Wednesday, March 9, 2011


William Burroughs was one of the main figures of the Beat Generation and a major postmodern writer. He was one of the most culturally influential and innovative artist of the 20th Century. He wrote novels, short stories, essays, and published interviews and correspondences. Burroughs also created collages and collaborated on recording projects and appeared in numerous films.

Burroughs early work is mostly semi-autobiographical drawing on his experiences as a heroin addict and living in various places including Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, and Tangier, locations he collectively referred to as "The Interzone."

He attended Harvard for a time, but dropped out and spent years travelling and doing various jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who would all become influential Beat writers. 

Burroughs writing subverted the moral, political, and economic systems of modern American society using a dark, sardonic humor. His early books Junky, Queer, and The Yage Letters,  written in the 1950s, were relatively straightforward linear narratives compared to the revolutionary style he would develop with the fragmentary cut-ups of Naked Lunch and the books that would follow.

In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed his wife Jane Vollmer in a drunken game of "William Tell" at a party above a bar in Mexico City. After various legal proceedings he was able to return to the US, but the event had a huge impact on his life and writing. 

"I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

Before the death of Vollmer, Burroughs had mostly completed his first two novels in Mexico, but they weren't published until later. Junky was published in 1953 by Ace with the help of Ginsberg. When it first came out it was under the pen name William Lee and called Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict ( it was later republished as Junkie and Junky). The other novel Queer wasn't published until 1985. The Yage Letters written with Ginsberg was published in 1963. It was based on Burroughs travels through South America, looking fro a drug called yage, which promised to give the user telepathic powers.

Junky was Burroughs first published novel and has come to be considered the seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts in the early 1950s. Burroughs speaks as an eyewitness reporting on the feelings, actions, and characters he meets in the criminal fringe of New York, New Orleans, Mexico City, and a Federal Narcotics Hospital/Prison in Lexington, Kentucky. The book presents a detailed account of a drug addict's passage into the seedy underworld, the search and suffering for a fix, and characters he encounters in the process. Burroughs immerses the reader into the world of the addicted. 

Junky is told in clear, calm, and precise prose and has a hard boiled style. The narrator is intelligent and recognizes the risk he is taking by using narcotics, but also shows the control the drug has on the user. He acknowledges guilt about his predicament and doesn't elicit sympathy from the reader. Junky simply lays out the facts of a world that most would rather ignore. It doesn't glamorize drugs, but doesn't condemn the addict either. Junky is a testimony to a hard way of life, but in the process exposes society's ignorance, intolerance, exploitation, and hypocricy about the issue. 

The book is also about a man's attempt to deal with his addiction and change his life. Junky displays Burroughs acute graphic description and shows flashes of his originality that would manifest in his later works starting with Naked Lunch.

In the mid-50s Burroughs lived in Tangier and wrote, often under the influence of a marijuana confection known as majoun and a German-made opioid called Eukodol. These writings would grow into Naked Lunch which was his first venture into a non-linear style with Ginsberg and Kerouac helping him type, edit, and arrange the sequences into the final book. Excerpts from Naked Lunch were first published in the US in 1958 in Black Mountain Review and Chicago Review and caused controversy for what some saw as obscene and anti-social characters and behavior. The book itself was published in 1959, and slowly became notorious across Europe and the US, garnering interest from young hipsters and certain literary critics. Once published in the US, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but in 1966 the book was found not to be obscene. The case against Burroughs novel was the last obscenity trial against a work of literarture in the US.

Burroughs was living at the Beat Hotel in Paris in 1959, and met Brion Gysin and was exposed to the artist's cut-up techniques with both words and pictures. Burroughs already interested in non-linear narratives, started cutting up words and phrases and creating new sentences. He collaborated with Gysin on a book of words and collages called The Third Mind. The actual process of the publication of Naked Lunch was partly a function of a cut-up presentation to the printer. Burroughs sent the manuscript in pieces, preparing the parts in no particular order and was published in this authentically random manner. Gysin was also a painter and invented the dream machine a stroboscopic flicker device that causes the viewer to experience increasingly bright, complex patterns of color behind their closed eyelids leading them to enter a hypnagogic state.

Naked Lunch is structured as a series of loosely-connected routines and are intended to be read in any order. The narrator William Lee takes on various identities while moving between the US, Mexico, Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The method in which the novel is written causes the reader to see only fragments of what is happening. Elements appear, disappear, and reappear later. Different perspectives within a larger picture is a theme that runs throughout the book. By decentralizing the plot Burroughs produced a series of caricatures, satires, and parodies throughout the novel and the content includes various taboo fantasies and eccentric characters like Dr. Benway and peculiar creatures like the predatory Mugwumps.

