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For Kerouac, the Beat Goes On --Online

E-book firm chooses posthumous work as cyber-launch vehicle.

November 20, 2000|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The eyes are haunting, staring from the computer screen like harbingers, already grim with loss. They gaze out through half a century of history, restless, searching to reveal the urgency inside. Jack Kerouac may be a young man in the picture, but to see his image now, 31 years after his death from alcoholism, you can't help but note the edge of sadness, of longing, etched into his face. It's as if, from the vantage point of the future, all of Kerouac's adult experience, the exhilaration and despair and, yes, the quest for transformation, were already inscribed upon him like a sign of things to come.

In many ways, the same could be said of "Orpheus Emerged," a never-before-published Kerouac novella, released today by the e-book company LiveReads and available on the Internet at http://www.BN.com.

Completed in 1945, when Kerouac was a 23-year-old Columbia University dropout, "Orpheus Emerged" appears to be among the last available manuscripts held by the Kerouac estate, which has dispersed a flood of "new" work since the author's third wife, Stella, died 10 years ago.

Taking place on the fringes of a Columbia-like campus, "Orpheus Emerged" is something of a prototype for Kerouac's later autobiographical fiction, creating myth out of the details of the author's life. The narrative revolves around a group of earnest young intellectuals, including characters clearly modeled on Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac himself. For those expecting the spontaneous riffing of "On the Road" or "The Subterraneans," "Orpheus Emerged" is far more mannered, affected even, a piece of writing that wears its influences on its sleeve. Yet if, as LiveReads publisher Paul Bresnick admits, this consigns the book to the category of juvenilia, it is also not without a certain charm.

"For people interested in Kerouac," Bresnick says, "or in the formation of a writer, " 'Orpheus Emerged' gives a sense of the crucible. And the journal excerpts we've included really are eye-opening about how seriously Kerouac took his writing even then." In that sense, "Orpheus Emerged" may be most accurately characterized as a window, allowing access to a long-forgotten area of Kerouac's past.

There is another way that "Orpheus Emerged" represents a window, although, as Bresnick points out, it's more a window to what's coming next than what's been left behind. "E-books really are the future," he says. "As publishers take advantage of new technologies, people will begin to read in different ways."

To some extent, Bresnick's comments carry an air of promotional rhetoric; LiveReads, after all, has a lot at stake with "Orpheus Emerged," which is the company's first release. At the same time, there's little question that with a work like this, we're seeing a subtle shift in the way writers and readers intersect. "Orpheus Emerged" may look like a book--with text broken into pages and photographs sprinkled liberally throughout--but, in fact, it's a computer file, inaccessible without the medium of the machine. It's for this reason, Bresnick says, that LiveReads was launched with Kerouac, whose readers are younger and "less resistant to this type of experience than an older audience."

At first glance, there's something incongruous about that logic, especially since the book in question is an old one, written about what is now a vanished time. The more you think about it, though, the less contradictory it appears that Kerouac, the patron saint of postwar Bohemia, might ride the vanguard into this brave new world. Kerouac probably would have loved computers. How could he not, when he used to feed rolls of Teletype paper into his typewriter so he wouldn't have to stop to change the page? Given his belief in collaboration and improvisation, it doesn't seem like much of a leap to imagine him embracing the Internet too.

"What made me see the Web as a Kerouac zone was its speed and spontaneity," says Levi Asher, who launched the Beat site LiteraryKicks (http://www.litkicks.com) in 1994. "It creates a fluid kind of dialogue, which is what Kerouac had in mind." The same, ideally, should be true of a project like "Orpheus Emerged," which imports audio, video and even active links to sites like Asher's to provide the pieces of a multidimensional world.

"It's an enhanced reading experience," enthuses Bresnick. "Instead of just a linear story, you have hypertext, and the ability to connect to the Internet, so that what you end up with is an endless book."

Of course, for all the vaunted fluidity of the new technology, its ability to break down boundaries, there are some barriers that should probably be left alone. One is the one between bookstore and publisher, which in the LiveReads model becomes more of a partnership, a back-and-forth among affiliated companies and e-commerce sites.

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