Sunday, February 11, 2001
Edition: ONE STAR
Page: G-10




By Jack Kerouac.

Livereads.com. $4.95, digital.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the previously unpublished work of a novelist who wrote a whole book ("On the Road") on a continuous roll of paper in a matter of days should be the basis for the first e-text from a new online publisher of electronic books. The hyperlinked experience of the novella accords well with the hyped-up pace of Kerouac's own literary output and the hyperactivity of his characters.

In the complete e-text of "Orpheus Emerged" offered by LiveReads (livereads.com) we not only get a rendering of the early novella, we also have rare Kerouac photos and artwork, links to Kerouac's journals, a biography, a timeline, a history of the Beat Generation, links to Internet sites on the Beats, a live reading of the book, streaming rich media (video and audio) and more.

The inventor of a then-new mode of writing, "spontaneous prose," is delivered in a medium that promises to be the wave of the future -- a kind of spontaneously layered reading experience. Soon, we are told, we will download books onto e-readers with pages we can turn and with links to the world's libraries.

Here, however, we have a rather immature book supported almost entirely by the writer's later fame -- perhaps, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, "too much dressing" for this offering. Yet, as a window to the future -- both Kerouac's and the "book's" --this is an important work.

Kerouac wrote the novella in 1945, shortly after meeting Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr and others in and around Columbia University. This group of writers, artists and madmen formed the literary movement known as the Beat Generation and provided the material for his quixotic, restive and peregrinating characters.

"On the Road," "The Subterraneans" and "The Dharma Bums" are about this group's geographical, artistic and mystical quests for meaning in America's 1950s and early ' 60s.

Like the later novels, "Orpheus Emerged" also is about a group of writers, music aficionados and travelers. They enjoin each other in passionate discourse about arts and letters, drink heavily and abuse the women who later save them. But, unlike the later novels, this work is an allegory about the development of the artist himself.

The contrived plot is based on the antagonism of Michael and Paul, who we finally learn are twins of sorts; Michael "emerged" from Paul to live out the dreams of the artist, who escapes the bounds of human perception. Paul mocks Michael's artistic mission.

Both are friends of Leo (a character probably based on Ginsberg), who is bent on reconciling the two. But only Helen, the lover of Paul and Michael, can accomplish this feat.

The novella strains to accommodate the rambling voice and rambunctious characters that would finally "emerge" in later Kerouac novels within an allegorical framework in which Michael, "the genius of imagination and art," and Paul, "the genius of love and life," finally recombine under Helen's magical touch.

Helen resolves the artist back into the man, and the whole person is reborn. This is strange material for fiction, and it doesn't really work.

But this petit roman a clef (portrait of a young man as artist torn between art and life) is more important as a biographical piece than as a work of art. As the biography in the e-text reminds us, Kerouac lived a restless life of apparent dissatisfaction, ending in an alcoholic death at 47. Kerouac's history seems to prove this novella's point -- the choice of art over life can end in the early and miserable demise of the latter.

Choosing "Michael" over "Paul" was to be the defining moment for Kerouac, and for a prominent literary movement. Unlike resolution of the novella, Kerouac himself was never able to magically resolve the conflict.

Michael Rechtenwald teaches English at Carnegie Mellon University. He was an apprentice to Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.


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