ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER BOOK overhyped by publishers as "the lost novel" of some long dead literary genius. This time, the dead genius in question is Beat writer Jack Kerouac, whose tale of a disgruntled Columbia University lecturer turned Merchant Marine, The Sea is My Brother, had fans, reviewers, and the marketing gurus over at Penguin and Da Capo alike beside themselves with anticipation. Never mind that in 1968 Kerouac dismissed The Sea is My Brother as "a crock," a "dreary attempt at Naturalism" that he vowed never to publish lest he embarrass himself. Never mind that this self-assessment is a pretty accurate description of the 145 pages in which Kerouac's nerdy protagonist, Bill Everhart, communicates his experience of the high seas through a string of eager epiphanies like, "By George! — he was learning more than he ever had in any class," and, "By George, the word has to be tolerance!" (In case you were wondering, "By George!" appears exactly five times in six consecutive pages.) Yes, there are flashes of Kerouac's more mature style throughout, and yes, there are some nice turns of phrase regarding the sunset and the ocean towards the end, but these moments are drowned out by Everhart's tortuous monologues on the state of American literature, socialism, and the Brotherhood of the Sea. To say that it's a bad book is not so accurate as to say that it's a boring book, all proclamation and no plot, sluggish and undramatic and too brainy for its own good.
But from the flurry of reviews that have surfaced in the weeks since The Sea Is My Brother was published, it's clear that no one really cares about young Kerouac's stylistic indiscretions. Quite the opposite: the novel's lack of aesthetic refinement has emerged as its strongest selling point for critics. Without pretending to anything resembling "craft" — that painstaking practice of working and reworking prose into a more technically perfect form — the primordial scribblings preserved in The Sea is My Brother offer us the fantasy of an unmediated encounter with a long lost historical presence. That presence is Kerouac himself, resurrected by his clunky, yet virginal, sentences as a man, a person, and a mind — what Paul Giles described in The Guardian as his "éminence grise aspect." Stilted prose be damned, Kerouac emerges as blood, flesh and bones, an embodied and conscious figure writ larger than life — larger than death, really — by his unwriterly conduct. In his unedited form, he's honest, he's pure, he's vulnerable. He's like, real, man.
Writing that is so untainted by labor and so untouched by technique doesn't have to be good to justify its presence in the world. It's enough that it's there. The lost novel's specter of authenticity is secured by the absence of artifice: raw thoughts and feelings are transposed into raw prose, and both are offered up to readers in an unapologetic display of aesthetic badness that is revered for its true-to-life content. It is this perverse but seductive evacuation of style that Sherwood Anderson allegorizes in his short story "The Lost Novel," the parable of a commercially successful writer who tries to mime the intensity of his love-hate relationship with his estranged wife in a novel. After months of combating his writer's block, he one day pours his heart out onto the page in an intense session of "automatic writing," only to wake up the next morning to find no...read more