On The Road, To The End Of America

I first read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road at university, and dutifully wrote an essay about its exploration of the idea of freedom. Now, decades later in 2020, I reread the book, wondering how the old road would look after all these years.

Once again I met up with struggling writer, Sal Paradise, who describes a series of trips around America in the late 1940s. Sal travels, and hangs out with, a changing cast of characters, none more important to him than Dean Moriarty, a charismatic, hyperactive young man, who lives a chaotic life, moving from place to place, job to job and woman to woman. Reading the book a second time it became clear to me that Dean is a charming sociopath, who serves as a natural focus of a story about freedom, because rules do not apply to him, whether those are rules of the road, or of social behaviour in general. For a while a quiet fellow like Sal Paradise, feeling trapped and frustrated with life, can happily follow in a sociopath’s turbulent wake, experiencing a sense of, what appears to be, liberation. But eventually there is a reckoning. There is a reckoning for an individual who lives this way, and for a society which idealises his “virtues”.

At one point in their travels, Sal and Dean visit their friend, Old Bull Lee – a character based on the real life writer William Burroughs. Sal and Dean do not get political in their road-trip philosophising, but Old Bull Lee takes the idea of freedom and makes it an explicitly political thing.

“His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals.”

I found myself thinking that if Old Bull Lee were around today, he would be a gun-toting, NRA supporting, red baseball cap-wearing old man, complaining about government overreach in asking him to wear a mask to protect himself and others from coronavirus.

In 2020, the Dean Moriarty/Old Bull Lee idea of freedom, has truly reached the end of the road. For the long haul, you cannot rely on Dean Moriarty or Old Bull Lee. They act only for themselves. The road has changed, and now more than ever, it requires people to support each other and work together. The world’s most powerful country has always had a tendency to downplay such values. Individualistic American society seemed exciting for a while, just as travelling with Dean seemed exciting, right up until that moment when he abandons you when you need him most.

This read through of On The Road was poignant for me. It clarified how much the world has changed since my university days. Even as I turned Kerouac’s pages, the America he describes so vividly, fell away in the rear view mirror.

Station Eleven – The Importance Of Art During A Pandemic

In June 2020 a newspaper survey – conducted by the Singapore Sunday Times – asked respondents to rank the importance of various jobs during a pandemic. Medical practitioners came out on top, which was to be expected. But right at the bottom came the job of “artist”, a word which covered the whole gamut of creative industries.

This caused a stir. After all, Neilson Books research quoted in the Guardian suggests that people doubled their time spent reading during lockdown. Spotify saw a 31% rise in paid subscribers in the first three months of 2020. Netflix increased its subscribers by over 15 million during the same period. Given these figures it might seem that artists played an important role in getting people through the lockdowns of 2020.

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, published in 2014, is a book describing the time before during and after a devastating fictional flu pandemic, which wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The battle for survival portrayed in the book is far more stark than the one we face in the real world of 2020. But if there’s a source of hope amidst this trauma, it comes from art, specifically a peripatetic band of musicians and Shakespearean actors called The Travelling Symphony. Their motto is: “survival is insufficient”.

While the members of The Travelling Symphony are portrayed as humble heroes, the book is not a simple-minded presentation of art as a panacea for life’s problems. Such an easy answer does not exist, just as a cure for the book’s devastating Georgia Flu does not exist. In scenes depicting the Hollywood smart set of pre-pandemic Los Angeles, there’s not exactly a feeling of people living deep and meaningful lives. And yet, in the post-pandemic world, with all celebrity froth stripped away, the Travelling Symphony really is a beacon of hope. This troupe brings music and Shakespeare to people who have nothing except a grinding fight for survival. There are parallels with the life of Shakespeare himself, who had to take his company on a tour of the provinces in 1603, when plague closed all of London’s theatres for a year.

So finally, we have to ask: what exactly does a troupe of travelling players bring to people struggling to survive? It’s with this question that Station Eleven gets really interesting. You could say The Travelling Symphony brings meaning to people. But meaning is a tricky thing. After all, there are deeply unpleasant cult leaders in Station Eleven who find clear meaning in the pandemic, seeing it as divine judgement on sinners, no less. All those who died in the pandemic apparently did so for a reason. By contrast, The Travelling Symphony is staffed by sensible souls who realise that sometimes bad things just happen. They do not try to explain what happened in terms of supernatural purpose. They perform the plays of an artist who is known for presenting conundrums rather than giving easy answers. This is the humane approach of art, the sharing of experience and questions; and if people share their experience, and ask questions together, they are more likely to find answers and meaning as they continue into an uncertain future.

Station Eleven is a gripping, traumatic, ultimately reassuring read. And I’m sure if you gave a copy of the book to the respondents of that 2020 newspaper survey, their answers would have been rather different.

The Maltese Falcon – showing the way, not telling you which way to go

The Maltese Falcon is a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, published in 1930. Its central character is private detective, Sam Spade, whose version of morality sits somewhere between bureaucratic, box-ticking police procedure, and criminal illegality. The writing style reflects the Spades’s personality, the whole book narrated in dispassionate third person. We are never told about anyone’s thoughts, only seeing what people do, what they look like, and various precise details of their surroundings. If you have ever heard that piece of writers’ advice about showing and not telling, then The Maltese Falcon demonstrates how it’s done. It’s all showing. There is no telling.

With no fancy philosophising of any kind, The Maltese Falcon appears very straight forward, very “hard-boiled” to use the term usually applied to this kind of detective writing. But the thing is, the spare, unfussy nature of the book gives rise to all kinds of thoughtful ambiguities. After all there is nothing in the book to tell you what to think. You are left to draw your own conclusions. Whether it’s the difference between right and wrong, or between what’s important or unimportant, the book unobtrusively leaves you to challenge yourself on these matters.

