Saturday, January 17, 2009

CityCityCity: Kerouac's message to Burroughs?


Last year saw release of the beat manuscript legend known as “And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks,” a book about Lucien Carr’s killing of David Kammerer composed by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in their early writing days [circa 1945]. But that is not what I came here to talk about - Boston sports writer George Kimball does a real good job on the h'ippo' book in the Nov 8 issue of the Boston Phoenix in a piece entitled Back Beat ; I will take another tact.

I am here to write about a short story by Kerouac called “cityCityCITY” . This is a Kerouac story stylistically unlike any of his others. In a beat buff blindfold test, I’d bet most people would guess that William Burroughs wrote it. Yes, stylistically it is closely related to the Missourian’s work. Kerouac saw this as another possible collaboration with Burroughs Thought it might outdo Mutiny on the Bounty, as a novelistic collaboration. As much as 'The Hippos', and available in anthologies for a while, it is still a surprising find.

A backdrop to the composition of cityCityCITY is the Army McCarthy Hearings. These Hearings were a marked moment in history. An upsurge of xenophobic terror was put down for a while in the cathode glare of the new TV medium. It happened almost apparently by chance in 1954. Boston lawyer Joseph Welsh waxed melopoetic – defended the honor of plain Army soldier victim smirched by McC, and it was covered on the tube. Touched a thread in people mad at, afraid of, and ready not to put up with Joe McCarthy and his crazy Red baiting ambition. As it happened Welsh made folks cry for decency ... McCarthy was censured, and washed up. At least part of the CCC composition occurred while Kerouac homed with his mother in the Carolinas during or around the Wisconsin Mac Hearings. [Reading this stuff now it almost seems to me like Kerouac may have just as much been watching the comic book decency hearings of the 50s when he noodled this piece. In any case, he is quoted as positing the story with the Army McCarthy theatre.]

Jack Kerouac watched. This was well before the publication of On the Road, but during a very creative period for him. Surely he was writing-up a wide variety of text in 1954 – he was still working up the final version of On the Road – and among his writing this year was the little known work of science fiction called ‘CityCityCity.’ It is one of his most obtuse works. Here’s my take: CityCityCity is an 1.inebriated [he was quite likely drinking white lightning mixed w fruit juice – and somewhat more likely smoking tea] mashup of his reflections on modern life; 2.much swayed by the televised McCarthy hearings; and 3. A shout-out to his stumbling writer-to-be friend William Burroughs.

Before more, a personal note. The ‘McCarthy-Army ‘hearings were also a pivotal era in my house. This was raging live news drama in housewife living rooms. And it drove my father to buy our first TV.


2. Science-fiction? Kerouac? It is unlikely, though a quite natural fit for his Beat brother Burroughs. Kerouac discards extra articles of speech, he focuses much more on process – of sentence, of description - and less on expressionist feeling. The writing is like Orwell '1984', the future Robes-Grille, or the mature Burroughs. But check it out.

The idea is that in a hypertechno city of the future kids playing street ball face metacyberphysical challenge when the ball goes down the ‘gutter’, in this case an onerous ‘No-Zone’ that has some of the pallor of a Cold War Berlin. No Man’s Land. CityCityCITY starts:

Boys pushing through the combination inter-group deactivation, for juvenile delinquent kicks and sometimes just young children when they tried to shove through to their ball, had brought up before Congress the subject of laxity of Deactivation. “It’s a grave peril to our freedoms,” said spokesman close to sources in Master Center Love (MCL). “It shows a disrespect for ancient tradition in cityCityCITY that was accepted without cavil by the older generation. A great many lives of our children, too, are endangered, when their non-deactivated rubber balls fall into a No-Zone and the game of ‘push-me-in’ takes place …

Like most science-fiction it is dystopian. Like typical M.I.T. students today, individuals in cityCityCITY where Brow Mutlivision sets –“just a little rubber disc adhering to the brow” – that acts something like a GPS. The protagonist in the story, which sometimes has been described as a short story, but just as often as a sketch, is a juvenile named “M-80.” [An M-80 in my youth was a supremely powerful – possibly lethal- fire cracker shaped as a canister, with a fruit like fuse [these were also called ‘cherry bombs’.] ]

Here’s some more from cityCityCITY..

