Mikhail Bakhtin in his critical essay, “Epic and the Novel,” discusses how the novel as a genre is unfinished. Modernism, as defined by the “Introduction” in American Literature Between the Wars 1914-1945, is “any kind of literary production in the interwar period that deals with the modern world. More narrowly, it refers to work that represents the breakdown of traditional society under the pressures of modernity” (1803). Modernism has two major manifestations: style and content. While content is mostly concerned with the ideas and mantras of modernism in a novel (the allusions and breakdown of traditional previously sustaining structures), style deals with words and format of the novel itself. Such language and format issues directly correlate with the novel’s tendency to “continue to develop” and therefore it has hundreds of “plastic possibilities” (3). Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur is a perfect example of the unfinished novel. As a prime example of beatnik literature, Big Sur conveys modernist ideas in both style and content. To Bakhtin, the novel is a genre that contains parodic stylizations of other genres as well as other facets of literature and language (6). Within this essay, Bakhtin’s discussion of the “salient features” of the “novelization of other genres” will be used to analyze Kerouac’s novel.
The language of the novel, according to Bakhtin, is “free and flexible” and incorporates “extraliterary heteroglossia and the ‘novelistic’ layers of literary language” (7). The language therefore becomes “dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self parody,” and full of open-endedness (7). Such language is replete throughout the novel though only the dialogue, elements of self parody, and openendedness will be discussed in this particular essay. These are the most vivid modern stylistic elements in the novel and therefore are of great importance toward the study of the novel.
The language of this novel, in contrast to other literatures of previous centuries, is marked by chaotic spellings, unconventional grammar, lack of transitions or breaks, and a use of regional dialects. The narrative form of the novel is quite hard to follow at first and this is due to the lack of transitions and breaks and the use of stream of consciousness narrative. In the first chapter, the narrator is describing his life in San Francisco with all its parties and beatnik lifestyle. On page two he is talking about returning to San Francisco from a friend’s cabin and after stating a thought about hearing the song “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen,” he randomly states that he is very tired: “wow, I’ve hit the end of the trail and cant even drag my body any more even to a refuge in the woods let alone stay upright in the city” (Kerouac). Even in the sentences following that one, the comments about various things happening in the present and past run rampant across the page without any introduction or transition. In the middle of the novel, after Duluoz has met a guy named McLear, the narrator, after describing McLear’s poetry, suddenly and without prior warning, exudes a comment that is quite random and extraordinary. He states, “Now I know your real name! its M’Lear! M’Lear the Scotch Highland moorhaunter with his hawk about to go mad and tear his white hair in a tempest—” (Kerouac 113). If someone suddenly blurted that out amidst normal conversation, one would think him drunk or mad. The usage of misspellings is also quite interesting in the study of this modern novel. After having read the novel, I would surmise that the misspellings are quite intentional and are used to reflect the relaxed West Coast beatnik dialect. Words like “workin,” “walkin,” “altho,” “sorta,” and countless others demonstrate the lazed jargon of the beats which can really only be found in the genre of the novel (Kerouac 3, 7, 57). Moreover, words are often capitalized either wholly or partially to imitate dialogue emphasis or dialectic emphasis as in “By God Cody I’ll be right down and GIVE you a hundred dollars” (Kerouac 76). However the biggest stylistic feature, which runs alongside stream of consciousness narrative, is the use of unconventional grammar. As I read the first chapter I noticed that there were no sentences. In fact, the entire chapter is an entire sentence. The would-be sentences were replaced by statements or thoughts that were merely separated by a dash: “—.” Moreover, the thoughts are essentially run-on sentences with some single stream of thoughts going on for nearly half a page or less. A good example of this can be found on page one about the middle of the page:
—But instead I’ve bounced drunk into his City Lights bookshop at the height of Saturday night business, everyone recognized me (even tho I was wearing my disguise-like fishermen coat and pants waterproof) and ’t’all ends up in a roaring drunk in all the famous bars the bloody “King of the Beatniks” is back in town buying drinks for everyone—(Kerouac).
