June 28, 2013

The NSFW Files: "Naked Lunch," by William S. Burroughs

The NSFW Files | A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite the erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this
series, please click here.)
Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
Naked Lunch (The Restored Text), by William S. Burroughs
Edited by James Grauerholz and Barry Miles
Review by Karl Wolff
Personal History: It's a common truism that the books read in high school leave a lasting impression in those formative years. As the screenwriter John Rogers put it, "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs." I read The Fountainhead when I was a senior and didn't pick up Ayn Rand's "writing" until the economy collapsed in 2009. And I never read The Lord of the Rings until the movie came out. Prior to this, I read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and, to use the cliché, it blew my mind.

How did I get to William S. Burroughs? I read him before I read Ms. Rand's attempts at prose. I went to high school in the early 1990s. I can't remember what steps led to my reading Naked Lunch, but I'll set before you a hastily assembled montage of events and images during that same time period. I'm not sure whether I saw the David Cronenberg 1991 film before or after reading the book. (It's hard to establish a firm date since the book and film are radically different creatures.) I remember renting it and watching it on the VCR, Peter Weller and Roy Scheider acting in a very bizarre version of the Fifties. There was Burroughs's appearance on Saturday Night Live where he read "A Thanksgiving Prayer." Late one night I saw a strange stop animation short on PBS called "Ah Pook is Here," written and performed by Burroughs. I also saw him in his cameo in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy. Unlike other high school students with Tolkien or Rand, I had my Beatnik phase. I read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, and Herbert Huncke. I listened to jazz a little bit, but I was more entranced by the literature.

Part of loving Burroughs is coming to terms with the Burroughs Mystique. Like Captain Willard listening to Colonel Kurtz on the reel-to-reel, I was hooked by Burroughs's voice. When one listens to him read from his books or philosophize on drug culture, one hears an otherworldly voice. Burroughs doesn't sound elderly, he sounds ancient, insectoid, inhuman. His voice also has a slight Western accent, probably owing to his living in Lawrence, Kansas. Unlike other writers associated with the Beat movement, he doesn't look the part. In the same way that Robert Crumb looks like an Iowa grocer from 1910, William S. Burroughs looks and sounds like a Kansas insurance agent.

Back to Naked Lunch. I read it, it blew my mind. It altered all my pre-conceptions about writing and American culture. A book blew my mind only two other times, when I read Ulysses by James Joyce and Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

The History: Written in 1959, Naked Lunch is a scabrous and lacerating satire of American life and mores. (I'll get into the specifics of the publishing history below.) The Fifties were a contradictory, hysterical, and revolutionary time in American history. Advances in technology and design co-existed with institutional segregation in the South, the Red Scare, and the Cold War. In the Fifties, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, at least according to the 1952 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (The classification wouldn't be reversed until 1974.) Since it was a mental disorder, society had the daft notion that it could be cured. In addition to its psychological classification, homosexuality was a criminal act. Not until Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986 would homosexuality be de-criminalized.

The Fifties experienced numerous hysterias. Communist plots, juvenile delinquents, drug abuse, comics, and rock and roll. Everything could be tailor-made into a Communist plot. Those tarred as Communist agents included Civil Rights icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., and gays. The unanimous Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education caused the South to erupt in violence and resistance. Amidst the disturbances at home, there was the Korean War at the beginning of the decade, and the French battling anti-colonial insurgencies in Algeria and Indochina.

On the pop culture front, comics became neutered under the Comics Code. Movies became more and more permissive, until the draconian and repressive Hays Code imploded in the late Sixties. Meanwhile, the Beat Generation sought to loosen the shackles of a post-Victorian Puritanism. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (among other personalities) created their own brand of individual morality. This included writing books about shocking topics like drugs and sex and using four-letter words to describe these experiences. Remember, this was a time when purchasing Betty Page photos or the poem "Howl" could mean jail time.