…every square inch was covered with electrical steelplate. The ocean had long ago been covered with earth acquired from surrounding planets. cityCityCITY was the world; every square inch of the world steelplate was covered with the Three Types of Levels of cityCityCITY. You saw the skyline, of steel skyscrapers, far away; then beyond that, like a ballooned imitation of the same skyline, rising way beyond and over it, vastly larger, the second of cityCityCITY, the City level; beyond that, CITY, like a dim cloud, rose huge on the horizon a vast phantasmal skyline so far away you could barely see it, yet it rose far above the other two and far beyond..


Further, here is how Kerouac described cityCityCITY in a letter to Allen Ginsberg, when it was already submitted to The New American Reader, on July 14, 1955:

“cityCityCity” is my big science fiction phantasy preview of city & future which I sent to Bill a copy of, very wild, I tell you about when I see you, very hip, very tea-head writ, sinister, etc., not Burroughsian at all, tho – sort of thing I could do ad infinitum on weed – wrote it during Army McCarthy hearings and so it has wildly hip political flavor … Kafkaen [sic] horror etc.

Not Burroughsian at all? Think me doth he too much protest.

This city that is described in CCC is ever expanding – much as the World's cities now are - and further are prophesized to continue. Certainly Kerouac’s cityCityCITY is of the genre of science fiction that obtained from a wide reading of Kafka. There too is the obvious sense in the story that the computer has been invented. This is much the vein Burroughs mined too. And I would contend that some of Kerouac’s intention in writing this was to influence Burroughs to follow through and become a writer.

He sent it to Burroughs with an offer that they would develop the story together. At one point he thought he could successfully place the story with a science fiction magazine. No doubt, there is every indication Burroughs had apparently already begun writing in a similar vein. Burroughs called his pre-Naked Lunch literary satires ‘routines.’ The cityCityCITY piece, Kerouac describes as a ‘sketch.’ I think K was being a supportive writer friend here.


Stylistic elements of cityCityCITY are found replicated in much of Burrough’s writing. Plot-wise, it is non-linear; the tone is dry, sardonic, Midwestern; the tone is like a radio news broadcaster, a bit of a drone; or it is the report filing of an agent, clandestine or insurance; that report filing is understated – noting like the basic Kerouac style. cityCityCITY has the ‘no-zone;’ Bill B. had the ‘interzone’.

I fancy it to be like the Howlin Wolf London Sessions, where the British rock stars Eric Clapton and Bill Wyman cajole Wolf to play guitar in public, something he was generally loathe to do. They can’t possibly do it as well as him, they suggest, why doesn’t he go ahead and do it? Kerouac tries his hand at a form that Burroughs had been developing in his apartment drug dens for year – he does this to inveigle Billy B. to get off his duff and compose. Kerouac was a massive edificer , building schools on schools.

One wonders if the way Kerouac fashioned cityCityCITY - and the fact that he promoted it to Burroughs might mean he was giving feedback to Burroughs - on his notion of a style that would work. Kerouac at this time was curious about the deep-in-drugs Burroughs progress as a writer; he might have been urging him on to form the style that would now be described as Burroughsonian.

Kerouac was a most incredible writer; for me the Shakespeare of his time. To date his influence has been vast in a way, yet also limited. His influence on people who were influential – Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, for example – is pretty clear. But in academia, his work still goes a begging. To influence just Ginsberg would be enough to be very notable. I think the idea that he decisively influenced William Burroughs is less than farfetched, given the evidence of cityCityCITY, as I have tried to describe here. Kerouac’s work doesn’t need tracts like this to make its point, but I think it is fun to conjecture, and to assert that the extent of his skill, art and influence is still far from understood.


Coda x. Ultimately I hope the Kerouac “Selected Letters” will form a strong base for a new school of Kerouackian studies. This work owes eternal credit to that tome.

cityCityCITY: Jack Kerouac's Science Fiction - By Stuart Cormie, Strange Horizons site
Kerouac's Letters, the book - on Barnes and Noble site
Back Beat - By George Kimball, Boston Phoneix site

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