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Book Reviews: Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs)


In letters to his friends during the Fifties, Allan Ginsberg hinted that his buddy William Burroughs was working on a book called Word Hoard, “an endless novel which will drive everyone mad.” I imagine Lovecraft was not exactly a household name back then, so assuring insanity as a result of reading one’s opus probably didn’t have the same cachet of immediate hipness that it does now.

Today, I can’t count the number of albums, books, movies, and whole cultural experiences that use their endurance-test factor as a way to draw in a captive audience. Sometimes they even rather grotesquely cross-pollinate: Noise music pioneer Merzbow (Masami Akita) directed a series of simulated seppuku videos for the “specialty” studio Kinbiken. If the screeching soundtrack didn’t drive you from the room, the sight of two female samurai dumping their intestines on the ground probably would.

This may sound like a somewhat roundabout way to talk about Naked Lunch, which is comparatively tamer as a reading experience then watching fake snuff porn (it’s just a book, after all), but I’m having a hard time finding any other cultural artifact that gave as many people an excuse to be artistically perverse. This is not criticism, but simply description. Lunch was a wholly indiscriminate liberator of artistic pretensions, to the point that whether or not it was any good was almost irrelevant.

One doesn’t read Naked Lunch. One gets molested by it. Burroughs described his own book in its closing pages: “It spills off the pages in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yips and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic…” There is no narrative, just one jolt of transgressive imagery after another. Each chapter is a more or less self-contained series of vignettes involving the various threads in Burroughs’s own life: drugs, restless travel, paranoia, distrust with and disgust for the governments and control systems of the world, twisted sexual fantasies, satirical jabs at stupidity and cant and lying and cruelty of all stripes. We read about talking anuses, snuff pornography, telepathic clones, junkie scams. Some characters recur through the book, and also through Burroughs’s writing: Dr. Benway, the amoral self-proclaimed genius doctor who whores out his medical knowledge to police states; the sexually confused Carl, forever at the mercy of people who claim to know more about him than he does; the profane A.J., “the lovable, laughable eccentric” whose idea of fun is to unleash stinging insects that provoke uncontrollable sexual behavior at a haute party.

It’s fashionable, I guess, to praise a book because it is “powerful” or “has an impact”, as if making a dent in the reader was more important than providing him with a new perspective or (gasp) a degree of uplift. But aside from its value as literary shock therapy, Naked Lunch has two other genuine qualities that still make it worth reading even at this rather jaded point in time. Burroughs had great gifts as a satirist — his dialogue is impeccably observed, and his rampant disgust for all things corporate and techno-fascist is still timely — and when he chooses to he can evoke a sense of nostalgia and loss that cuts through everything else on the page. There are parts of Lunch that are achingly beautiful and ugly at the same time, interspersed with riotously funny “routines” (as Burroughs called them) that seem to presage the observational comedy of George Carlin and Bill Hicks.

Lunch has been variously described as surrealism or even failed science fiction, and while there are strains of both running through the book (some of the later chapters on the Senders and the Liquefactionists are, I think, deliberately written like pulpy SF), it doesn’t suffer easy pigeonholing. It scarcely even seems a cousin to other Beat writings, although that’s not exactly a fair comparison: John Rechy wasn’t doing anything remotely like Kerouac, and Ginsberg and Ferlinghettti would never be mistaken for each other either. If anything Lunch seems closest in spirit to Art Brut, the “accidental art” of mental patients or social isolates. I’m reminded of Henry Darges, who over the course of decades created massive chapbooks of perverse and disturbing fantasies that were never seen by anyone else during his lifetime. I’m not sure anything Burroughs wrote during his addiction was meant as anything more than a holding action against total collapse. That is, sadly, part of what gives the book its power, and it is something that simply cannot be emulated.

There’s also little doubt in my mind that Lunch made it possible for reams of trying and painfully pointless experimental fiction to come to light. Everything from David Foster Wallace’s elephantine Infinite Jest to Jonathan Safran Foer’s too-clever-by-half Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has a bit of Lunch in its stomach. Sometimes it’s the scatology; sometimes it’s the satirical barbs; sometimes the rampant paranoia; sometimes all of the above. Unfortunately the results are a little like trying to make a Big Mac out of Kobe beef: good ingredients, but entirely the wrong end result. For all of his faults and excesses, Burroughs was at least tapping into something genuine and terrible within himself, and if there’s something modern writers are rather poor at, it’s mining their own spirit, for well or ill, instead of witlessly playing stenographer to the clutter of post-everything culture around them.

