‹ Maneesh Madambath

Notes on Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

Aug 18, 2022

Death is a constant in Kerouac’s Big Sur, omnipresent, standing on our every turn. Religion is a constant. Drunkenness is a constant. Mother is a constant. The white line splitting the road is a constant. The road is a constant.

Friends and friendships though, change.

Even the ice cold Billie with her blond hair and blue eyes gets angry and cold, and you wonder what took her so long.

Of course, the immediate response to finishing the Big Sur, or any of Kerouac’s novels, his endless Legends of Duoloz series, is an urge to write in his manner. To do away with linguistic, grammatical and syntactic inhibitions in his words and get on with the moment. There’s an overflowing sense of words wanting to pour out from a burdened dam about to break. And the words, oh the words — disconnected adjectives, nouns yet to find meaning, sounds primeval, typos, punctuations, the lack of them, words as pictures; the moviebook, the book as a movie made with words that become sentences that become scenes and the score.

You’d imagine the book as a piece of amateur work and a book of genius in lines that follow one after another. How could he write that? how could he write that? How could he write that? Everything happens simultaneously, parallelly, boldly.

There’s a lot of symbolism going on. And we know that symbols and metaphors are the only tools a writer has besides lies to tell the truth. In the truth telling business Kerouac has no parallel, in that, he is telling his story. But what and where he lies, who knows, it doesn’t feel as if those lies are his pursuit. He believes in the immediate, and it is strong enough that you are there with him when he hikes up the Big Sur in the dark, when he rattles around Frisco in the dead of the night in a getaway car with a getaway driver, when his drunken stupor metamorphosises into paranoia, when he sees the moon, when he slips into a sleeping bag naked, when he sits on a chair with a bottle of port in hand for a week it is you who feel the cramps and the burning discomfort of having sat too long in one place. How could he do it?

There are sentences in this book that you know aren’t American slang, but it sure sounds like one, and you do not know what it really means, and yet you know what he meant, and you have felt all that’s there to feel in the moment, and you know it is for the words he has strung together like a beaded piece of necklace that has you strung around it instead.

And you know that the King of Beatniks is broken and jaded and is about to enter the last decade of his life, and he won’t be coming back to the Sur.


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