Written over the course of three days and three nights, The Subterraneans was generated out of the same kind of ecstatic flash of inspiration that produced another one of Kerouac's early classics, On the Road. Centering around the tempestuous breakup of Leo Percepied and Mardou Fox--two denizens of the 1950s San Francisco underground--The Subterraneans is a tale of dark alleys and smokey rooms, of artists, visionaries, and adventurers existing outside mainstream America's field of vision.
"...no girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering and so beautifully her sould showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell and the hell the selfsame streets I'd roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her and never dreaming the darkness and the mystery and eventuality of our meeting in eternity, the hugeness of her face now like the sudden vast Tiger head on a poster on the back of a woodfence in the smoky dumpyards Saturday no-school mornings, direct, beautiful, insane, in the rain.--We hugged, we held close---it was like love now, I was amazed..."
-Leo Percepied, The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac
The Subterraneans is an exciting, frantically paced novel written as if driven to get it all down and out before it simply dissipates. Kerouac is known for his spontaneous prose, and this novel is one of the greatest examples of this practice: fragmented, unformatted paragraphs, and sentences that seem to run on for days and days. Nevertheless, these are the facets of Kerouac that I cannot help but be intrigued by.
One of the most important factors of this novel is Kerouac's depiction of an interracial relationship in the 50s, a time when it was unheard of, or kept in shadows. It was most fascinating to read of Leo's attraction to Mardou and also his internal struggle with possibly loving a Afro-Cherokee woman. I appreciated this depiction even more as the novel didn't focus on their obvious differences.
Mardou is depicted as this elusive 'Queen' of the Subterranean subculture. She is intelligent and fiesty, a figure that the characters seemed both intrigued and put off by. Beyond this mythologized figure, Mardou is broken---often fearful of nervous breakdowns, sewed to her therapist like a misplaced hemline. She, like many in the subculture, battles drug addiction, and although living the life, often strapped for cash. I found her to be just as fascinating as the other characters seemed to. I felt that as much as Kerouac divulged of her, there was so much more that we didn't know or understand about her upbringing and her own aspirations.
Leo and Mardou are two broken people in a fragmented love that everyone knows is doomed from the start, but it doesn't stop them from diving in. By the end, it seemed Mardou would be a woman that haunts his psyche as time passed. Each seemed a lesson in relating to people: Regardless of good intentions, they would eventually hurt one another.
Kerouac included great ponderings on what it meant to be in a relationship with someone, jealousy, and the power that a woman has over a man: "...a man may act stupid and toptippity and bigtime 19th century boss type dominant with a woman but it won't help him when the chips are down--the loss lass'll make it back, its hidden in her eyes, her future triumph and strength--on his lips we hear nothing but 'of course love.'" Beautiful fragmented prose, bursting of prisms and beat. I also loved reading of Leo's interactions with the many characters with in the Subterranean world. What can be more fascinating to an artist, than read of trips to crazy/beautiful jazz clubs, discussing novels, music and art? Some of their more negative behavior had me shaking my head.
Overall, Kerouac made me fall in love with him, want to read everything he's ever written, and discover the other characters of the novel. One awesome facet of his novels is that they are semi autobiographical, so you can always discover them in a real context.
I give the novel 4 out of 5 cups of Earl Grey- Rated R...obviously!
Happy weekend, dreamers!