In honor of Jack Kerouac’s birthday, born on this day in 1922, I present to you a segment from The Subterraneans, a fictional account of a short romance. Please enjoy.
The Subterraneans is a 1958 novella by Jack Kerouac, beat poet and author. It is a semi-fictional account of his short romance with Alene Lee in Greenwich Village, New York. Kerouac met Alene in the late summer of 1953 when she was typing up the manuscripts of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, in Allen’s Lower East Side apartment. In the novella, Kerouac moved the story to San Francisco and renamed Alene Lee “Mardou Fox”. She is described as a carefree spirit who frequents the jazz clubs and bars of the budding Beat scene of San Francisco. Other well-known personalities and friends from the author’s life also appear thinly disguised in the novel. The character Frank Carmody is based on William S. Burroughs, and Adam Moorad on Allen Ginsberg. Even Gore Vidal appears as successful novelist Arial Lavalina. Kerouac’s alter ego is named Leo Percepied, and his long-time friend Neal Cassady is mentioned only in passing as Leroy.
“Because of the objections of my early publishers I was not allowed to use the same personae names in each work.”
Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody
The position of jazz and jazz culture is central to the novel, tying together the themes of Kerouac’s writing here as elsewhere, and expressed in the “spontaneous prose” style in which he composed most of his works.
Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, known as Jack Kerouac, was an American novelist and poet of French Canadian ancestry, who, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, was a pioneer of the Beat Generation.
“Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Welcome to Interzone, the hellish playground of William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’. Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs was among the central figures of the Beat generation. Over a frenzied decade bridging the 1950s and ’60s they were instrumental in reshaping America’s cultural landscape, tearing up their elders’ starchy doctrine and blazing the trail for the counterculture that followed. As dynamic, brilliant young things they seemingly make for ideal cinematic subjects, but only one film managed to capture something of the essence of its author and the Beat generation at large: David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.
A key idea of the Beat generation was to treat the most authentic, uncensored human thoughts and desires as art. In a buttoned-up society, they challenged social norms via their insatiable appetite for sex, drugs and confessional intimacy. ‘Naked Lunch’ was banned for years in the US and even taken to court for its perceived obscenity, while Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ suffered a similar fate. Both eventually won their respective trials, ultimately helping to liberate American publishing. Liberalisation was, in many ways, what the Beat generation was all about: from strait-jacketed literature, from sexual repression, from lock-step social conformity.
The problem with films about the Beat generation is that so few are genuinely transgressive. But Naked Lunch is a different beast altogether. As is protagonist Bill Lee’s typewriter – it’s an insect that groans with pleasure as he works it, crowing for him to rim its pulsing sphincter with drugs. Bill Lee is really Burroughs, and Cronenberg’s film is about his becoming a writer – his relationship with his typewriter. Rather than attempting to adapt the book in a literal sense, Cronenberg treated Burroughs’ schizoid prose as a secondary source. He gave it structure, but it remains essentially a bizarre work.