A Great Book to Hit the Half-Way Mark: On The Road

on_the_road_book_coverI don’t think anyone suggested Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to me. Rather, I think it was just one of those books that I’d heard bits and pieces about and have had on a vague mental list of things to read before I die (basically if a book is there, it probably won’t get read). Anyways, I have been thinking and reading lots about suburbia, the automobile, and the environmental impacts of these things, so it seemed fitting to throw Kerouac’s book on the list given that it captured the zeitgeist of automobiles in the late 1950s. It was a moment when anything seemed possible, the road spread out before you, gas was cheap, and you could hit the road and drive for miles on end simply for the sheer pleasure of it. Standing now in the second decade of the 21st century, we no longer have such a rosy picture given the costs of such actions in the form of climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and the decimation of mom-and-pop shops (or basically any small independent business) at the hands of the corporations (many of whom have their roots or business practices modelled on companies that do in roadside restaurants – more to come in this in my review of Erich Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation). 

At the same time, On The Road is a wild read. Yes, yes, it is quite possibly one of the most patriarchal and possibly misogynistic books of the American canon (there are no strong female characters, women seem to be almost interchangeable (particularly for Dean Moriarty, and women seem to be valued for sex alone). It is true, I had a number of knee-jerks while reading. But what is also true, at least for me, is that I really enjoyed the novel. There is a certain appeal to the zaniness of Sal Paradise’s multiple trips across the US in cars. I have crossed Canada at least 7 times by car and I cherish many moments from these trips. I can only imagine what it would be like to take that trip now with some of my best friends and no other real attachments (I can already hear the privilege coming through as I write this …). Sal, the protagonist and a psuedo-autobiographical character, crosses the country initially because he had simply wanted to go West. In the process he meets Dean, an intense and vibrantly energetic young man, who becomes the key player in the following three trips. Sal does not own a car but hitchhikes, uses a travel bureau system to get rides with others for gas, takes the bus or train, or rides with Dean in his car. The sheer excitement of travel really comes through and I loved it.

I am not really doing justice to the book. It deals with the Beat Generation and has become, rightly or wrongly, a synecdoche for the whole movement. There is a really interesting jazz angle to it and Kerouac does interesting things with race, especially given that On the Road predates the racial tensions of the 1960s. The trip into Mexico is also interesting if problematic given some of the pseudo-modernist fascination with “primitive” culture (read dying Indian stereotype). Be forewarned that the novel is very loosely a novel. It is big and takes many tangents, so don’t expect a fast or tight read.

I would recommend this novel to those who love driving across North America and to anyone serious about understanding American culture.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1959. Print.

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Wait, Is This Book Actually for Kids?: The True Meaning of Smekday

caseAdam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday is a strange beast. On the one hand, it is a young adult, maybe late children’s, novel (okay, I made that second term up). The writing is fairly simple, not too much symbolism, the dialogue is straightforward, no irony, etc. (the plot structure is quite interesting and well-done though). However, there is a weird post-colonial critique that runs through this thing. Like, I’m talking an ironic/parodic critique of European colonization. I am not sure most younger folks would pick up on this though. Then again, I might be underestimating their cleverness (and probably overestimating my own).

The True Meaning of Smekday runs like this: Earth is invaded by aliens called the Boov (one of the worst names for aliens I have come across, even if it does sound rather comical), a young black girl, Gratuity, is separated from her mother and sets out across American in a car to find her. She is accompanied by a rogue Boov named J.Lo and her cat, Pig, in a modified automobile that is now a hovercar. Wait, a minute, I said this was straightforward but now I’m sensing Rex playing with American lit’s fascination with road novels (Kerouac’s On the Road is the classic example, but others include Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent). Of course, this is a post-apocalyptic/alien invasion riff on the cross-continent road trip. The Boov look like frogs with multiple octopus legs while travelling in large dome ships. They simply arrive on Earth and take it over, forcing the humans to move to parts they do not want. So the Americans are shipped first to Florida and then to Arizona.

