Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: The Subterraneans

The SubterraneansTitle: The Subterraneans
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publication Date: 1958 (1994 edition)
Publisher: Grove Weidenfeld
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 111
Age Rating: Readers over 16
My Opinion: 6/10

Hi, Readers!

       What better way to start off the semester of American Fiction from 1950 to Present than by reading one of the most confusing books known to mankind?  Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans is the most disjointed and seemingly illiterate novel that I've ever read.  That being said, Kerouac's writing style is so original that his strange assertions and interesting language are simultaneously captivating and repulsing.  To be completely honest, I am still debating whether or not I actually enjoyed reading The Subterraneans, but it was definitely... unique.

       The Subterraneans are a group of about twenty young adults living in San Francisco in the early 1950's, and they embody the "hipster" identity.  From drugs to drinking to contemplating life, the Subterraneans aspire to be junkies and to do practically nothing with their lives.  Strangely enough, Leo Percepied wants to be just like the Subterraneans, even though he is about ten years older than all of them and doesn't fit in at all.  His Hawaiian shirt  and "crudely, malely sexual" (Kerouac) personality are in stark contrast to the berets and haughty language of the Subterraneans, yet he manages to worm his way in.  Leo is immediately taken by Mardou, an African American and Native American woman who is viewed as one of the most desirable of the group.  Mardou eventually accepts Leo's advances, and the rest of the novel tells the intricate story of their delicate relationship and their involvement with the rest of the Subterraneans.

An alternate cover depicting
Leo and Mardou
       You're probably thinking, based on my short summary above, that The Subterraneans doesn't seem too complex.  Well, let me put it this way: you're wrong.  The writing style of The Subterraneans is one of the reasons that it is widely acclaimed, but it also forces readers to dig their way through sentences that are as long as paragraphs and large sections of text that don't follow any basic gramatical rules (the horror!).  In class, my professor later explained to us that Kerouac did not revise the novel.  At all.  Zilch.  Zero.  The Subterraneans is a first draft that contains Kerouac's most private thoughts, some of which probably should not be shared with the public.  He tends to interrupt his own writing and does not follow a logical time sequence, making it difficult to follow even the simplest of anecdotes. However, one thing is for sure - Kerouac's stream-of-thought style writing is honest, raw, and uncut.

       The Subterraneans was written in 1953 and published in 1958, basically right at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.  Therefore, Kerouac, as a white male, was not the only one of the time demonstrating racism.  However, this does not serve as an excuse - as my professor aptly stated, Kerouac really should have edited his writing.  Some of the statements that he makes about Mardou based on her skin color are absolutely ridiculous.  For instance, he thinks that her body is somehow different than that of a white woman, and he also blindly stereotypes the story of her past, especially relating to the history of her Native American father.  Kerouac's unfiltered writing style is part of what makes The Subterraneans such an interesting piece of writing, but it also leads to many uncomfortable statements and racist assertions.

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac
       Lastly, Kerouac managed to offend quite a few people with his lack of revisions, namely because he based his characters off people he knew in real life.  Leo is loosely based on himself, and the novel is actually only "semi-fictional" because Kerouac based it off one of his own romances.  This only adds to my agreement that Kerouac should have revised his writing before publication, but his characters certainly have depth.

       All in all, it's tough to get a good grasp on Kerouac's writing.  I know that what I read was, in a way, brilliant and ingenious, but I was also left feeling dazed and confused.  Kerouac is an amazing writer, but I think some of his ideas went over my head.  I can't say I would recommend reading The Subterraneans for pleasure - it takes way too much concentration to make it through the novella.

Happy reading!

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