Such dialogue really shows the novel is unfinished as a genre and can become so different than any other conventional literature. This example demonstrates the various elements of what Bakhtin called the “novelistic layers of literary language” (7).
Self-parody is a very interesting concept and makes its use in this novel makes it stand out from other conventional literature. Kerouac will in various places integrate different genres of literature and for no apparent reason. This also adds to the unfinished nature of the novel. Early on in the novel, Kerouac inserts a haiku that the main character wrote. This haiku is not preceded by any sort of introductory remark. Instead, he merely mentions something he is writing and then announces he is going to make a pot of tea (28). The haiku has nothing to do with the long poem “Sea” that he writes but more to do with making the tea. It is written thus:
The Jasmine leaf (29)
This other genre of literature suddenly pops out of nowhere but it adds to the Oriental beatnik feel of the novel and Kerouac’s own eccentric writing style. Furthermore, Kerouac adds a drama-like section in the novel. This comes in about the middle of the novel. Kerouac precedes the drama section by saying that the narrator has no record of a certain conversation but then proceeds to write down what he thought it went like. The dialogues are separated by the listing of names as would be in a play script.
ME: “Unless someone sicks a hot iron in my heart or heaps up Evil Karma like tit and tat the pile of that and pulls my mother out of her bed to slay her before my damning eyes—”
ARTHUR: “And I break my hand on heads—”
Bakhtin gives good reasoning as to why other genres are drawn into the genre of novel. “In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks the renovation of all genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness” (7). Thus not only does Kerouac, with the haiku and drama section, continue to develop the eccentricities of the novel but also readdresses the other genres using his modernist styles (lack of transitions and unconventional grammar). In addition to the haiku and drama section, Kerouac adds a whole addendum to the novel called “Sea.” This section is included because the main character wrote it during the duration of the novel (28). This would seem rather odd for a novel to have a poetry section which was allegedly written by the main character. Not until the rise of the novel and modernism did such a thing ever occur in literature. Genres were fairly straight forward and very conventional. Thus Kerouac follows Bakhtin’s statements about the novel being a “plastic” genre (3).
Finally, Kerouac’s novel embraces the modernist novel attribute of being very open-ended. This is posed by Bakhtin as the most important aspect of the novel (7). While this is tied in with the “transposition of other genres into this new” genre of literature as discussed previously, this sense of open-endedness is also a sort of unfinished, “still evolving contemporary reality (the open-ended present)” (7). This is most definitely manifested in the nature of the ending of the novel. Duluoz and his friends are back near the Monsanto Cabin and are enjoying nature and living a free lifestyle. Duloz begins to flashback and think of going back to San Francisco and living there. As he does so, he states: “—On soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under the stars—Something good will come out of all things yet—And it will be golden and eternal just like that—There’s no need to say another word” (188). And that is the end of the novel. He doesn’t conclude the plot with any sort of finality or decision of where to go next. He doesn’t say that he will follow his thoughts and go back to San Francisco; the novel ends there. This makes the ending of the novel rather up in the air and almost leaves one hanging. Such is the nature of the modernist beatnik novel and how it accomplishes Bakhtin’s thoughts about the novel as a genre.
The novel is only a recent development in literature and as a genre is quite unfinished. As Bakhtin denotes, the novel “is still far from being hardened, and we cannot foresee all its plastic possibilities” (3). Moreover, it is a genre that follows the advent of written language, unlike many other genres like the epic, poetry, etc (3). Therefore, the novel has no canon of its own and must be studied in a different fashion than older genres. Bakhtin suggests that “studying other genres is analogous with studying dead languages; studying the novel, on the other hand, is like studying languages that are not only alive, but still young” (3). Such is the case with Kerouac’s beatnik novel Big Sur. Big Sur manifests the eccentricities of the novel through its use of unconventional grammar, incorporation of other genres in its narrative, being dialogized, lack of transitions and breaks, and most importantly, open-endedness. Thus is becomes a benchmark for studying the various aspects of modernism and the novel as a genre.