Jack Kerouac: The Rooms, the Dioramas, the Maps
by Sofia Krimizi
Archipelagos 01 / November 22nd 2011 / Brooklyn (USA)
On the road is a novel written by Jack Kerouac, in 1951- published in 1957, on a 120-foot long roll of semi-translucent teletype paper. This scroll allowed Kerouac to continuously feed a typewriter and write without interruption for three consecutive weeks a single-spaced text that he later edited by pencil.
On the road attempts an American version of the French- or at least European- flânerie, the aimless experiential wondering in the urban phenomenon, here organically operated in the scale of the continent, where each state is a neighborhood to cross, a threshold and a destination simultaneously. Kerouac puts together- on that continuous scroll- a stroll across the United States, for a lack of a better word or a real equivalence in English of the word flânerie-, where one is allowed not to know or even not wanting to know where he is heading. America unrolls in the four parts of the book, plus one in Mexico, as a series of rooms with no transitions, no corridors, no hallways, becoming a distorted palace of Versailles where one changes direction only when there is no more depth to expand upon, no more rooms to visit in that direction.
“There she blows!” yelled Dean. “Wow! Made it! Just enough gas! Give me water! No more land! We can’t go any further ’cause there ain’t no more land! (…)”
p169- chapter 9, part two
The “shaken Frisco” (San Francisco) signals the edge of the continent performing like a magnet that drags Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac’s alias) across the country several times in the sequence captured by the book. Once on the other side of the continent New York, Chicago, New Orleans are the sirens that will pull him back on the road.
The car, the speed, the girl, the danger, the road.
This roman à clé, where the lived and actual journey lies under the façade of fiction, allows Kerouac to synthesize the fragments of his own real travels and explorations with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in the book) around the United States in an imaginative order, having only one way to enter and one way to exit.
Marking the beat generation, Kerouac initiates a new kind of a literary gendre that will borrow its rhythm from jazz using a single breath for both the narrator and the reader.
The rooms, the dioramas, the map.
Attempting a tripartite structure of, at times superimposed, at times juxtaposed, spatial analogies, I will talk about the recording of the frenzying scale transitions within buildings, cities and states as the only instrument Kerouac utilizes to accelerate an already impetuous plot, scrutinize and penetrate in the private roam of both the protagonists and the satellite characters, and finally situate macro and micro operations on a very carefully transcribed field-map of the continent.
Kerouac’s version or even better vision of the American flanerie occurs mostly in the scale of the continent. In, On the Road, America is structured and thus manifested, I would even dare say drawn on the scroll, as a series of chambers that Dean and Sal enter and exit just in order to enter bigger or smaller ones again and again. No paragraphs, no chapters, no breaks- solid movement, a unique kind of metastatic roaming from the New Jersey living room to the interior of the metallic shell- the car, the dessert (again suggested as a room), the diner, the highway, the garage, the hotel room, the bus and so on and so forth.
The hint that we are allowed in order to understand that the room has changed, that the action has moved from one chamber to the next, is the shift in scale. There is first an indication of the scale of the room, the set that will host the pending action and then the actual description of it.
“The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with the flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it…” p.22
“I moved with Roland Major in the really swank apartment that belonged to Tom Gray’s folks. We each had a bedroom, and there was a kitchenette with food in the icebox and a huge living room where Major sat in …” p.40
“At dawn my bus was zooming across Arizona desert- Indio, Blythe, Salome (where she danced); the great dry stretches leading to Mexican mountains, Flagstaff, clifftowns.” p.103
Everything is understood, rendered and thus captured as a continuous interior, the vehicles, the houses, the bars, the restaurants. Even the actions that are set in the dessert or on the open highway are composed in a way that suggests an implied dome, an invisible surface that wraps, contains and delimitates the event. The way several of these exterior spaces are detailed and defined through their physical but also transcendent boundaries alludes to Kerouac’s religious upbringing, so that one could draw parallels between the Christian imagery of the heavens being the roof of this earth.