No discussion of Naked Lunch would be possible without talking about the life of its author, and the more you read about Burroughs’s life, the more it sounds like someone who was determined at any cost to become a damage case. At the very least, he had no end of psychic wounds to nurse for his art — if you believe that one has to nurse a wound to produce good art in the first place, that is. He was an heir to the Burroughs adding machine fortune, but despised his affluent and cultured upbringing, which he regarded as a veneer of chicanery. He was also painfully aware of his homosexual inclinations fairly early on (which got him expelled from school at one point), and after graduating from Harvard bummed around Europe and lived off an on-again-off-again trust fund provided by his parents.

In New York he met Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (then students at Columbia University), got hooked on heroin, turned to selling it to support himself when his stipends ran out, and came face-to-face with the criminal underclass he’d only read about in books like Jack Black’s You Can’t Win (a broadly-cited influence on his work). He also met his common-law wife Joan Vollmer during this time, and enjoyed a pretense of normal married life with her in Texas, during which he grew marijuana on his ranch, and which disintegrated when he fled to Mexico to beat a possible drug rap. There, he shot and killed Vollmer by mistake during a night of drunken clowning-around, and later admitted that her death provoked him to become a writer — possibly as a way of dealing with what was building up in his head during his decades of larceny and drug experimentation.

Burroughs was already a published writer of sorts by the time he found his way to room #9 of the Hotel el Muniria in the Foreign Quarter in Tangier. He’d written, under a pseudonym, a fast-buck autobiography about his drug experiences called Junky (still in print). The publisher had tried to market it as a true-crime item; it was only after Naked Lunch took off that Junky also found its audience. In Tangier he met fellow travelers Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles (another chronicler of normalcy colliding with the irrational), and started writing the many, many disconnected and disjointed pieces that would later be mixed together into Lunch.

Tangier was also where Burroughs became hopelessly addicted to Eukodol, a synthetic heroin derivative. In one of Lunch’s more graphic real-life moments he described that he only managed to pull himself out of his junkie nosedive after his apartment was already filled floor-to-ceiling with used ampoule boxes and other garbage. Somehow he managed to get himself to London and take an experimental treatment, which seemed to work, at least for a time. It is depressing to read the notes he made about his addiction in the addenda he wrote to Lunch, wherein he professed the earnest belief that he would be junk-free for keeps, when in fact Burroughs would remain a drug user of one kind or another for the rest of his life.

After moving to the “Beat Hotel” in Paris, Burroughs was offered the chance to publish something through the then-controversial Olympia Press (since American obscenity laws about literature didn’t apply to works published overseas in English), and raced to edit together his trunkful of bizarre manuscripts into something resembling literature. At the end, what they had was scarcely more coherent than what they started off with, but they were able to impose a rhythm and a sort of a structure — if not a plot, then certainly a psychological ebb and flow — onto the material. Kerouac’s contribution, aside from tea, sympathy and a sofa, was the title: “NAKED Lunch,” Burroughs thundered in his introduction, “the moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

I have a hard time imagining just how violently the book assaulted people’s sensibilities at the time, or how difficult it must have been to defend it or justify it on its own terms without seeming hopelessly irresponsible. It was not even, as Burroughs sanguinely claimed in his introduction, an attempt to expose the barbarism of capital punishment by depicting it in its total grotesqueness: such material comprised maybe one part of one chapter, and Burroughs’s explanation has the too-clever-by-half smell of a fig leaf of post-rationalization slapped onto something that wouldn’t have been acceptable by any measure at the time. I suspect he pasted the label onto it as a way to silence his critics, but as his career progressed he found he didn’t have to excuse anything — not simply because he was a gifted and evocative writer, but also because his fans religiously bought just about anything he put out, no matter how addled the concept or incoherent the results.

If the book appalled people, its author scarcely charmed them as well. Burroughs made no secret about his rather mercenary notions on human relationships. Love was a delusion created by women to control men, and people in general existed mostly to exploit each other. Other aspects of his personal life were also messy, to put it mildly: His long-estranged son (born of Joan) was alienated from him at an early age: William Jr. blamed Burroughs for allegedly allowing friends of his to molest him, drank himself sick, and eventually committed a kind of suicide by no longer taking the medication that allowed his body to host his transplanted liver (he’d lost the real one to alcoholism). The boy had also been present when his mother had died of a single gunshot to the forehead, and in a bizarrely similar accident later in his own life he mistakenly shot a friend in the neck with a rifle. It’s tempting to blame heroin or drugs in general for the flattening-of-affect Burroughs seems to have demonstrated for most of his life, but I’m more inclined to believe he had a broadly amoral streak that, for a lack of a better term, he legitimized through drugs. None of this stopped Burroughs from being tremendously productive as a writer, however, and he was kindly to his friends (Ginsberg, and his longtime friend and editor James Grauerholz) and solicitous to people who thought of him as a creative influence.

