the late 1800-early 1900 epidemic of female hysteria, of which women were diagnosed when they exhibited loss of appetite and eating disorder, depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness that now are associated with oppression and women’s lack of freedom and control of their own lives. Brought forward to the 1960s, such diagnosis is still easily applied, and hardly obscene to relate to the 2000s anorexia and bulimia epidemics as a result of highly sexualised media culture.

A flawless read for anyone wanting an insight into the pre-feminist 1960s era, beautifully articulated and certainly food for thought. (Hehe)