I finished reading The Subterraneans with an inexplicable sensation; as though Kerouac himself had given me a firm embrace, forced me to run a marathon and rewarded me with a kick to my stomach and a swift rip of my heart through my chest. From page to page I pitied his unanswerable misery and destructiveness yet found myself clenching the page’s corners white-knuckled by his character’s agonizing arrogance. Slowly but surely, the complexity behind the life of a substance misusing self-destructive egomaniac sunk in.
Kerouac rode his own roller coaster whilst both living and writing this semi-atuobriographical book. The Subterraneans serves as an extended invitation to play witness to a journey as close to the experience that literature can get thanks to the beauty of his erratic spontaneous prose that maintains him on a literary pedestal to this very day.
The Subterraneans narrates the on-and-off interracial affair between Leo Percepied (a Caucasian male) and Mardou Fox (an African-American woman ten years his junior) in the midst of the tumultuous ’50s of San Francisco after dark, putting the beat generation’s establishment as a soft humming backdrop to the “love” story. A cornucopia of philosophical musings, explosions of love, anger and lust blossom from this pool of hedonism.
As you may have guessed, having a relatively youthful white male write about his first inter-race relationship during the mid 20th century would have proved not just a product of controversy, but more so a demonstration of the rampantly underdeveloped attitudes of the time. Nowadays, the concept of a romantic novel gravitating around a Caucasian male fetishizing – and often undermining – a woman for her ethnicity is a lateral mixture of sexist, racist and derogative behaviour. In spite of this, it’s important to note (to pardon or not is your own decision to make) the contextual factors behind these jarring attitudes. Despite loathing the pardoning tone associated with the phrase, it is with a heavy heart that I must call this a “work of its time” as a warning prior to reading this novel. Does that give Kerouac a free pass to being sexist and at many a point blatantly racist throughout the novel?
What it does give at least, is an unblinking view into not only male attitudes to women but also race in a way I have yet to experience in other pieces of literature with such unapologetic honesty. Not just a piece of artistic prose, Kerouac has left a fragmented whirlwind documentation of the frenzy of life within the roots of the beat generation in what I believe to be its most authentic display throughout his life’s work.
“LISSEN PERCEPIED DO YOU BELIEVE IN FREEDOM?-THEN SAY WHAT YOU WANT, IT’S POETRY, POETRY, ALL OF IT IS POETRY, GREAT PROSE IS POETRY, GREAT BERSE IS POETRY.”
– Mardou Fox, The Subterraneans.
That being said, The Subterraneans extends far beyond Kerouac’s central objectification of a black woman. It is ripe with moments where the same genius that earned his name in history shines through the words on the page. Moments of artistic splendour surface above the brewing ignorance, a gentle incentive to continue the novel in its downward plight. There is a brilliance within his ignorance which we can observe from afar with appreciation, albeit hesitantly.
Spontaneous prose can be both a blessing and a curse. Adrenaline spits and demands attention behind every syllable until it crescendos into almost audible instrumentation. Prose becomes poetry, converges into lyricism and soon taking on the rhythm of music itself. No finely printed font can tame the chaotic trail left behind the burnt out energy of life within his work. Although it certainly takes a generous amount of concentration to make it through the sentences that may stretch from one page to another it is certainly worthwhile – albeit utterly exhausting.
However, is it truly worth reading once the fog of the hype surrounding Kerouac as a literary icon begins to dissipate?
If you like rationality in life, then perhaps this is not the novel for you. The story from start to finish is being told through the sleepy, drunken eyes of an egotistical, conflicted man looking for anything to alleviate the impending doom of his steadily approaching mid-life crisis (which he later spends other draining books such as Big Sur attempting to piece together). No concrete reasons behind his thoughts ever formulate, nor even possible reasoning behind his behaviour touched upon. Where one may see that as an fault, another can also see a separate glimmer of human honesty. We don’t always want or search for answers in the present moment; sometimes we get swept up and live vicariously. Aren’t our emotions inexplicable at times? Equally as erratic, chaotic and hypnotizing beyond the territory of common sense? Beyond Kerouac’s stream of consciousness, I believe the rawest form of the human mind begs to be revealed making it one of the most poignant “love” accounts that I have read so far in my lifetime.
I place “love” in inverted commas as I am still doubtful that this can be classified as such. I don’t see true love in this novel but an affair infused with such infatuation that it soon takes over the characters in a way they choose to label as love. I see insightful self-reflection and absorbance. Most of all, I interpret this novel to be a weep for his own soul beyond the love he believes has grown within him; the tragic hero unable to love himself doomed whilst trying to love another.
In an ideal world, Kerouac would have not focused so much on Fox’s superficial qualities and stood up challenging his equally frustrating companions on their drunken nights out together. However, this is wishful thinking; the world we live in is not ideal and it certainly wasn’t any better in the ’50s. This novel is doomed from the beginning. Kerouac self-fulfills his prophecy as a tragic hero through unflinching narcissism, something so rarely depicted with such authenticity that I believe it to be a feat in itself.
“I felt the sensation of each of the directions I mentally and emotionally turned into amazed at all the possible directions you can take with different motives that come in like it can make you a different person — I’ve often thought of this since childhood of suppose instead of going up Columbus as I usually did I’d turn into Filbert would something happen that at the time is insignificant enough but would be like enough to influence my whole life in the end? — What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?”
– Leo Percepied, The Subterraneans.