Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The World's Longest (and Best) Paragraph

In May 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote his friend Neal Cassady to tell him about the road-trip novel he'd just finished. In the letter, Kerouac talked of how he had typed the entire manuscript between April 2 and April 22, on a single 120-foot roll of teletype paper, single-spaced, "just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs . . . rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road."
Kerouac's famous scroll manuscript for On the Road.

Six years later, an edited, vastly shortened version of the manuscript (with the characters' real names changed to fictional ones) was published by Viking Penguin ("in mutilated form," Allen Ginsburg once said). In 2007, to mark the book's 50th anniversary, Viking Penguin published the original single-paragraph "scroll version" of On the Road, complete with creative spellings (and containing the sex scenes that had earlier been deemed too controversial), with original character names intact and no attempt to "correct" anything other than the most obvious typos. (The original scroll is today owned by sports magnate Jim Irsay, who paid $2.43 million for it in 2001.)

The 2007 scroll version is the edition I just finished reading, and it's the only edition of On the Road anyone should ever read, because the single-long-paragraph nature of the book and the use of real names for real people are crucial elements of the work, in my opinion.

Like Jack himself (both in the story and in the writing of the manuscript), I got off to a bad start with the book, reading the first 40 pages in one sitting, then making the mistake of letting it go cold for several days. In a book with no plot that's told completely experientially, that's printed as a single 300-page paragraph with no breaks, you have no structural reference points to hold onto, whether typographically or in the story line, which means that if you walk away from it, you forget where you were almost instantly. In my case, I found myself starting again at page one after the first false attempt. And I made damn sure to keep moving from that point on, stopping only to eat, bathe, attend to bodily needs, etc. before resuming the trip.

I got through the book with difficulty. Kerouac's language is suitably mellifluous and inventive, his reportage sincere and seemingly accurate. But the nonstop parade of nonsensical events, leavened by the tragicomic personal-life misadventures of the womanizing Neal Cassady, is ultimately tiresome. Happily, after 135 pages or so, the travelers arrive at the Burroughs ranch in Algiers, Louisiana, and the writing style pivots ever so slightly as Kerouac launches into a loving, carefully crafted portrait of the enigmatic Bill Burroughs. From there, it's back to a meandering series of road trips to New York and San Francisco (always by way of Denver), with various side trips thrown in.

The Great Depression had long since ended, of course (this was 1949), but you couldn't tell it from the indigence of the characters. Jack's monthly $18 checks from the Veterans' Administration seldom went far, what with Neal Cassady's constant need for booze, cigarettes, gasoline, weed, and bail money. What they couldn't afford to buy, they often stole. (In Cassady's case, that sometimes included cars.)

At one point in the story, Kerouac inexplicably comes into a sizable (for those days) sum of cash: $1,000. It's never explained that this was, in fact, the advance for Kerouac's first novel, The Town and The City. He uses it to move his mother from Long Island to Denver. The woman finds Denver not to her liking and moves back to New York. Money gone, Jack hits the road again.

The story accelerates and acquires an almost Hunter Thompson-like feel in Book Three (the "book" breakpoints are unceremoniously noted inline in the text, without indents or spacing) when Cassady and Kerouac agree to deliver a two-year-old Cadillac limousine from Denver to Chicago. They put over 1,000 miles on the car in 23 hours, breaking the speedometer cable after exceeding 110 mph. Along the way, they suffer various mishaps and end up turning the car over to the owner in ramshackle condition. Miraculously, the owner never sends the police after them.

Arguably the best storytelling comes in Book Four, when Cassady and Kerouac, having exhausted America's highway system, head to Mexico. The writing is vivid, piquant, engaging, endearing—unforgettable.

Of course, there is never any hint of a plot, dramatic structure, etc., and that's exactly the point of the book (and of life); the journey is itself the point. It's also why On the Road couldn't possibly find a major publisher (as it did in 1957) if it were written today. It doesn't check the checkboxes of agents' and publishers' "minimum requirements" for a novel. In fact, it quite deliberately gives the finger to all such requirements. Which is why On the Road stands virtually alone among bestselling novels of the past 70 years as being truly experimental yet also truly a quintessential piece of Americana and American literature. It would be fun to submit the book, in manuscript form (as a single paragraph) under a pseudonym, to agents and publishers, just to collect the rejection slips generated by the legions of interns and editorial assistants and self-appointed arbiters of the literary status quo who would never dare take a chance on anything as proto-gonzo as a plotless, one-paragraph, 125,000-word road diary centered around an itinerant womanizer/con-man and his urbane college-dropout buddy. Noo noo nooo, we shan't have any of this.

Today, Kerouac (if he were starting anew) would have to put out his own print-on-demand and e-book editions of his work and then go about the grim business of gaming the Amazon rating system, maintaining a blog (and Facebook page and Twitter account), and doing all the other must-do activities of writers who want to rise above the background noise of what today passes for literature, all without a hope of ever getting a review in The New York Times (much less the kind of review On the Road got from Gilbert Millstein in 1957).

We should all be glad that Kerouac and On the Road came along when they did, at a time when a quiet, humdrum, thoroughly racist, excruciatingly conformist America needed the kind of wake-up call Kerouac provided, and the kind a New York City publishing establishment was still able to give. Those days are over, of course. We're on a different kind of road now.