Kerouac and Franzen, Analyzed à la Pinker

My dad and I tried to log our trip through Instagram…here is one of the earlier photos!

Early in the summer my dad and I drove together from San Francisco to Middletown, CT for my sister’s graduation and back again. (He’s afraid of flying). I couldn’t resist bringing along Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a book I’d been meaning to read for years, and on our return trip, as we chugged along through the midwest, I began to read it out loud from the passenger’s seat while my dad drove. We were both surprised at how into the book we got–I thought I would only read a few pages and grow tired and distracted, but I ended up plowing through a couple dozen. Kerouac is fun to read aloud because his writing feels like talk, like someone telling a story to friend without planning it out beforehand. Kerouac has become a model for my writing, because I love the notion of free-form writing. Thought and memory and do not adhere to any structure, so why must stories? I chose a passage sort of at random to analyze; because every page of On the Road looks pretty much the same, with no chapters, paragraph breaks or dialogue markings, I had a hard time locating specific moments or images in the book. But I think that nearly any passage functions to embody Kerouac’s unique voice and style. So here goes:

The floors of the bus stations are the same all over the country, they’re always covered with butts and spit and a sadness that only bus stations have. For a moment it was no different than being in Newark except that I knew the great hugeness outside that I loved so much. I rued the way I had broken up the purity of my entire trip, saving every dime and not drinking and not dawdling and really making time, by fooling around with this sullen girl and spending all my money. It made me sick.

In this passage, Kerouac does a great job at capturing mood. By making the universal, but objectionable claim, the floors of the bus stations are the same all over the country, he makes the reader curious to read what comes next. Then with the details of butts and spit, he enables the reader to visualize the setting he is describing, particularly its yuckiness. He then surprises the reader with the word sadness—an emotion, rather than another substance or object, ends his list. This word, coupled with the vague description of the great hugeness outside, evokes a mood of quiet, bittersweet solitude. Then the looseness of the next sentence really brings the reader inside of the narrator’s mind by mirroring the ranting nature of thoughts. Kerouac uses verb after verb in this sentence—saving…. drinking…. dawdling…. making time….fooling….spending—and this repetitive usage conveys excess, thereby highlighting the narrator’s regret.

Switching gears a little, in my current English 362 class we are reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It’s one of many books that I love and hate at the same time. It is crude and violent, and I have felt my cheeks redden and my stomach churn at various times while reading it as I experience humiliation and anxiety vicariously through the characters. I think that it is Franzen’s ability to affect the reader in this tangible way that makes him such a powerful story teller. While I am not sure that I would wish to emulate his writing, as his style does not really align with my desired “voice” as a writer, I think his work is intellectually engaging and artistically insightful. I think that the following passage, that describes the daily experiences of a old man named Alfred with Parkinson’s disease, captures Franzen’s piercingly colorful style.

He had good days and bad days. It was as if when he lay in bed for a night certain humors pooled in the right or wrong places, like marinade around a flank steak, and in the morning his nerve endings either had enough of what they needed or did not; as if his mental clarity might depend on something as simple as whether he’d lain on his side or on his back the night before; or as if, more disturbingly, he were a damaged transistor radio which after a vigorous shaking might function loud and clear or spew nothing but a static laced with unconnected phrases, the odd strain of music.

First of all, I absolutely love the image of humors pool[ing]….like marinade around a flank steak. This comparison creates such a vivid and specific mental picture—most readers will know exactly what Franzen is talking about. It is also comical and kind of gross, that is, to think about the human body’s innards in terms of the characteristics of raw meat… but this aspect only strengthens the image and encourages the reader to think about the object (the human body) in a different way. I am reminded of a reading from last week (was it Pinker?) which said that good writing makes one look at the world differently. Franzen has definitely led me to do so. Franzen then uses another vivid, unusual description to illustrate the goings-on in Alfred’s body when he compares him to a damaged transistor radio. The reader is once more forced to look at the human body in a different light—it is now a mechanical object that can be adjusted by brutal physical treatment. Furthermore, with the brief aside more disturbingly, Franzen seems to be saying to the reader, “yes, this comparison was meant to rattle you; the uncomfortable connotations were intentional”.

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