NOTE: I originally wrote a piece on Naked Lunch for Headpress, then revisited the idea for London Magazine to celebrate the book's 50th anniversary, and the anniversary edition that was published then. It appeared in the October/November 2009 issue of that estimable magazine, as noted on this blog at the time, but it has not been available online, in either version, until now. What follows is the London Magazine essay, slightly revised. I find it easy to choose the four greatest American novels (The Confidence Man, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby) but numbers five through ten seem to change and re-order constantly. But Naked Lunch is always one of those next six....
When I was 17, in the summer of 1968, I brought a copy of Naked Lunch home from the library. Mrs. Doyle, the librarian, who had been watching over my reading ever since she snuck me my first library card when I was only four, had no negative reaction; after all, she'd put the book on the shelves. But my father, perhaps remembering the book's obscenity trial only a few years before, or more likely reading the Grove Press cover blurbs (ignoring Norman Mailer’s praising Williams Burroughs as “perhaps the only American writer possessed of genius”) and worried perhaps about my motivations, took it back the very next morning.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived at university just a couple of months later and Naked Lunch was the first book I was assigned to study in John Hackett's freshman English class. That assignment put an end, once and for all, to any idea I had of studying religion, or even worse, political science. I was hooked.
Hooked being the operative word for the kaleidoscopic parade of addictions on display in Naked Lunch. Burroughs was writing about the way human need creates the conditions for humans to be controlled, and I, along with my generation, was starting to feel the cultural imperative to rebel against control. Read the essay “Testimony Concerning a Sickness” which introduces the novel. Addictions, to Burroughs, were like viruses; they took over your body's metabolism and changed it, so it couldn't function normally without them. 'Language is a virus,' he said, and language was just another thing he refused to allow to control him. Thus Naked Lunch proceeds almost at random, its cut-ups disdaining elements of control like plot, or logic, but it drives its points home directly, with image and with language that reflects both pulp fiction and pornography, language that works to get a reaction from the reader.
Reading Naked Lunch was like studying a combat map of the Sixties' culture war battle zones. Although it was almost a decade old, the writing was fresh, hallucinatory. I’d already read the Beat heroes, starting, oddly enough, with Gregory Corso, whose appeal was more to romantic adolescents than to revolutionaries. But Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac symbolised rebellion to a younger generation looking for freedom but also dependent on their new parental figures to show them the way. It was part of being a baby-boomer, this expectation of having things done for you while you changed the world. But where most of the Beats were wild and loud, the bad neighbours who needed to turn down their be-bop music at four in the morning, Burroughs was more the quiet guy walking down the street staring at his feet, maybe mumbling to himself. But, and this was an important lesson to learn, despite not being wild, not being loud, Burroughs was farther out than anyone. Ginsburg’s hero, Walt Whitman, said “I contain multitudes.” Hidden inside the grey suit uniform of middle America, Burroughs’ said 'of course you do, you have to'.
I sought out his first novel Junkie, published under the pseudonym William Lee. It's a pure pulp first person tale of addiction written in tight prose, Naked Lunch before it flipped out. My friend Michael Goldfarb told me when he was young he fantasized about Bill scoring scag at the same Automat he used to visit with his parents. I envisioned Bill waiting for his man, eying Joseph Cornell in a corner table surreptitiously checking out the counter girl. Michael and I were both middle class college boys and could identify with Burroughs’ life story. It enhanced his mystique. Born in St. Louis, attended Harvard: he could have been TS Eliot. But after Harvard he wandered to New York and hooked up with the Beats, discovering crime, drugs, and the sleaziest side of the gay underworld. Even better, family money supported him. It came from his grandfather’s cut of the Burroughs' adding machine fortune—some tales had his granddad actually inventing the thing—and he even called his last collection of essays The Adding Machine, along the lines of 'when the legend becomes fact, print the legend'. Now the Burroughs Co. is gone, merged into the giant Unisys, a monolith corporation straight out of one of Burroughs’ Nova Express novels.
