Kerouac Spins Out on the Superhighway

Kerouac Spins Out on the Superhighway

Kerouac Spins Out on the Superhighway

The world of electronic books.
May 23 2001 9:00 PM

Kerouac Spins Out on the Superhighway

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Writing in 1985, William S. Burroughs unwittingly anticipated his friend Jack Kerouac's new eBook, Orpheus Emerged. "As a child, I had given up on writing, perhaps unable to face what every writer must: all the bad writing he will have to do before he does any good writing," Burroughs wrote. "An interesting exercise would be to collect all the worst writing of any writer—which simply shows the pressures that writers are under to write badly, that is, not write." While all of Kerouac's bad writing is not included in Orpheus Emerged, it surely goes a long way toward accomplishing Burroughs' "exercise."

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Even accounting for the age of its author—Kerouac wrote Orpheus Emerged when he was just 23 and still called himself "John Kerouac" professionally—this book is an appallingly bad one. It is not poor in the standard manner of books written by young authors who go on to achieve some measure of success, that is, generally uninspired writing but containing the odd flash that signals the artist that is to come (F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise springs to mind). The writing in Orpheus Emerged, rather, contains no hint of Kerouac's signature impressionism that defenestrated the prevailing literary conventions. The novel is strikingly conventional, plagued by the stilted prose typical of budding fiction writers. At the end of one characteristically plodding section, Kerouac offers prose that would cause even the most untalented of creative writing students to wince: "Michael got up, and, without a word, walked out of the apartment. He left Marie in a very pensive mood." Since even Kerouac's most developed work lacked compelling narrative, this book is of precious little value to anyone but the most devout Kerouac aficionado.

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Like much of Kerouac's fiction, Orpheus Emerged is almost wholly autobiographical. The novel takes place on the fringes of an unnamed urban college campus, a place that Kerouac came to know well after he dropped out of Columbia University. The story's plot—such as it is—chronicles Paul (Kerouac's stand-in), Leo (Allen Ginsberg), and their circle of collegiate friends as they exchange low-level thoughts on highbrow topics. Kerouac has his characters banter about Shostakovich, Goethe, and Nietzsche seemingly only to display the author's familiarity with such august names. Orpheus Emerged opens with a painful scene with Paul, who attends classes despite being unenrolled, upstaging a professor. Dwarfed by Paul's scintillating intellect, the flustered professor throws Paul out of the class. The book was written in 1945, thankfully, so readers aren't forced to endure the slang that would arrive shortly: All Paul wanted was an education, dig? But that professor cat was so square, he couldn't even pretend he was hip.

Kerouac expends some effort to develop Orpheus Emerged's women characters rather than reduce them to semen receptacles, as he would in On the Road. The women don't engage with the men as equals, but they do possess thoughts of their own. Yet even Kerouac's sentient female characters can't salvage the pretension personified that is Orpheus Emerged. The book's symbolism becomes almost unbearably heavy-handed. "Look at me," Orpheus Emerged seems to say, "I'm a truly important book." Despite seeming to drag on unceasingly even though it's only novella-length, the book ends abruptly—a rare, unfortunate combination.

Orpheus Emerged was the first title that the digital publishing company LiveREADS issued in November 2000. After purchasing it for $4.95 and downloading it from barnesandnoble.com, I read it on a desktop computer using the Microsoft Reader. (The book is also published in the Glassbook, aka Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader, format and is available on tape and CD. Technophobes will be forced to wait an additional year before Orpheus Emerged appears in traditional bound form.) Attempting to take advantage of the eBook format, LiveREADS includes video and audio clips from the time period to provide a glimpse into the Beat era. These features, along with a few well-chosen previously unpublished excerpts from Kerouac's journal, nicely complement the literary experience. But I must say, viewing scenes from a documentary while reading a book jarred me at first.

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Less successful, though, were the highlighted hyperlinks that led to pedestrian discussions of Rimbaud, Stravinsky, and other Kerouac references. I found it a bit like borrowing a book from a friend and encountering simplistic marginalia. LiveREADS boasts of 500-plus hyperlinks in Orpheus Emerged, but many of them are repeated numerous times. If you didn't look up Nietzsche on the first chance, I'm not sure what would compel you to see what he was all about after the 11th mention.

LiveREADS selected Orpheus Emerged as its first title because Jack Kerouac's name brings instant credibility and because many of Kerouac's most avid fans are adolescents, who, publisher Paul Bresnick rightly thinks, will be more open to the eBook medium. While these reasons seem compelling, Bresnick's decision to launch Orpheus Emerged as the company's first book could be a miscue. Kerouac churned out some 12 novels during one six-year stint and saw each one rejected. Much of this work, needless to say, was unfit for publication in any format. Unfortunately, LiveREADS seems to be following the model of early paperbacks—that is, publishing marginal literature because the costs of production are marginal. Orpheus Emerged relies on technological bells and whistles in a futile effort to compensate for an otherwise miserable reading experience. Video and audio clips should be utilized to supplement, not to carry, eBooks. Rather than introducing rejected old manuscripts, eBook publishers would do well to concentrate on having authors create expressly for the format. Only then will consumers be able to render any meaningful verdict on eBooks.

eBook ellipses: In case there is any lingering doubt whether eBooks are a force to contend with, they are now being reviewed by some of the literary world's most authoritative voices. (No, this is not an advertisement for myself.) Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times has signed on to evaluate eBooks for Yahoo Internet Life. eBooks are rapidly expanding from the science fiction domain and entering the academy. Launching Princeton Digital Books, Princeton University Press announced it will offer some titles as eBooks before they're issued as hardcovers. Cass Sunstein's Republic.com and Richard Posner's Breaking the Deadlock: The 2000 Election, the Constitution, and the Courts are leading the way. Perhaps most excitingly, Princeton will allow readers to submit suggestions or questions to which authors can respond. This month's best eBook joke comes to us courtesy of Arthur Stock: Who will write the best eBook of film criticism? Roger eBert. Ba-da boom! No, but seriously folks, keep those eBook jokes coming. Feel free to also send comments concerning the eBook industry to jdebook@hotmail.com.

(Full disclosure: Slate is owned fully by the Microsoft Corp., maker of the Microsoft Reader.)  

Photograph of Jack Kerouac, circa early 1960s, from Archive.

Justin Driver is assistant literary editor at the New Republic.