I'm finally getting around to reading some of the books on my "great books" list. Over the past couple of weeks, I've devoured both On the Road and Wide Sargasso Sea.
I first read On the Road when I was still in high school, and I didn't think much of it then. I only picked it up because a guy in one of my classes kept going on and on about how wonderful it was. But I recently thought to myself that it IS, after all, widely considered to be a great book. And that, in the past, I've found re-reading books that I first read long ago has proven enriching, as my perspective of things has changed over the years.
Well, I read it again, and I still didn't like it too much, though I see why an 18-year-old boy would think it was the coolest thing EVER. I realize that this novel/memoir is hailed as the definitive book of the Beat Generation. I understand that the depiction of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) is supposed to be representative of life, of the Christ figure, of the wild madness and crazy desire to grasp and understand life's meaning. But, overall, this is a book about some people who, at their core, are sad, lonely, unfulfilled, irresponsible, and out for themselves. At the end of the day, Dean Moriarty deserts his wife and abandons his children on a regular basis. Sal (Kerouac) blows his GI money on marijuana and Mexican whores. These guys are pinning all of their hopes on these epic road trips, but when they actually get out on the road, they are starving, miserable, sick, and start to piss each other off. Throw in some illicit drug use and the constant prowl for girls to have sex with, and you apparently have a book.
Remember how I said that my perspectives have changed over the years? They haven't changed me enough to make me a fan of this book. I thought Dean and the gang were crazy idiots back when I was 18, and I still think that today. Oh, well. I guess I should just be glad that I didn't grow up a member of the Beat Generation. I would have felt quite out of place.
My second read was much more satisfying. I'm a big fan of the Brontes', and I'd always heard academics animatedly discussing Wide Sargasso Sea. Here's the skinny: In Jane Eyre, we discover near the end of the novel that Jane's intended (Edward Rochester, her former employer) is actually already a married man. We learn that he'd been duped into marriage to a crazy, wealthy woman from the West Indies (she's called Bertha in Charlotte Bronte's novel) by not only her family, but by his own. (The arrangement was a financial boon for his money-grubbing family, and her family was just glad to get her out of the way). At any rate, this mad woman has been sequestered in the drafty attic of Rochester's mansion for YEARS, and she conveniently dies at the end of Bronte's novel so that Jane and Edward can live happily ever after.
Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, tells Bertha's side of the story. I found this to be a beautiful, wonderfully atmospheric novella. Bertha is re-christened Antoinette in the slim volume, and though her family does have its share of mental illness, Rhys also explains the history and relationships that have led to such outcomes. The language describing the landscape of the West Indies is rich and thick with scent, color and flavor. Racial tensions are starkly drawn, and the sinister nature of all the tropical unknowns (jungle, ruins, black magic) are always lurking on the page.
This one I can recommend, particularly if you are a fan of Jane Eyre. It will make you think of that classic in a new way, and it will also have you digging out your bikini and wondering if you can keep on orchid alive in your kitchen window.