Naked Lunch is a difficult book to summarize because of its radical technique and extreme shifts in time and space and seems to mirror the workings of a junky's brain. It depicts a world that includes addicts, black markets, strange doctors, odd creatures, and totalitarian governments. It is both disturbing and funny. It has a science fiction quality and seems to forecast such later phenomena as AIDS, liposuction, autoerotic fatalities, and the crack pandemic, and deals with escaping the control of societies norms.

The manuscripts that produced Naked Lunch also produced the later works The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express and these novels include an extensive use of the cut-up technique.

The Soft Machine (1961) is concerned with how control mechanisms invade the human body. The narrative deals with drug abuse and treatment and includes secret agents, time travel machines, Mayan priests, and mind-controlled slaves.

The Ticket That Explodes (1962) continues the adventures of Agent Lee in his mission to investigate and subvert the methods of mind control being used by The Nova Mob, a group of intergalactic criminals intent on destroying Earth.

Nova Express (1964) is a social commentary on human and machine control of life. Burroughs attempts to use language to break down the walls of culture, the biggest control machine. He uses Inspector Lee to express his own thoughts about the world and finds that language is the only way to maintain dominance over the powerful instruments of control which are the most prevalent enemies of human society.

In The Wild Boys (1971), Burroughs again uses the structure of loose episodes written in a process of free association and stream-of-consciousness. It takes place in an apocalyptic near-future and exhibits the struggle between The Wild Boys, who are a revolutionary tribe of youths living free of the conventions of civilization, and the remnants of civilization who are paranoid and hedonistic. The Wild Boys live apart from the mechanisms of social control such as religion, nationalism, and family.

Exterminator! is a short story collection published in 1973. Some of the pieces had been published in magazines such as Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. The book contains some of Burroughs more well-known shorter works including Twillight's Last Gleamings and Ali's Smile. The title story is about an insect exterminator, a job Burroughs held at one time.

In the 1980s Burroughs produced three novels known as The Red NIght Trilogy, with the first being Cities of the Red Night (1981). The book is narrated from two different viewpoints. The first is set in the 18th century and follows a group of pirate boys who land in Panama to liberate it. The other thread follows a detective tracing the disappearance of an adolescent boy. Burroughs writing again follows a non-linear course through time and space. The title refers to a pilgrimage through the six cities of the red night which may take multiple lifetimes. Each reveals a different permutation of the famous aphorism of Hassan i Sabbah: "Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted." In the novel, the world is plagued by a sex related viral disease that destroys humanity, similar to AIDS, that would emerge a few years after the publication of Cities of the Red Night.

The Place of Dead Roads (1983) was the second book of the trilogy. It chronicles the story of a homosexual gunfighter in the American West and starts withe his death in 1899. The book incorporates contrasting themes and time travel episodes, and makes use of Burroughs extensive knowledge of firearms.

The final book in the trilogy is The Western Lands (1987). The title refers to the western bank of the Nile River, which in Egyptian mythology is the Land of the Dead. The book explores the after-death state by means of dream scenarios, hallucinatory passages, talismanic magic, occultism, and superstition. The novel has passages from ancient Egypt and autobiographical sections from Burroughs own life as well as references to contemporary culture.

Interzone (1989) is a collection of short stories many of which had been written and published in earlier years. Twilight's Last Gleamings was  written in 1938 in collaboration with Burroughs' childhood friend Kells Elvins, and is widely thought to be Burroughs' first work of fiction. The villian of the piece, Dr. Benway would play a pivotal role in Naked Lunch. This version of the story is different than the one published in Exterminator!. Interzone comes from writings that were a transition from the first-person traditional narrative style such as Junky, and the later more experimental work. The collection includes the stories The Junky's Christmas and Spare Ass Annie. The concluding section called WORD was part of the original Naked Lunch manuscript.

In 2008, Penguin published And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks which was a collaborative novel written by Burroughs and Kerouac in 1945. The title comes from a news broadcast that Burroughs had heard about a fire at the St. Louis Zoo. The book is written in the form of a mystery novel, and consists of alternating chapters by the two authors. Burroughs writes as the character Will Dennsion, and Kerouac writes as the character Mike Ryko. The story is based on the killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr who were friends of the writers. Carr stabbed Kammerer in a drunken fight and by some accounts in self defense and dumped his body in the Hudson River. Carr confessed the crime to both Burroughs and Kerouac but neither informed the police and when Carr finally turned himself in it brought legal problems for both writers. Burroughs never considered this book a distinguished work, but it is interesting when studying his evolution as a writer.

William Burroughs was a radical visionary and important figure in expanding the boundaries of literature.

No comments:

Post a Comment