Seven narrative ways to travel 02/27/17
After two years of solid reading and research into the road narrative, I have narrowed my focus from the initial chaos that looked like something a trap door spider would make, to six main genres. These are genres I've named my self based on their most salient feature. I have also decided to keep my focus on the United States and Canada. For comparison, I will also sometimes reference narratives from the United Kingdom, and to lesser degrees Australia and New Zealand. Of course, should the need arise to expand my horizons, I will.
What I am calling genres are themes that occur in these road narratives. I'm calling them genres as it's a convenient way to sort the stories. Of course, story telling can encompass more than one genre.
My genres are:
Urban vs Rural is the dichotomy of the big city vs the small town, or the out of the way place. Road narratives often involve a journey from one to the other, or the desire to leave one for the other. The most stereotypical road narrative or memoir involves starting in a big city (New York, Washington, D.C., or Chicago) and traveling west to California. There are of course variations, like the reverse course which starts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, or Portland and travels east.
If the story starts in a rural town, often the story is one of escape. Someone wants to go to the big city to improve themselves, pursue their dreams, escape an abusive situation.
Utopia vs Dystopia
There can't be road narrative without a starting point. In the United States the road trip and subsequent road narrative was created in part as a way to connect the big cities with the rest of the country. Initially the mode of transportation was the bicycle that created the demand for well designed, well built, well paved roads (The Better Country by Dana W. Bartlett (1911), p. 324) but it was the automobile that ultimately benefited from the movement.
In the early days of the automobile, it was the city that had the most. Automobiles were expensive but they didn't require constant upkeep (feeding, watering, waste disposal). In good conditions they could go farther, faster, assuming one had access to gasoline.
In this regard, the road narrative within the context of the big city metropolis (usually New York, though often also Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Toronto) is often focused on the interplay of the vehicle and the very structure of the city's social fabric.
The automobile (and bus, train, subway) is a central part of the modern story set within the confines of the city. The city can either be a good place — a utopian hub — or a sign of everything that's wrong with modern society — a dystopia. Keeping in mind that "utopia" when originally coined meant "nowhere" (Pastoral Cities by James L. Machor (1987) p. 30), even the most optimistic of city stories still maintain this otherworldly view of human society.
On the road vs There and Back Again
There are two different ways of traveling, one way and return trip. I've named these two genres by two of my favorite road narratives. On the road, of course is the Jack Kerouac book. There and Back Again refers to the Hobbit.
The on the road type narrative is the never ending road trip. It is the tale of the itinerant traveler. In television, a long running series that in its first season took direct inspiration from Kerouac is Supernatural. But there are plenty of other stories where the main character(s) can never go home again.
The There and Back Again narrative is the quintessential British road narrative. It's one that goes way back — I would argue to the crusades. Looking more recently though, and at the inspiration for this category's title, Bilbo Baggins took part in a great adventure but his goal from the very beginning was to get back home and to write about his adventures.
On the road narratives:
There and Back Again narratives:
At first glance there's not a lot of diversity or representation in the road narrative. Certainly if you look only at the most popular ones or the ones receiving the most praise, you'll see a homogenous selection of books written by white middle class cis-het men.
Any author or any protagonist who isn't a young white middle class man is often treated as a speciality genre by some. A lot of times these non-white-male stories involve extra dangers or consequences for anyone else daring to go out on the open road without a straight white male chaperone.
Of course, sadly, there is basis in reality for this threat of danger with racial profiling by cops, discrimination by hotels and restaurants, and sexual assaults on women. Of all my categories, this one is one of the hardest to pin down as these narratives are so out numbered.
Driving While... narratives:
All Roads Lead to vs the Road Not Taken
The All Roads Lead to genre applies mostly to speculative fiction, urban fantasy, and horror. There are stories where the road can't be escaped and the destination can't be changed.
The Road Not Taken is the most prevalent of the non-road trip road narratives. It may sound like an oxymoron, but the idea here is that not all road narratives are told from the point of view of someone who is on the road. For more on this genre, please read the road not taken (April 1, 2016).
All Roads Lead to narratives:
Road Not Taken narratives:
Sent to the Cornfield Sent to the Cornfield is a sub-category of the Road Not Taken. The cornfield is a way to hide towns and imprison people. To learn more, please read Crossing the Cornfield (January 16, 2017).
Autokind vs Mankind:
This last genre is taken from Autokind Vs. Mankind by Kenneth R. Schneider (1971). Schneider's thesis is that automobile culture will be the undoing of American society. More broadly in terms of the road narrative, autokind vs mankind narratives are those where machine and man are at odds with each other. It can be as simple as a lemon car not being up to the task of the journey or as extreme as sentient cars taking over for humans and creating a dystopian society.
Autokind vs Mankind narratives: