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Beat Generation

Beat Generation

For those of you who don’t know.

The Beats, also known as the “beat generation” were a collection of American authors who came to prominence in New York in the 1950s.
Their work documented their lives living on the edges of society, listening to jazz taking copious amounts of drugs and fucking each other and everyone else.

They basically became the blueprint of the 60s counter-culture.

Despite this, they were well versed in the traditional writing styles. This in turn enabled them to subvert these styles and create a highly distinct series of styles. Unfortunately, these styles can be easily mistaken for a “write what the hell you want” style which helped propagate the myth you don’t need to work hard or know anything about literature to become a writer like the beats.

The main characters involved were:

Jack Kerouac whose most famous novel, On The Road, was recently made into a movie.
Allen Ginsberg, whose most famous work, Howl, was part of an obscenity trial. Also made into a film.
William S. Burroughs, who had a penchant for heroin and died at ripe old age of 83. His most famous work is the experimental cut and paste work, Naked Lunch. Also made into a movie, though having been filtered through the brilliantly twisted mind of David Cronenberg, has nothing to do with the actual book and largely consists of the ingestion of pesticide and ejaculating typewriters. As a side note, he also collaborated on an rare record, The “Priest” They Called Him, where he read one of his short stories over distorted guitar feedback generated by Kurt Cobain, who incidentally, he outlived by three years.

Now, on with the article.

I have a very ambivalent relationship with The Beats. On the one hand I love their style and their use of language. On the other, I find their work almost completely unbearable.

My first encounter with them was when I tried to read Naked Lunch by Burroughs, whilst bed-ridden with a top level cold, which was a surreal experience to say the least. That was abandoned about 60 pages in for the good of my mental health.

It was about as close to the flu without actually being flu. I don’t know if there is any research into it, but I find being exposed to what we call “unconventional materials” whilst being so unwell means the brain interprets information in a more intense manner. It might be the physical weakness means you are more susceptible to suggestion or that you are more emotional, or something else entirely. Either way it is an interesting question.

A few years later I tackled Junk by the same author and found it to be a utterly brilliant read. So I picked up The Soft Machine for a couple of quid from HMV. Absolute nonsensical bollocks. The whole cut and pasting of random text to make a story that has no sense from one line to the next and no obvious point was a horrendous read.

Pretty much all future experiments with beat writers have been a failure. The Subterraneans by Kerouac was a stream-of-consciousness piece full of pretty words and lovely flowing sentences with great scenes of underworld debauchery, but intensely dull. Howl by Ginsberg I did enjoy, very much. Which is why I’ve not read any of his other stuff for fear of disappointment.

From this, I have gathered that it would be safe to say that I am more interested in the idea of the beat generation, than the actual work they produced. Then again, it could be due to picking up the wrong pieces by the authors. I can both understand the romantic appeal of the nihilistic lifestyle and why people are drawn to that mirage, but also why they prefer to take shortcuts and create third-rate nonsense rather than working to create good pieces in the style.

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2 thoughts on “Beat Generation

  1. I am a follower of all things Beat, and I hope to shed some light on your piece. First, Naked Lunch was not a cut-up piece. I think Burroughs started that stuff in Paris, and much of Naked Lunch was written and edited before that in Tangiers. I am also not a fan of the cut-up method.
    Kerouac’s On The Road is great, but the unedited scroll was published a while back and it is better. Other Kerouac works worth reading include The Dharma Bums, Tristessa and Desolation Angel. Most of the later stuff, after the alcoholism set in, is trash, like Pic. (Maggie Cassidy and Visions of Gerard are also very good. They were written in the fifties.)
    Howl and Kaddish were Ginsbergs best poems, but there are other gems in his collected works, it just takes some looking. Other Beat poets include Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder (who also happens to be the main character in Dharma Bums.)
    Naked Lunch is an admitted difficult read, but worth it. It is written in a style Burroughs adapted from his routines, or raps (though not in the current hip-hop sense.) I found it to be a commentary on addictions as a whole (power, sex, money, drugs, etc.) As an aside, the group Steely Dan got its name from the book (I think it was a dildo, if memory serves.) I also liked Junkie and Queer..
    Hope I wasn’t too pedantic.

    • Thank you. That was excellent. Very imformative.

      As regards Naked Lunch, you’re right. It isn’t a cut-up piece, but if memory recalls correctly it is a series of vignettes or disordered chapters or something. It didn’t to my disease-riddled brain as a regular linear narrative. So at least it has that in common. 🙂

      The scroll was on display in the British Library last year, which was cool to go and see. I am currently reading Pic at the moment. I say reading I actually mean subjecting myself to when I hate myself the most. It is insufferable. The whole written as an illiterate black child gimmick makes it really hard work, even though it is a pretty short story.

      I will certainly check out Kaddish and some work from Corso and Snyder.

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