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Book Review: Northern Heartbeats

Forcing the beat is contrived, writes John Gooding.

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If you’ve ever yelled at a line of riot police or had sex in the Fisher stacks, you probably owe the beat generation a royalty.

In the tumultuous years after World War II, these writers, poets and artists rejected establishment culture en masse and set off to discover what else there could be.

Joel Mak’s Northern Heartbeats revolves around Joel, a university student mildly obsessed with the beat generation. This character, tellingly sharing the given name of the author, sets off to North America on exchange in order to have a contemporary adventure to call his own.

Beat has aged oddly, however, and the author encounters some difficulty in reintroducing it to the modern audience. The weirdest choice he has made is the decision to write Joel’s first-person observation in a homogenised American accent, an exaggerated version of Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road, or Holden Caulfield from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Joel is not American, and thus the accent is either wishful thinking or awkward homage. Writing the entire novel like this would have taken some discipline, and it is somewhat unfortunate that the result feels so forced and disingenuous.

Adding to this creeping insincerity is Joel’s explicitness in stating his reasons for seeking this adventure. His literary influences are neatly listed within the first few pages, almost as if the character were a tribute band faithfully recreating a poorly dated genre.

Joel has essentially read about beat adventures and thus decided to go on his own beat adventure in order to write about going on a beat adventure. The spontaneity and edginess that characterises the beat generation work is somewhat present here, but is thoroughly crippled by this weirdly self-referential process.

Nonetheless, if one can put up with these shortfalls and the chronic lack of commas, the book is worth a look.

Mak has the ability to construct particularly exquisite metaphors and offers an interesting take on those still clinging to the beat in contemporary society.

His character desperately tries to perceive the cities and people he encounters as somehow fitting into his beat interpretation of the world; there is rarely a muted emotion, or an example of mediocrity.

Every object he comes across is the biggest or smallest or cutest or tallest “that I’da ever seen”, and he continually asserts that his journeys and the people he ambles into along the way were somehow uniquely mad.

But Joel’s ability to crowbar the world into the box he requires is not perfect,  and the facade falters every now and then. With what I hope is at least some irony, he reflects at one point on his own repeated insisting that these really were mad times, as though the reader should have some reason not to believe him.

Rather than letting the novel down, however, these anomalies are enormously compelling whenever  they appear.

These overly rare depictions of Joel doubting the promise of the beat serve as the realest connections the author ever supplies, a way around the plentiful hype and bravado. Joel has set out to find the mad beat world of yore, and it would be too easy if he simply got what he wanted.