Subterranean Living

29 Mar

The classic Romeo and Juliet saga, with a beat generation twist. This book is admittedly not an easy read. While it’s slim and the story is straightforward, the prose is dense. I challenge you to find much punctuation; instead the story is delivered breathlessly, in never-ending sentences. The purpose of this is to try and represent the unique and jazz influenced speech of Kerouac and his contemporaries. The stream of cousciousness style of story-telling, that Kerouac referred to as ‘spontaneous prose, makes the book seem like a post-war Joycean tale. This is his first novel written soley in this way, a form that was later adapted by his contemporaries Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Think of it as the verbal equivalent of abstract expressionism, like jazz, a hugely influential movement for this generation. But alongside this spontenaiety, his work also extremely laboured; he took great pains to develop his prose style and even works like On The Road, often said to have been written in three weeks, had in fact been in the works for over fifteen years, according to his biographers.

But don’t let this put you off. Find yourself a bit of peace and quiet and let yourself get caught up in the fast and lyrical tumble of words from our narrator, Leo,  (Leo – Leopold Bloom perhaps?) as he struggles with his relationship with his lover Mardou, attempting to overcome both social and personal racial prejudice.  The story is in fact based on Kerouac’s real life relationship with Alene Lee and was written over three painful days after their break-up in 1953. A confessional and pioneering piece of writing that sought to honestly represent the lifestyle of a generation, disillusioned by WWII and the bomb; one lived by its author, with many of his fellow writers (Neal Cassady and John Clellon Jones for example) making an appearance, thinly disguised. Like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, his autobiographical starting points work to provide a lens through which to present a historical moment. At a time when the House Committee of Un-American Activities was targeting prominent artists and writers for their alleged Marxism and homosexuality, the sexually promiscuous and counter-cultural behaviour that saturated the lives of these ‘subterraneans’ was in direct opposition to the status quo. Of particular interest is the homo-erotic nature of many of these relationships, where the stigma of being a ‘fairy’ and the desire for the macho intermingle as Leo goes from Alene’s bed to Arial’s. Time in the novel is just as multiplicitous, as the reader is spoken to from both the present of the words as they are written and the present of the story’s action or flash-backs. Tricky stuff maybe, but thought-provoking and visceral nonetheless.


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