Mad sprawling beat prose poem (book review)

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A review of Jack Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody”

Kerouac says of “Visions of Cody”that it’s a “vertical, metaphysical study of Cody’s character and its relationship to the general America.”

The story covers (briefly) some of the Beat Generation history up to the events of “On the Road”. From Kerouac first meeting Ginsberg at university (where the murder which was the basis for “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks” took place); to the accidental shooting of Burroughs’ wife in a drunken, stoned game of William Tell.

Mixed in with all this is a history of Cody’s (Neal Cassady) life, and the last 100/150 pages is a retelling of “On the Road.” And it’s retold in such a way that you would have to be familiar with “On the Road” to recognise it as an interesting abbreviation.

What I didn’t like about the novel

I’ll get the negative stuff out of the way, so I can get on with talking about how much I enjoyed reading “Visions of Cody”.

I didn’t appreciate having to wade through part one (about 60 pages) to arrive at what makes this an entertaining read.

Part one reads like the warm-up act. Kerouac’s not quite sure what’s doing, or writing, or why, but if he just sits — stoned and drunk — at his typewriter long enough something’s bound to happen.

And something does happen…eventually, but there were parts that could have been edited out and the book would have lost nothing.

One that thing which could have edited out were the typos. There weren’t many, but it felt like the editors looked at some sections and instead of cutting them out, decided it was all apart of the “automatic writing process” and left them in. Undoubtedly it was a product of automatic writing— but surely, there’s got to be a (editing) line?

More prose poem than prose novel

There is an almost (almost) Joycean quality to Kerouac’s writing style, in that some sections reminded me a little of what Joyce did in “Ulysses.” However, I’m still undecided as to whether or not that’s a good thing.

I say this because when Kerouac is writing like Kerouac and not trying to affect a Yeats/Proust/Joycean style of writing his writing style is enjoyable. It makes you want to read more.

Reading it like a prose poem instead of a prose novel

When I decided to start reading this like a prose poem and not a straight prose novel I really enjoyed Kerouac’s style. It has its own strange rhythms which are quite pleasant to read.

However, this wasn’t so much a conscious decision as the writing lent itself to that sort of reading. And, after part one, I found myself reading “Visions of Cody” like I would one of William Blake’s longer pieces.

Reading through to the end is worth it

Like reaching the end of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” there is this somewhat visceral pleasure at reading the closing pages of “Visions of Cody.”

You feel glad that you got to the end.

The imagery of the last 60/70 pages is some of the best in the whole book. And to be greeted by it, after such a long sprawling (somewhat) splendid mess is fantastic.

I don’t know if I would recommend this book: but I enjoyed it; & will undoubtedly return to it.

Thank you for reading