"Language is a virus from outer space,” William Burroughs was noted for having said, and The Ticket That Exploded is like a book from outer space — or maybe, what someone would write if infected by a virus from outer space. Naked Lunch had been written while Burroughs was in the fever grip of heroin addiction for years on end, and Ticket is even more maddening and abstruse. When I came across a copy in my hometown’s used bookstore, I had only just finished with Lunch and was in fact surprised to find that Burroughs had written a good many other books that were even further out on a limb. Where else was there to go? But he had somehow gone further — not always successfully, certainly not always coherently, but he stuck his neck out and made it his own turf.
Of the books that followed Lunch more or less immediately, Ticket is the one I find myself coming back to most but more for reasons of nostalgia and taste than anything else. In each of Lunch’s successors Burroughs explored many of the implications set up in that first book: the arbitrariness of language, the power of systems of control, the way texts and images work on the mind. Ticket is like one of those records where you have one CD that’s the songs and another CD that’s the remixes or the “in dub” versions — except that the song will sometimes switch to and back from the remix in mid-measure. The sheer variety of material in it is what draws me in, even if the methodology is middlebrow and the politics laughable.
“I am not an ‘entertainer’,” Burroughs said at one point, and Ticket is most certainly not “entertainment.” Many of the chapters begin as if they are setting up a plot or a story, but this is a consistent red herring. The first few segments contain pieces of what seems to be either a spy novel or a police procedural involving a man who committed suicide but left behind a series of tapes that were spliced together in creative ways. The book’s been assembled in the same way as the tapes, so the book is not really about a plot or a story, but about a process — about how language itself can be used as a storytelling device. Folks like Derrida were writing about such things, but Burroughs himself was actually going out and doing it: he was turning theory into practice. The results are extremely uneven but intermittently fascinating, if only because somehow through this methodology Burroughs evokes feelings of great sadness, distance and nostalgia. Not for any specific thing, since what I find nostalgic is not what you are likely to find nostalgic, but nostalgia-in-the-abstract, or lust-in-the-abstract, or paranoia-in-the-abstract.
What fragments of plot or story exist are part of Burroughs’s quasi-SF mythology about the “Nova Police”, a kind of intergalactic enforcement agency that exists to root out criminals that operate through living hosts. Again, what pieces of this story exist are not about a plot involving them, but are like snapshots from the front. We see the beginning of one moment involving these beings (or parallels to them), or the end of another, and it’s up to us to draw whatever conclusions we like. The act of juxtaposing things is more important here than what’s being juxtaposed, and after we see that and understand it our attention is likely to wander. There just isn’t enough in that approach to sustain a whole book, or an oeuvre, but Burroughs tried valiantly.
There are also passages in the book that are so elegiac and lovely that they call attention to themselves outside of everything else around them, but that are probably not products of the cut-up process. I would assume that Burroughs would have said that the point of the book was not to produce any one specific readable thing, but to provide people with a sense of how the process worked — not to create a story or narrative or even try to mimic something like one of those automatic poetry-writing machines (which is even featured at one point in an early section), but to see how the process affects us. If we were engaged, that was okay; if we were bored or repulsed, that was okay, too. The Magic Theater is Not For Everybody, after all.
The few avowedly coherent sections, such as the essay at the end, discuss Burroughs’s then-preoccupation with how to mix and juxtapose recordings (or texts), and how this could allegedly be used to restore power to the individual in a world of impersonal control systems. The world of “ugly old prerecordings,” as he termed it, could be “cut into thin air” — or, more explicitly, blown up. “Smash the control images — smash the control machine,” and more than one chapter in Ticket (and a few other books) ends with many things getting smashed followed by the author conveniently cutting away to something else. It’s a TV news trick of the lowest order, and I found myself startled how Burroughs would often emulated the behavior of the very things he claimed to despise. He was hardly the first person to entertain such facile conceits, but he propagandized quite seductively for it — at least, among those inclined to pick up his books and take them seriously in the first place as anything other than avant-garde literary experiments.
Burroughs’s work inspired no end of imitators, not one of which I can name while sitting here writing this. One of the reasons why imitating his work in either form or process was such a mistake was because he was the only one who seemed to know what to bring to it. For better or for worse, it was his approach — in the words of an old show-biz joke, it would be like going to a producer and saying you wanted to make a Woody Allen movie. Only Woody Allen makes Woody Allen movies, and only Burroughs wrote Burroughs’s books. If his books stand out, it is because they are testaments to Burroughs’s capacity for idiosyncrasy — to make something unmistakably his and no one else’s, and less because he was telling us supposedly electrifying truths about the world we lived in. When seen in that light, the book works wonderfully. Outside of that, it’s the embodiment of what Truman Capote was talking about when he described Beat literature as not writing but typing.