This sums up why novels are valuable in describing human experience, and why they have a place up there with scientific studies and text books. With their characteristic quality of showing, they tend to open questions up rather than shutting them down, allowing the reader to explore conundrums that are, by their nature, difficult to pin down to final answers.

Stars And Bars – Learning To Live Beyond Nationality

Stars and Bars is William Boyd’s 1984 novel about an Englishman adrift in the United States. The book interested me because it’s about someone seeking their personal identity through nationality. As a way of thinking of yourself, this is an idea I have always been uncomfortable with, and which has caused no end of political trouble in the last few years.

Henderson Dores, the central character, starts the book by not wanting to be an Englishman anymore. This shy, awkward, typically diffident product of an English public school, decides to make a new life for himself in America, taking a job as an art valuer at a New York auction house. But the thing is, he wants to replace his identity as an Englishman with the identity of an American, and that’s where his problems start.

He keeps responding to life in terms of things outside him – allowing his life to be shaped by other people’s desires, or by how he looks in other people’s eyes. This leads to all kinds of tangles, which come to a head when Henderson goes to a decaying mansion in Georgia, to value some paintings which an eccentric collector is ready to sell.

Here, through a series of disasters, Henderson has his identity stripped away. In a telling scene he finds himself back in New York, at night, during a rain storm, with no money, no credit cards, no passport, and no clothes. His nakedness is covered by nothing more than cardboard and plastic wrapping, which he finds in an alley. But ironically he now feels that he fits in as one of the misfit individuals who live around him in the city.

In losing his identity Henderson finds what he is looking for, which is ultimately himself. In the end that is all we have. We can think of ourselves as British, English, American; or we can identify with something like the job we do, but in the end we remain an individual. Henderson is left with very little once all the outside stuff has gone, but I felt that by the end he had the chance to rebuild on firmer foundations.

I found Stars and Bars a clever, thoughtful and funny book. There are sections that made me uncomfortable, but they were part of this idea of losing false identities and seeing through to what is really there. What is really there might not be polite, or dignified, or even acceptable. It’s like a dream where we see all manner of weird and unacceptable visions once the filter of the waking mind has been turned off. And a few descriptions of that type of dream do feature in the book. But, in the end, there is something to be said for the revealing of things that usually remain hidden, just as if Karl Jung were listening with compassion to our shameful dreams and helping us come to terms with hidden aspects of ourselves.

Eurovision – The Story Of Fire Saga

Eurovision, The Story Of Fire Saga, is the new Will Ferrell film about a fictional Icelandic band, making an improbable appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest. I first came across this film in a BBC review. The critic awarded two stars, and said you can tell within two minutes when you’re watching rubbish. I watched the first two minutes and decided that I very much wanted to continue. Why the difference? Was it because the BBC critic was a deep, intelligent and profound cultural commentator, while I was a silly, superficial blogger? Well that could be true, but let’s assume not.

I think this film is actually about the indefinability of music. After all, Fire Saga is meant to be a bad band. Lars and Sigrit, after dreaming of Eurovision glory since a young age, have a small following in their Icelandic town, where they are generally expected to confine their set list to one song, called Jah Jah Ding Dong. Fire Saga only reach the Iceland qualifying competition because a last act is needed to fill the quota, and their demo tape happens to be the one an official pulls from a lucky-dip box. Then, their qualifying performance, after suffering technical mishaps, turns out to be a disaster. The Icelandic judging panel regard Sigrit and Lars as a joke, and decide in the first few seconds that their song is rubbish.

Sigrit’s mother now provides her daughter with some advice – first, give up on Lars; and second stop performing with her head, when she should be performing with her heart. This second piece of advice, suggests that there is something in music which is difficult to rationalise. Music has an unpredictable element. We cannot know for certain which song will appeal to people, and which will win nil points. So it is fitting that Iceland’s selection competition takes a chaotic turn. All the Icelandic acts, except Fire Saga are invited to a glamorous party on a boat. The boat then mysteriously explodes, showering flaming body parts down on Lars and Sigrit watching from the harbour. They are now the last act left, and by default have to be Iceland’s entry at the Eurovision Song Contest in Edinburgh.

Once they arrive in Edinburgh, Fire Saga try to be what a successful band should be. A boy from the world of K-Pop attempts to lend a commercial polish. Unfortunately these efforts lead to Sigrit becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their music. Then there are personal distractions, involving a sultry Greek, and a theatrical Russian, which all leads to another disastrous performance in the semi-final And yet, as is the way with these things, Fire Saga’s staging misfortunes attract enough amused voting to get them through to the final.

After more twists and turns Fire Saga, at last, get to perform in the Eurovision final. But realising he has lost his way trying to be who he thinks a good pop musician should be, Lars insists they play Sigrit’s new song, which she has composed for him while they are in Edinburgh. This heartfelt song is a huge success, and surely would have won the contest. But unpredictable to the last, it is against the rules to change a song during the competition, which means Iceland are disqualified. The suggestion is that music can’t be tied down by rules. Fire Saga can triumph without winning. There is no music which in the end can be defined as good or bad, winning or losing. Music defies such categories, and I guess that’s why some people can enjoy a song disliked by others, and why The Eurovision Song Contest has super fans and haters, and why I can enjoy a film which a BBC reviewer dismisses as rubbish within two minutes.

The Icelandic elves are in charge. They are the tricksy little creatures who blew up the party boat. Who knows what they will get up to next.