What’s also odd is how at times a kind of moon-eyed romanticism would come to the fore in Burroughs’s writing: his Cities of the Red Night contained the closest thing to a utopian vision that the compulsive dystopian within him could tolerate. Later on his writing became infused with strong elements of mysticism and occult religion, both of which seemed to offer him possible frameworks for dealing with his hunger for transcendental experiences. Burroughs’s attitudes about such things were a strange mixture of skepticism and naïveté. He flirted with Scientology at one point and found it to be such a shameless scam that he wrote a tract, Ali’s Smile / Naked Scientology, designed to expose the whole thing. On the other hand, he also championed Wilhelm Reich’s quack “orgone” theory and believed its creator to have been unjustly persecuted, going so far as to take pages out of Cities of the Red Night to (rather erroneously) discuss the whole issue. Naked Lunch is littered with passages that attest to Burroughs’s fascination with telepathy, extrasensory perception and the like, and he believed it possible to induce such states via drugs. He also quite rightly found it dismaying that it was nearly impossible to conduct sober, scientific analyses of sexual phenomena (even in the post-Kinsey age), which may have been where a good deal of his sympathy for Reich came from.

For decades the most commonly-accepted text of Naked Lunch in English was the Grove Press paperback edition. Burroughs read from it routinely during speaking engagements, and it had gone through endless printings more or less unchanged. The 2002 reprint of Lunch, compiled some time after Burroughs died, slightly reconstructs the book according to notes compiled and retained by executors of Burroughs’s estate. I read the original Grove edition many times, in high school and through college, and while the changes are minimal for the most part they do help bring a consistency and a clarity to parts of the book that didn’t used to be there, if only in the most mechanical way. The opening chapter now has a title, “and start west,” where before it had none; some passages have been dropped or condensed or reformatted; and the back of the book contains a great many sections that were written but never published. Some of them are redundant, but a few of them have all the horrifying power of the book at large, and it is interesting to see them in some form — even when it’s hard to tell why they were excised and other things were retained.

The publication of Lunch spelled the end of literary censorship in the United States for keeps. Come to think of it. after Lunch was served, to 1959 America, it was only a matter of time before most any form of censorship of everything from books to movies to eight-pager comics became not just improper or unthinkable, but a total drag, man. Having Lunch on the shelf (or better yet, poking out of a coat pocket) was a personal warning shot across the bow of middle-class respectability — which, ironically enough, helped create precisely the America that gave William Burroughs and his cronies something to conveniently rail against. It wasn’t just liberating to be in bad taste, but honest, even when the targets for your satire or defamation had already been long exhausted by three generations of writers before you. Burroughs was by no means setting out to beat a dead horse (his satire was typically a little more focused than that), but by the time he’d come to the fore, the horse had long been sent to the glue factory — and not just by the Beats, but by mainstream novelists of all stripes who’d made bourgeois-bashing into a saleable hobby. And who bought those books? The middle class, who were often the only ones who had the cash and the inclination to throw at such things, and never really believed they were the ones getting skewered in the pages.

Burroughs and his taking sphincters are now curiously passé; drug-fueled visions are only for people who bother with drugs in the first place. Today’s transgressive writers are people like Chuck Palahniuk, who (possibly because of Burroughs in the first place) didn’t need to use drugs as a doorway through which to pull any number of antisocial and amoral insights. The world around him would do nicely. In Fight Club, it made sense to beat yourself senseless to feel something when you lived in a world that castrated and sissified men for daring to be men. Whether that is a measure of a broadening of insight in general among writers, or a state of general decline, I’m not sure I can say. I also have to wonder if Palahniuk’s fans — most of whom seem to be suburbanites of the stripe that Burroughs himself despised — would come to Burroughs and find, not a Grand Master of Grand Guignol transgression, but rather something so far off their radar maps that they wouldn’t even find him shocking. In a way, I hope I’m wrong.


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Book Reviews | Books, published on April 4, 2005 3:00 PM.

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