Well ahead of the hippies, in the Fifties, Burroughs left the cities and went back to the land, growing dope in Texas with Joan Vollmer. He married her as if to defy the controlling conventions of his own sexuality. They lit out for Mexico one step ahead of the police. The story of his failed attempt to play William Tell with her is well known, but her death was the pivotal event of his life. In the introduction to his novel Queer (written just after Junkie but not published until 1985) he said 'I live with the constant threat of possession and a constant need to escape from control. The death of Joan brought me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice but to write my way out.'
Control again. He jumped Mexican bail and wound up in Tangiers. He wrote notes and stories, and in Paris, with Ginsburg, Brion Gysin, and Harold Norse cutting and pasting and editing, produced Naked Lunch. Norse, whose died only recently (I wrote his obituary for The Independent, you can link to that here), produced his own cut-up novel, Beat Hotel, but it wasn't published until 1973, and then only in German. There's nothing addictive about it; Norse, a poet, lacked the pulp edges of the writer of Junkie, lacked the tormented vision of control.
The ripple effect was immediate. Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam?, one of his two or three best novels, drew heavily on Naked Lunch, blending it with Faulkner's The Bear into a searing take on the addictions of pre-Sixties America. Meanwhile Burroughs was extending his cut-up techniques, going farther into the realm of Philip K Dick paranoia in his Nova Express trilogy. Rock bands named themselves after props in his novels, Steely Dan, Soft Machine. David Cronenburg understood what Burroughs was about when he tried valiantly to film Naked Lunch, trying with limited success to find an objective correlative for what Burroughs saw, to translate his hallucinations into celluloid reality. Less successfully, what was Trainspotting if not the outer trappings of Burroughs moved to Edinburgh and reduced to mundane Scots dialect? Forty years later, writers could still be copying his prose and calling it avant garde.
Eliot fled Missouri because it wasn’t respectable enough, became a bank clerk in England. Burroughs left Missouri to abandon respectability, then, having discarded it, trampled it, inverted it, perverted it, gave up the bohemian haunts of Tangiers, Paris, London, and New York to return to Lawrence, Kansas, a town whose claim to fame is its pillaging by Quantrill’s guerillas during the Civil War. Did Thomas Wolfe say you can't go home again? Lawrence was the hated mirror image of Missouri, a final finger flung in the face of his respectable tradition. Shooting Joan didn’t lessen his fascination with guns. In the 1980s Burroughs began painting, exhibiting works of “shotgun” art, created by blasting buckets of paint onto the canvas with buckshot, Jackson Pollack meets Travis Bickle. Interviewers would show up expecting mystic rap and be driven to distraction by his laconic drawling reticence. With-it celebrities, millionaire actors and rock stars, Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper and Kurt Cobain, came to pay tribute to his far-out genius. Bill put on his suit and showed them his guns. (Hopper, at least, got it: that's his portrait of Burroughs on the right). Burroughs had returned to his roots physically. Emotionally, he had never left them. He always was Bill Lee, his alter-ego narrator of Junkie, clinically aware of the effects of the many abuses to which he subjected his system. Like Hopper, he could stand back and observe his addictions even while serving them. Unlike Hopper, he could write them into his books. He never gave up drink or drugs, though he did clean up his heroin addiction. He outlived Cobain, with whom he cut an album in 1992, and outlived almost all the major, younger figures of the Beat Generation.
The enduring image of the Beat movement will be Kerouac and Cassady in their T shirts and Levis. The advertisers won’t let that die. Burroughs never fit that image, even though his sober, business-suited figure itself should be as iconic, in its ironic way. Burroughs' writing was the most dangerous of all the Beats, and the most original. We can all sit at home now and use computers to rearrange paragraphs the way Burroughs did with scissors and glue. Interzone has its own web space on the internet. Heroin hasn’t gone away, though it had to move over for crack. I still prize my Sixties Grove Press edition of Naked Lunch, the most subversive of all the Beat works, the feel of it, that sense of being rebellious by being a consumer of the right stuff. Ironic isn't it? I haven't actually held that book in years. Fifty years since it was published? Forty since I read it? In the age of Google and Wikipedia, I wrote this essay from memory, nothing more.