Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a literary rush when I read it sometime in the 1980s, the perfect expression of a sort of counter-mythology to the mainstream myth of the American Dream. The Dream myth holds that we can do anything we want in this country, choose our professions, attain wealth, and build families, just so long as we put our minds to it. The Road myth says we can exist outside of the Dream mythology, wander, find ways of cheap living, alternatives to traditional families, and indulge in creative pursuits, living a tolerable and indeed meaningful life while doing so. I suppose the Road myth is really just a variation on the Dream myth, albeit reluctant to admit itself as such.
Both myths were credible enough while I was growing up, and even for some distance into adulthood, and the allure of the Road was, in particular, a potent one for me. There were low cost flats to be had, along with secondhand cars at prices one would wonder at today; retirement plans and health insurance weren’t half the priority they are now. You could, in short, be a bohemian (or a beat) and still feel you were part of things, with a future.
Neither myth is terribly plausible any longer. The Dream isn’t about putting your mind to what you want to do with your life; it’s about “playing by the rules” and building up annuity accounts and worrying about your provisions for long term care and college funds for the kids, ad infinitum, all of which have little to do with your actual dreams. The Road, for its part, barely lets you leave the station; it is more likely to lead to a state of deprivation than to a space of liminal possibility. Perhaps its sensibility survives to some extent in the Occupy movement; and among the young in general; but more often it’s about those rules, and the fact that you are left high and dry if you don’t follow them (the earlier the better), or maybe even if you do.
What the new film of ON THE ROAD offers is not what the novel did, which was the image of a possible life, but a nostalgia for the days when all things, the Dream if you wanted it, or the Road if you didn’t, were among your options. I miss that Road, and I liked this film, even if it seems sedate compared to the fever of the novel. Its settings are evocative, and its cast, especially the two main women, Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart, has a retro appeal.
I suspect that Kerouac knew perfectly well that the Dream would fade and the Road would hit a dead end. But in the world of the novel, that was all in the future; the film can’t avoid what has happened since the book was finished in 1951 and published in ’57; it knows that neither the Dream nor the Road lasted; and so does the audience in the theater. This is partly a film of the book, and partly a film about the book being written. Its ultimate message may be just that: that even if it is naive to think we can choose the lives we live, we can at least tell stories about them, and thereby shear ourselves of some modicum of our illusions.
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