Wait, this sounds a little like the colonization of North America doesn’t it? And this is where Rex’s book gets really interested. He is very critical of colonization and there are numerous pointed jokes about how the Boov are acting in a hypocritical fashion (J.Lo believes that they had been very kind to the humans). There is even a “mad” Indian who yells at white people and ends up becoming a key part of how Gratuity saves the world. A second set of aliens, named the Gorg (seriously? ), shows up and are intent on enslaving the humans after beating the Boov. Unlike what actually happened in North America, in this novel, the “native” Americans are able to stop the alien invaders. I am intrigued by Rex’s subtext as it flows beneath the surface and suggests to me a deep understanding of American history that has been cleverly disguised in this children’s novel published by Disney’s Hyperion Books (the grad student in me has alarm bells going off at this, there’s an article to be written here!).

This is a clever and funny book that manages to offer up lessons on American history, racial politics, and human geography. I really enjoyed it and finished it very quickly (another one that I stayed up at night to read). This book is worthy of the title young adult fiction and gets me excited for some of the other titles on my list.

I highly recommend this book for readers! It is worth the time and would make a great summer read. Also, there are comics and illustrations in this novel. Does it get any better?

Rex, Adam. The True Meaning of Smekday. New York: Hyperion Books, 2007. Print.

This Book is Slippery and Surprising: Lolita

lolitaChances are that even if you have not read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita you at least know what it is about. It’s about an older man loving a pre-pubescent girl, or nymphet as Humbert Humbert calls them.  It is is titillating and immoral.* Well, this is what I thought going in. But this is not what the book is about. If you are looking for a pornographic or lascivious book, then Lolita is bound to disappoint you. Yes, Humbert is a pedophile, but he openly admits this at various points. Yes, there is sex between an adult and a minor, but it is never portrayed directly nor is it crude or lewd. What Lolita is about is a self-deluded and totally unreliable narrator.

This is not to say that the novel is not slippery. Humbert is cunning as he tries to get readers to sympathize with him. The novel is set up as a kind of memoir written while Humbert is in jail, long after his relationship with Lolita is finished. I say Humbert is cunning because he gets readers to sympathize with him through his various rationalizations of what is he doing, but then something slips in the narration and we suddenly realize that we have unwittingly crossed some kind of moral line. Nabokov is masterful in his ability to string readers along and then expose them for their own failings. As my friend J said to me about the book, part of its strength is its ability to make us realize that we are all, at heart, animals; we are not so different from Humbert no matter how much we want to be.

This might be the first case, at least since my high school years, where I was nervous about reading a book in public. J and I had a long argument about this, but the fact that most people assume Lolita is an immoral and pornographic book, even though they probably have not read it, meant that I was careful where I brought it out to read. I have read far worse books, yet Lolita’s popular reputation tended to precede itself.

Two things really surprised me in the novel. First, that it is a road novel in the sense that a lot of its action takes place on the road. Humbert and Lolita travel across America several times, and I loved how Nabokov dove into the tourist countryside, exposing its cheapness yet also showing how we enjoy it all the same. A lot of this comes in the first few pages of Part 2, and most of it is quite funny. For example, Nabokov writes “we avoided Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones, old-fashioned, genteel and showerless, with elaborate dressing tables in depressingly white-and-pink little bedrooms, and photographs of the landlady’s children in all their instars” (146). I could immediately call to mind a couple of different roadside inns that fit this example quite well. This is just one of a number of descriptions that resonated with my own experience travelling across North America.

The second thing that surprised me was how Humbert actually loses Lolita with more than a third of the novel left. She disappears and he spends several years desperately searching for her. This was a turn I had not expected and kept me turning the pages.

*spoiler alert*

Humbert does find Lolita again, but by this point she is out of his “nymphet” stage. Yet it is at this point that his love for her actually becomes visible. He even recognizes that he has, in a major way, stolen Lolita’s childhood. I really appreciated the emotional depth that Nabokov suddenly springs on the readers. Lolita is a masterpiece. That being said, it is not for everyone. It is about a very problematic relationship that has troubling implications, but it is also quite high-brow in the sense that it is loaded with allusions to French, German, and European literature. If you get an annotated copy, it is probably easier to make sense of the dense writing, but this is not totally necessary either.

I would hesitantly recommend this novel for those interested in American literature. But if the subject matter is not something that you can, at the least, suspend judgment about, then this is not for you.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 1955. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.

*If you have made your judgment based on the movie (Kubrick’s or the other more recent and less successful Lyne adaptation), please read the book. It is different in a number of critical ways.