Being Jack Kerouac
By Colin Herd.
Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head, Simon Morris, information as material 2010
information as material- or ‘iam’ for short- are an independent publisher run by the artist Simon Morris and based in York. They exclusively specialize in publications by artists and writers who select and re-contextualise extant material to generate new meanings and explore reading and writing practices. Over the past few years they have accumulated an impressive catalogue of conceptual and ‘uncreative’ writing, making them pretty much the foremost disseminator of this fascinating, infuriating stuff. One of their most recent titles is Simon Morris’ Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head. The book started life as a blog in which, from May 2008 until March 2009, Morris retyped and posted one page per day of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On the Road. He embarked on the project in response to an anecdotal provocation from fellow conceptual writer Kenneth Goldsmith. In an interesting contextual introduction to Morris’ book, Goldsmith explains what happened:
A few years ago I was lecturing to a class at Princeton. After the class, a small group of students came up to me to tell me about a workshop they were taking with one of the most well-known fiction writers in America. They were complaining about her lack of pedagogical imagination, assigning them the kind of creative writing exercises that they had been doing since Junior High School. For example, she had them pick their favourite writer and come in next week with an “original” work in the style of that author. I asked one of the students which author they chose. She answered Jack Kerouac. She then added that the assignment felt meaningless to her because the night before she tried to “get into Kerouac’s head” and scribbled a piece in “his style” to fulfill the assignment.
Goldsmith subsequently remarked that he thought a better way for the student to learn something about Kerouac’s style would be for her “to retype a chunk- or if she was ambitious- the entirety of On the Road. Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her?” The proposition having been thus posed, Simon Morris decided to take Goldsmith up on the project, and that’s the genesis of the blog and subsequent book.
I find a number of aspects of the project particularly interesting. The first is the discipline involved, not so much in the sense of a daily commitment for almost a year, but more the resistance of the temptation to surge ahead, the composure and rigour to keep to the page-a-day rhythm. This rhythm is in such sharp contrast to Kerouac’s own speed. Morris is digesting slowly and submissively rather than espousing frenziedly. He has written that he had to proof-read each page, meaning that he read each page at least twice. The stillness and quiet work involved in this endeavour are a fascinating subversion of the movement and legendary spontaneousness of Kerouac’s composition. Although the book can’t recapture the steady pace of emergence on a blog, the book retains the conventions of blog-publication, because the final page, i.e. the last one typed, is at the front of the book, and the first page, i.e. the first one typed, is at the start of the book. So, put plainly, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head is a retyping of On the Road in full, in reverse page order. Reading through the book thus presented, there are some beautiful incidental metaphors and phrases, almost at every page-break. For example:
‘Lookout!’ he yelled at a motorist, and swung around// morning in an alley.
So they slowly wheeled the night and then long before the ordinary dawn the great red sun appeared far over entire territorial areas of dun land towards// his arms around Neal and moaned in his face and Neal went mad
Something about Kerouac’s prose seems to welcome and facilitate these disjunctive back-tracked page-break metaphors.
Another interesting aspect of Morris’ project is the way he collapses the distinction between reader and writer. Because he had never read the book before, he was literally, as a kind of performance art, writing the book as he read it. While he was in the act of reading he was simultaneously in the act of writing, making explicit what we all do metaphorically and internally. In this context the book seems to make a case for attention rather than originality, for uncreative writing going hand in hand with creative reading.
The book as an object is beautifully designed and produced. It mimics the silvery Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition of On The Road down to the last detail – the cover-design, the palate of colours, the font, the size, even the ink and the paper feel exactly the same. But instead of the iconic photograph of Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac slouched against a wall, there’s an almost identical image of Simon Morris and the writer (and co-editor of ‘iam’) Nick Thurston. Thurston’s head mimics Cassidy’s in tilting off-kilter to the left, dressed as Cassidy is in a thick shirt and jeans with a neutral and penetrating gaze. Morris mimics Kerouac, down to the half-smile and the sweatshirt. The shadow cast against the wall between the two figures seems a little larger than it does in the original photograph, as though the shadow of Kerouac and Cassidy is swelling over the two contemporary artists, almost ominous. Of course, it’s Morris and Thurston who have added something to the cultural shadow cast by Kerouac’s book. It’s difficult to draw conclusions from Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head about the meaning or purpose of such a book, but I found its rigour and its slow obsessiveness captivating.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, will be published soon by Knives Forks and Spoons Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 12th, 2011.