“…and one night just over Laredo border in Dilley, Texas, I was standing on the hot road underneath an arc-lamp with the summer moths smashing into it when I heard footsteps from the darkness beyond…” p.303
“We stopped in the unimaginable softness. It was as hot as the inside of a baker’s oven on a June night in New Orleans. (…) For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweatered me, but became me. (..) The sky was starless, utterly unseen and heavy. I could lie there all night long with my face exposed to the heavens, and it would do me no more harm than a velvet drape drawn over me.” p.294
Interesting enough though, Kerouac talking about On the road mentioned: it was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco.
So God was found in the ecstasy of the urban environment and not in the openness of the wild but clearly defined American rural night.
On the road is structured in five parts each one broken down in several chapters, both categories bearing numerical titles, Part one- chapter 12, part three- chapter 4, within the absence of a table of contents.
The fact that a Kerouac room can exist in two chapters, even spread in two parts of the book, emphasizes the a posteriori sectioning of the scroll- the agog narration- in order to allow very controlled and situated breaks in the rhythm, instant musical pauses that once dared to be performed or moved elsewhere in the sequence will just destabilize not the narration itself but the impact of the dense and uninterrupted procession of events. Kerouac’s rooms consist both a finding and an invention whose impact can be traced in his following books. Tristessa, Sartori in Paris, Visions of Cody.
The introduction and description of the protagonists happens only and through their natural habitat. Kerouac offers us the possibility of meeting with the characters, spread out in the country, while picking into a series of dioramas, their natural habitats, their bedrooms, living rooms, cars, pockets.
On the wall hung a picture of an ugly old Cape Cod house. His friends said, “Why do you have that ugly thing hanging there?” and Bull said, “I like it because it’s ugly.” All his life was in that line. Once I knocked on his door in the 60th Street slums of New York and he opened it wearing a derby hat, a vest with nothing underneath, and long striped sharpster pants; in his hands he had a cookpot, birdseed in the pot and he was trying to mash the seed to roll in cigarettes.
144- chapter 6, part two
Kerouac is a true and unique collector of human species, even if in On the Road he accuses Dean to actually be the urban biologist.
“The time was coming to say good-by to Victor, so Dean was taking the opportunity to have moments alone with him, inspect his park and get views on things in general and in all dig him as only Dean could do.” p.291
The need to know what the question is, to understand the fragments of the world, the iterations of a human character, to find out the possibilities that our species allows, to interrogate the transcribed social order are the things that feed the curiosity driving the stroll of On the Road.
The city, any city is interrogated and depicted in the book the same way any of the protagonist are interrogated and described in and by the space they exist and act within. The room of the city and the room of the person, built literary like a diorama, for Kerouac carry the same questions and bear the same longing of discovery.
I didn’t know what to say; he was right; but all I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.
p67- chapter 11, part one
In On the road, America is a map, the highway is a red line connecting dots, connecting cities, containing Kerouac’s protagonists and Kerouac himself.
It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes.
p11- chapter 11, part one
It was night. We were pointed toward the American continent.
p89, chapter 13, part one
Somewhere behind us or in front of us in the huge night his father lay drunk under a bush (…).
p234, p234- chapter 9, part three
America being a map in Kerouac’s mind and writing comes with an embedded directionality, a compass that points in front or behind, a constant measurement of the traveled distance and the miles yet to be encountered. The flee, the disappearance, the getaway, the road are projected on the physical map of the United States, creating a rehearsal of the envisioned trip. The destination being as important as the trip itself, Kerouac creates a multi-scaled flanery, practiced and rehearsed on the map, executed on the 1:1 scale of it.
In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. (…) Do you know there’s a road that goes down to Mexico and all the way to Panama? (…) Yes! You and I, Sal, we’d dig the whole world with a car like this because, man, the road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain’t nowhere else it can go- right?
p231- chapter 9,part three
There is no other way than to exit the rooms of America by entering the mystic Mexican chamber. There is nor other way than to exit On the road by returning to the room of entrance, to return to New York.