The Book: Dr. Benway, Slashtubitch, the "talking asshole routine," Hassan's Rumpus Room, Interzone, Hauser and O'Brien ... Naked Lunch is filled with iconic characters and set-pieces. It is the story of an addict fleeing the Police and entering Interzone, a decadent dystopia like Tangier, Morocco. As he flees, he has this to say, "America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting." He describes American cities like "Chicago: hierarchy of decorticated wops, smell of atrophied gangsters, earthbound ghosts hit you at North and Halsted, Cicero, Lincoln Park, panhandler of dreams, past invading the present, rancid magic of slot machines and roadhouses. [...] Illinois and Missouri, miasma of mound-building peoples, groveling worship of the Food Source, cruel and ugly festivals, dead-end horror of the Centipede God reaches from Moundville to the lunar deserts of coastal Peru." He says New Orleans "is a dead museum." One thing that strikes the reader right away is how dark Burroughs is compared to the rest of the Beats. Kerouac and Ginsberg are upbeat, Whitmanesque, exploring the possibilities of the continent. Burroughs offers scabrous satire and nightmarish hallucinations.

Besides the dark tone (akin to Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Jonathan Swift), Burroughs drenches the book in abundant drug use, vulgar language, and sexually explicit acts (predominantly of the homosexual variety). He satirizes cops, psychiatrists, and small-town Southern sheriffs. Not only is it dark and satirical, but the book itself subverts numerous genres in the process, including science fiction. One of the iconic characters of Naked Lunch is the Mugwump. People become addicted to what Mugwumps secrete from their male reproductive organs. Genres like the hard-boiled detective novel, the Western, and Middle Eastern novel also get subverted.

I don't really classify Naked Lunch as a novel, even though it has chapters and recurring characters. In the same way that Samuel Beckett stripped the novel bare with his Trilogy, peeling off character, plot, setting, etc., and leaving only the insistent voice, Burroughs took the novel and exploded it. Naked Lunch is fragmentary, hallucinatory, dark, nightmarish, decadent, and sex-drenched. It is reminiscent of Maldoror by Comte de Lautreamont, a violent phantasmagorical novel. Many of the chapters came about via "routines," a kind of spoken word performance art popularized by Burroughs.

Needless to say, the combination of sexual explicitness, drug use, lacerating social satire, and non-linear plotting caused Naked Lunch to erupt on the literary scene like a Molotov cocktail. "The Restored Text" version of the book - I hasten to call it a novel - includes an Editors' Note from Barry Miles and James Grauerholz. They chronicle the book's genesis, construction, and editorial challenges. Initially slated to be part of a trilogy including Junkie, Queer, and material for The Yage Letters, Ginsberg persuaded Burroughs to focus attention on what later became Naked Lunch. There are two first editions, the 1959 Olympia Press version and the 1962 Grove Press version. The inevitable obscenity trial didn't resolve until 1966, when one could purchase the book legally.

The Verdict: In terms of aesthetics, Naked Lunch is sexually explicit, but not erotic. It is loaded with sexual situations, but the point isn't to be prurient. Sexual explicitness does not make the book pornographic. It is about one man's experience with heroin addiction and society in the Fifties. It is frank, brutal, and cruel. It is offensive because Burroughs found the death penalty offensive.

Once one gets past the shock factor, Naked Lunch stands out as a monument of American literary postmodernism. It influenced countless writers and artists, everyone from Lou Reed to Thomas Pynchon to William Gibson. It is also a watershed book. It helped knock down the last barriers of written expression. Burroughs, like Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black, was a free expression absolutist. Alternately, Naked Lunch is still a troubling and challenging book. The Fifties drug and crime slang make it tough for modern readers. It is a worthy member of the literary avant-garde, along with other respected works like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Alfred Jarry's Pere Ubu.

Read even more about Naked Lunch(The Restored Text): Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: City of Night, by John Rechy

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:03 AM, June 28, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |