I'm always interested in reading books that call into question the dominant binary gender paradigm and the idea that gender is a fixed quantity. And aI'm always interested in reading books that call into question the dominant binary gender paradigm and the idea that gender is a fixed quantity. And at the time I read this, I didn't know any transgendered people at all, and I was (and still am) understandably curious about their experience of gender, the world, and their place in it. I feel that, especially in this polarized era of American politics and so-called "family values" voters ("A-hem", she scoffs.) people who take the very bold leap of actually endeavoring to change their given gender are a certain kind of heroic.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a fine writer, and I thought the book was fascinating, although I agree with some of the other critiques here that she is not particularly politicized. Also, she leaves out some nuts-and-bolts things that those of us who are not transgendered might like to know about. How does changing gender play into her sexuality? There seem to be moments in the book where she suggests that her new, female self is attracted to men, but her male self was not. Am I reading this part right? Is that something that happens a lot for trans people? I would have appreciated a frank discussion of her personal take on transgender and attraction.
Also, though I'm happy for Jennifer and her self-actualization, there is a huge cloud of sadness that hangs over the story. I felt terrible for her wife, who bore the brunt of the emotional trauma of the gender change. I cannot help but put myself in her shoes. Of course, Jennifer gives lip service to this sadness, but she's clearly too thrilled with her transition to really empathize fully. She attests that she's still the same person she always was, but to her wife, who was never privy to Jennifer's lifelong desire to be a woman, she obviously is not, and never will be again. I'm not blaming Jennifer for this entirely, but it's worth acknowledging, and would have made for a better, truer, more complex story....more
Either in high school or in college, a lot of people go through a Beats phase. Attendant to this, there always seems to also be an attempt to read NovEither in high school or in college, a lot of people go through a Beats phase. Attendant to this, there always seems to also be an attempt to read Nova Express, a weird obsession with Surrealism, and an obligatory love of all things Kerouac. While I will freely admit to the attempt to read Nova Express, along with the purchase of several Burroughs spoken word CDs, I never seemed to develop either the Surrealist Obsession or the Kerouac Love.
Maybe, as the Byrds said, this is because to everything there is a season. And maybe I just missed my Time to Love Kerouac. Or maybe Kerouac just missed me. Sometimes, in order to connect with a piece of "classic" literature (or a film, or a band) in the way one is supposed to, you have to be in just the right moment of your personal actualization to want whatever it is that that thing offers.
I can remember being fascinated by 60's youth culture from the age of 7 or so, or as I might have said at the time: I really loved hippies. This is partially due to my mom's former status as a mod/hippie/minor groupie who used to thrill a young Lauryl with tales of Mary Quant dresses, tear gassed protests, and motorcycle dates with the drummer from The Lovin' Spoonful.*
*A particularly dear story involves my mom sneaking into a hotel room recently abandoned by the Beatles in search of souvenirs and retrieving a discarded root beet barrel candy from an ashtray, which she saved for years because one of the Fab Four *may* have sucked on it.
When I was a senior in high school, I accidentally discovered an old copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test on a shelf at the library, beckoning me with its resplendent psychedelia. I took the thing home, having no idea who Ken Kesey or Tom Wolfe were. I gobbled the whole thing up in a few fevered sittings. It was life-changing for me. I bought a paperback of it and put it in the ridiculous metal lunchbox I carried everywhere with me at the time, highlighting passages that felt EXTRA MEANINGFUL, and rereading it again and again and again. And then I set about to know about everything that was even tangentially related to my own personal holy book. I read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". I read a lot of other Tom Wolfe essays. (None of which did it for me like "Acid Test" did) I bought colorful coffee table books about the psychedelic era. I hatched a plan to drop acid on a hilltop somewhere and try to "feel" god. (I was 17, okay?!)
AND, I read "On the Road".
If you've read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, then you know that a minor but nonetheless symbolically important figure in the book is Neal Cassady, the real person upon whom Kerouac based the character of Dean Moriarty. By the time that Ken Kesey was experimenting with acid and forming the loose cadre of weirdos known as the Merry Pranksters, Cassady was already an underground legend, although he was pretty much a do-nothing hepcat who was legendary just for being legendary.
Cassady was a person who was always in the right spot at the right time, and so he insinuated himself into the Pranksters as a sort of ambassador of Cool from one generation to the next. When the Pranksters decided to go on a batshit cross-country field trip, who better to drive the bus than the Man, Dean Moriarty HIMSELF? Cassady spent the entire ride with one foot on the gas, no feet on the brakes, and with a constant, speed-fueled patter pouring out of his gob. With a microphone.
I can't say I didn't adore the idea of Cassady speeding along on the open road, high as a kite and spewing garbled poetry, even as I thought that in real life, he'd probably be a bit much to take. Like the one weird guy who corners you at a party.
I had an impression, from reading Acid Test, that reading On the Road was going to be a similar experience, and that I was going to glean yet *more* glowing insight into the sacred and profane nature of an exciting universe. (17!) In retrospect, I don't know why I had that expectation. Maybe because Cassady was such a trippy dude. Maybe because there were so many comparisons in the book between the Pranksters' road trip and Kerouac's wanderings. The Pranksters saw themselves as being the Beats' spiritual heirs.
This is really too obvious to state but: if you're expecting psychedelia, reading On the Road is a huge bummer. Maybe my picture of joie de vivre has been overly saturated with Kandy Kolors by my love of the Summer of Love.
I'm sure there are many other people for whom the sepia mesas of melancholy hold sway over their windswept hearts. There are probably also a lot of people out there who are charmed by brooding Manhood and lonely alcoholism. I'm not one of them. I know all of the Hemingway-enthusiast arguments for books being *more* emotionally resonant because they're *less* emotionally explicit. I just don't vibe on it at all.
I understand why On the Road is an important book in the pantheon of American counterculture. I understand the significance of the Beats, and I even like them, some of the time. Beat culture was one of the first little green shoots of individuality and rebellion to spring up in response to the extreme conformity of the postwar era, and they were an important precedent to the larger cultural revolution of the 60's/70's that I so adore.
One of the major obstacles for me, though, to enjoying On The Road is that whenever I read (or watch) anything about the postwar era, it feels horribly stifling to me. I can barely watch Mad Men without feeling sick with the idea of what life for an American woman in the early 60's must have been like.
Even though Kerouac is offering a glimpse of freedom, a seeming release from the constraints of the era, he is still very much a creature of the times, and while he may have been able to physically release himself from the workaday role of the Postwar American Man, he is still imprisoned by it. The culture of masculinity in which he dwells is extremely limited, and no matter how far he drives, he cannot seem to outrun it. Even as he surrounds himself with queer allies like Ginsberg and Burroughs, he strikes me as a particular casualty of patriarchy. And maybe this is too personal, but, he reminds me of my dad. And his dad, who was even worse off. My grandfather died a sad alcoholic who sometimes could not remember his grandkids' names. In the end, was Kerouac so different?
I appreciate that Kerouac was at least able to channel his sadness into poetry and prose that moved a lot of people (if not myself), but the whole time I was reading On the Road, which purports to be about some kind of freedom , I could only think about how imprisoned all of the characters were in the roles society had set out for them, roles which no amount of drugging, drinking, or driving could erase.