August 29, 2011

iPad Cuts Out Kerouac Essentials

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Online app edits out author’s unique style.

The next time you want to experience the road trips immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, forget the car keys and drugs. Just grab your iPad.

Earlier this summer, Penguin released an iPad version of the iconic novel, a highly autobiographical work based on Kerouac’s own cross country adventures with Beat legend Neal Cassady. The app has much to offer both long-time fans and first-time readers: rare photos of the Beat writers, in-depth biographical information on Kerouac, clips of Kerouac reading the novel and an interactive map tracing the legendary road trips. Even more impressively, the app gives an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the publication process, including everything from Kerouac’s original notebooks to unreleased documents from the publisher. Sidebar annotations accompany the text, providing biographical information for the real-life individuals behind Kerouac’s characters as well as explanations for vague cultural references.

Such additions certainly have their perks. By revamping a classic text, the work becomes both more accessible and attractive to a modern, tech-savvy audience fluent in multimedia. Furthermore, the app shows that the classics can adapt to a changing industry, one where literary fiction has fallen behind its more commercial cousins now widely available on e-readers. And yet, at least for this particular work, the additions distort the original text.

Although such additions might amplify one’s reading of an already hypertextual novel (House of Leaves comes to mind), here they only interrupt the novel’s flow. They undermine the feeling of the Beat generation Kerouac captured so well — the madness, the frenzy, the unbridled idealism and spontaneity. Picture Kerouac slumped over a typewriter, bashing in keys for three solid weeks onto his 120 foot “scroll” (admittedly after years of note-taking and drafts). No margins. No paragraph breaks. Just uninterrupted, unedited prose. “Spontaneous prose” as Kerouac came to call it. Prose heavily influenced by the improvisation and rhythm inherent to jazz. Prose uninhibited and uncensored. Prose so fluid that even periods were eliminated in favor of the long connective dash — at once improvisational and less definitive. Even with the novel’s later edits, one always senses the uninterrupted fluidity of Kerouac’s “scroll” lurking beneath. Annotations, photos, maps and clips only distract the reader from the word flow so central to Kerouac and the Beats.

On a more theoretical level, such embellishments privilege the author and the surrounding cultural developments over the novel itself, perhaps taking away from a more textual analysis. No one can argue that Kerouac’s life and times heavily influenced his work. However, this privileging of biography over text is problematic in at least two ways.

First, you end up reading too much into the author’s intention. The novel produces a reader response, whether or not the response is what Kerouac (or the editors) intended. By including earlier edits, the app user might read too much into the intentions of the author and editors, invalidating his own personal response. The moment we are told that a novel has one definitive meaning and that we should respond in a specific way (i.e. as the author and editors intended), it is no longer art but propaganda.

And, by including so much information about the real-life characters and places that informed the book, we forget that the book is not autobiography but fiction. Yes, the characters, events, and places in Kerouac’s book were based on reality. But where real conversations stall, fictionalized dialogue is to the point. Where real life days pass inconsequentially, novelistic events proceed causally and drive plot. And where real people might (as Kerouac lamented) “yawn … or a say a commonplace thing,” characters are  “the mad ones… desirous of everything at the same time” and drive the plot forward. Yes, On the Road documents the reality of the Beat generation. But we must not forget that the book is a fictionalized artistic representation of that reality, using fictional and stylistic elements to craft a story more authentic than pure fact or transcription. Fiction is a slice of an incomprehensible universe, something that makes reality more relatable. When we privilege biographical fact over the fictional text, as this app makes us more likely to do, we lose Kerouac’s slice.

New technologies aren’t necessarily antagonistic to literary fiction. But like any savvy editor, they must heed the writing they edit. Maybe then we’ll see an app with the authenticity and clarity of Kerouac’s own writing, something that will “burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Original Author: Emily Greenberg