Much of the attention the book has received, both positive and negative, has boiled it down to its basic conceit: Jack Kerouac in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft. The Cthulhu Beats ... R'lyeh rising off the coast of bohemian San Francisco ... a naked lunch with the Elder Gods ... subterranean exterminators haunting the dark...
As conceits go, this one is cool and clever, but it's not what the book is about; it's just a way of getting there. Various reviewers have addressed the question of whether one needs to be an afficionado of both Kerouac and Lovecraft to "get" the book, to appreciate it, to grok its inner mythos. (The answer depends, it seems, on whether the reviewer liked the book.) Because Mamatas writes from Kerouac's point of view in an almost-Kerouac kind of style, a tolerance for digression and laconic, affectless prose is a must, but not knowing every reference made in homage to either the Beats or the citizens of Arkham certainly won't doom you, because the novel is not merely a cute literary trick. If the whole thing were little more than Lovecraft meets Kerouac, it could have been a 1,000-word story, amusing and slight.
The key to the book, it seems to me, lies in the epilogue. After 178 pages of wild adventures on the road to putting Cthulhu back to sleep and saving the empirical universe, we end up with seven pages of pure American realism: Jack Kerouac, bitter and alcoholic, sitting at home, angry at the fans who stalk him in desperate desire of a few words from their guru, while he's only interested now in getting through the day and figuring out the secrets in baseball scores:
The world's been saved once, while every ungrateful son and daughter slept and dreamt their baseball and apple pie dreams. And all they can do when they wake up is raise the chant for death again. They miss their sleeping world so much. Good for them. Better to desire nothingness than to have no desire for anything, like me.Look at me, ma, I saved the world! And nobody gives me any credit! It's the cry of every sodden sap with a martyr complex, and by ending the book here, Mamatas suggests much about what we have read, and even about the mixed blessings of fantasy. You can read the story literally, I suppose, letting it really be just Kerouac-meets-Lovecraft, but it's not a very good book if you do, because there's not much narrative tension, the characters are little more than cardboard cartoons, and nothing seems much more important than anything else.
But the epilogue shows us that that is not the book we've read. It's the outer surface only. Scratch that surface and look what you find: a man who aches to be loved, who yearns to be important, who is disconnected from old friends and accomplishments. The reality he lives in is one dull, grey pain, an endless hangover, but denying that reality brings him everything he wants: the friends come back, he is worshipped as both powerful and dangerous, and he can go on a quest to the end of the universe, to the end of all sense and imagination, where the book Neal Cassady always promised to write actually gets written, then strewn across a moonless night of nothingness. In the morning, those papers may be just another manuscript left on the doorstep by a fawning fan, but before the wind blows them across the yard, imagination gives them the possibility of adding up to something.
Neal Cassady is at the heart of all this, the man-child holy fool who is Kerouac's obsession. He is angel, demon, creator, destroyer; attractive and repulsive, noble and sad. In the end, he is gone, as the gun-toting avenger Burroughs is gone, and Ginsberg, too, his memory staying behind to troll the empty sewers of the metaphors Kerouac left in his wake.
It is possible, then, to read the book as an expression of the narrator's mind, where wishes and dreams get mashed into grandiloquent hallucination. As such, the novel becomes a rich and affecting exploration of human conditions, full of strange, funny, and disturbing juxtapositions. It's not a page-turner, it's not an edge-of-your-seat terrorfest, and sometimes it can feel like an interminable series of similar and perplexing encounters. But by the end Move Under Ground is painful in a way that monster movie buckets of blood are not, because it is an expression of common human metaphysical suffering, and if you are sensitive to such emotions, the last pages of the book are both transcendent and shattering.