Published on September 18th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Big Sur: Proustian Words on Poe-ish Amounts of Liquor
I can see why Hunter Thompson referred to Kerouac’s Big Sur as a “shitty, shitty book,” but I think the second “shitty” may be overkill. Thompson felt Kerouac’s writing was sloppy, romantic, and over-sentimental, but I think Thompson’s disdain has more to do with Kerouac being a bit of a pussy – much like Proust.
Anyone who has ever read Marcel Proust knows what Jack Kerouac was trying to do in Big Sur. Though Kerouac’s writing style before Big Sur featured run-on sentences, a lack of punctuation, and was said to be published relatively uncut, Kerouac obviously had Proust’s madeleines on the mind while visiting Big Sur. His introduction to the Penguin Books 2011 edition explicitly states what he’s attempting.
“My work comprises one vast book like Proust’s except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed.”
Aram Saroyan even writes in his Preface, “His work at its best brought something of the luminous pleasures of the French Impressionists into American writing, and something too of the brooding syntactic circuitry of Proust” (viii). So the presence of Proust is undeniable, but why adopt Proust’s style?
Kerouac thinks highly of himself and his style. He thinks writing Proustian prose on the road is a damn fine idea. It certainly worked for him before, though I’d argue that On the Road is hardly representative of Proustian road prose. Nothing but Proust is really representative of Proust, and those who have tried failed miserably. But somehow Kerouac makes it work for him. Here’s why:
- The endless sentence structure forces the reader to keep reading. Without punctuation breaking up sentences the reader has no place to stop except at chapters, and Kerouac’s cliffhangers are ample reason to read the next chapter. Kerouac succeeds in writing the “jazz” book, basing his writing style on breath rather than page layout. Big Sur is like a song with a really long solo.
- The style is representative of the mind. Kerouac is drinking himself to death and driving himself insane, and you don’t even have to read the book to figure it out. Just open it up to any page and look at it. The lack of structure on the page is indicative of insanity. Proust himself was constantly suffering from some illness, so the style even carries a sort of sickly stigma.
- The way conversations are displayed in the text makes Kerouac look like a prick, which he is. Instead of writing traditional dialogue, Kerouac displays his conversations with friends as they would be transcribed by a computer. “I say something,” “you say something,” “I say something.” This style doesn’t allow any of the Kerouac’s friends, namely Cody Pomeray (Neal Cassady) and Ben Fagan (Philip Whalen), to stand out on the page, which was not the case in On the Road, as Cassady stole the show. Though Kerouac’s Beat pals are in the band, they’re still playing backup to Kerouac (that would be a good band name, Kerouac and the Beats). This has an adverse effect on Jack Duluoz (Kerouac) who, in turn, is accurately portrayed as a self-centered prick.
Not only did Kerouac commandeer Proust’s writing style, but he also stole his subject: remembering and forgetting.
“So even that marvelous, long remembrances of life all the time in the world to just sit there or lie there or walk about slowly remembering all the details of life which now because a million lightyears away have taken on the aspect (as they must’ve for Proust in his sealed room) of pleasant mental movies brought up at will and projected for further study–And pleasure–As I imagine God to be doing this very minute, watching his own movie, which is us” (20).
This obsession with memory is nothing new for people facing death. Reminiscing is the preferred method of wasting time for old people and the deathly ill, who would prefer to live in the past than face the future – death. In reminiscing, people tend to come to the same realization that Proust and Kerouac did.
“[I]t’s the little things that count (clichés are truisms and all truisms are true)–On my deathbed I could be remembering that creek day and forgetting the day MGM bought my book, I could be remembering the old lost green dump T-shirt and forgetting the sapphired robes–Mebbe the best way to get into Heaven” (28).
Kerouac is also obsessed with Heaven, as people on the verge of death tend to be. Uncertainty surrounding the afterlife is the worst type of uncertainty to have before you die. It’ll eat you up inside, and being a Catholic, Kerouac lets it. He knows he’s bound for Hell, and he wishes he could do something about it. He can. He just won’t.
“We all agree it’s too big to keep up with, that we’re surrounded by life, that we’ll never understand it, so we center it all in by swigging Scotch from the bottle and when it’s empty I run out of the car and buy another one, period” (54).
Kerouac continues his evil ways, even though Cody (Cassady) hates nothing more than to see him drink, even though Billie wants nothing more than for Jack to love her, even though Dave just wants to stay a week in Big Sur. He just keeps focusing on himself and no one else. The worst thing is, in the end, Kerouac says “I’ll forgive them and explain everything (as I’m doing now)” (188). Instead of asking forgiveness, as a good Catholic should, he blames everyone else and does so in print. He’s such a pompous prick he thinks his friends are responsible for his insanity (though he is insane, and supposedly writing this book while insane), and I think that’s why Thompson dislikes Kerouac. “He’s a pussy,” Thompson would say. “He takes no responsibility for his own life, follows people more interesting than himself and makes a fortune writing about their lives then blames them for ruining his.”
Kerouac was a follower, Thompson a leader. Thompson didn’t steal anyone’s writing style or subject matter. He didn’t follow people around because they were interesting. He wrote about himself because he was interesting. In the case of Big Sur, Kerouac writes about himself and doesn’t like the character that is staring back at him from the page.
I think Proust would probably use Kerouac’s words to describe Big Sur. “[H]e’s just following me like I often follow people myself, and so off we go again” (74).