now that’s quality
Having finished reading Randall Jarrell’s1 first novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954),2 I now understand why people go ga-ga for Kerouac: general American fiction of the 1950s was rotten.3 Take offense if you will, but I stand by my statement. When seen against the backdrop of such insipid, feeble prose as Jarrell’s, where flashes of wit last no longer than a firefly’s flickering (and provide, if I may say so, rather less illumination), Kerouac’s writing, for all that it is petulant, adolescent, and puerile, (I need some more synonyms here, people), at least has some spark. On the Road is an unpleasant, sniveling, arrogant, narcissistic, toadying gangbang of a novel, devoid of grammar, of wit, and rampant with snobbiness, but at least it has even that much character: one can speak of it as a personality. Pictures from an Institution lacks even that; it has all the dynamism of wet cardboard.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lovely book: I could imagine people liking it, admiring the deft pencil sketch qualities of some of the portraits; fireflies of wit can be admired, if admiring fireflies is your sort of thing. But heavens to Betsy, the thing isn’t permanent! (Would that I had left it in the stacks, mouldering, gathering dust as it deserved!) And if you’re not going to write a novel for all time, then what the devil are you writing a novel for anyway?4
- Yes, I know he is better known as a poet; that’s no excuse.
- Would that the title did not remind me of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: I was suffering from the Great Gate of Kiev the whole time I was reading.
- Not, actually, that I read much of it. In fact, I rather wonder if this little rant is not going to join the legion of embarrassing literary judgments I’ve made (the most notorious of which came in declaring, at age twelve, that Pride & Prejudice had no plot—yes, I learnt the error of my ways, thank you very much). Somehow I doubt it. Winter 2010: actually, yes.
- General note: this entry brought to you in part by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who observed (in 1977 on a Canadian radio program) that pop music was killing the novel—or actively burying it if, in fact, ‘the novel’ were already dead.