29 September 2004

The Naked Lunch


The Naked Lunch remains Burroughs's masterpiece of plumbing and architecture. The Cities of the Red Night might have been a better, more cohesive and consistent novel and The Western Lands might have codified and expanded his personal Mythos with less hyperactivity and Folded-in ADHD and more discipline / focus but The Naked Lunch started him down a road that, at the time, it semed he hadn't even noticed he was on.

Burroughs strikes me as a man struck by his own visionary experience without the means to access or disseminate it. He resisted the usual Shamanic / Blakean route into poetry - the stuff I've read shows no obvious talent for this medium - and instead opted for the somewhat Derridian (?) notion of the primacy of the spoken word, in this case operationalised into the 'routines' that make up most of The Naked Lunch (which ironically are then reconceptualised by literary theorists as realistic, emphatic dialogue - an idea that still assumes that the routines are writing pretending to be speaking; a kind of literature that seeks to simulate (like photo-realism in painting) rather than to be.

There seems no apparent irony in his use of the phrase 'Let me unleash my word (w)horde' because, in his early works, Burroughs is less than precious about the sanctity of the written word; devolving the novel not because it was a literary experiment but because it's subject matter was de(arranged) as anecdote and mischievious slur, designed to amuse around the drinking table rather than to tantalise the theorists looking for a new Joyce.

My impression is that Politics and Theory (the word as virus, the concept of control, the algebra of need etc) came sometime after the bulk of The Naked Lunch was written, perhaps as a sop to the intellectual masses, perhaps as an interpretative afterthought.

I'm not saying he isn't a genius, just that he's a genius of accidental allusion.

Reviewers bind him to metaphor and symbolism when it seems they'd sometimes be better off taking the Freudian 'sometimes a pipe is just a pipe' literalness, while accepting that this literalness may in itself be a flawed representation of some awful mis-managed Ego Defence or an opium pipe-dream.

Did Burroughs feel that women were literally Venusians? I think maybe he did (biographical evidence doesn't seem to contradict this idea) but perhaps this casual female-phobia was too much for the average Academician to take. After all, they already had Norman Mailer.


Naked Lunch is a book of horror and comedy, both themes scooped up and hurled around like primate faeces, not so much designed to disgust or reveal as destined to repulse. To this extent, I'm with the writer of the famous Urgh! review; Burroughs may have been a serious writer by the time the book was published but I doubt very much he was when he was writing it. Let's face it; he was stoned. That the future leaked through was a accidental consequence rather than an intentional hypothesis.

Unlike the Urgh! reviewer, however, I love this book for its primal rage, for its use of the spoken word, for its literalness, for its playground humour and for its honesty. I like the drugs/ politics metaphors of control as much as anyone (and I think that Burroughs is right) but I can't bring myself to think that he knew he was writing along these themes as he threw the pages around the room for the scampering younger Beats.

He was trying to amuse them, trying out some Fast Show routines: "Heroin addict...hardest job in the world. Thirty years, man and boy..." to laugh them into bed or force them into the making the tea.

Later, as the theory began to unwind and he started to consciously and rationally work his way through the algebra of need (and move away from the romanticism of The Nked Lunch) he came up with The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded both of which were dry, experimental, slightly dull and notable for having far better titles than content. These emerged to slowly-boiled critical acclaim but perhap only because they were now bolstered by Burroughs far superior non-fictional contextualising in books like The Electronic Revolution

From this moment on, until the return of Burroughs as full-blown novelist (with the Cities of the Red Night trilogy), Burroughs story-telling went beyond fiction into a kind of netherland between non-fiction and shaggy dog stories and it is these works (plus the many published interviews) which make up the majority of his best work in the 60s/70s.

I'll come back to this.

For now, how about going here to download the soundtrack from Croneberg's film of Naked Lunch and then here to grab some readings and routine rantings , both found via Brian's Radio Blog

As for the Croneberg film, well that's a whole 'nother post...


johneffay said...

Actually, the biographical evidence seems to point to Burroughs being a serious writer before he published anything; by which I mean it was always expected that he would produce something amazing any minute. This is why Kerouac and Ginsberg were prepared to try and make some sense of his scattered writings. Burroughs was the Harvard graduate with a keen interest in, and firm grasp of literature, psychoanalysis, etc. etc. He may not have had language as a virus off pat at the time, but he was definitely expounding elements of his later theories of control. Of course he was simultaneously the fucked-up rich kid with a propensity for chemicals and a talent for telling stories: If he hadn't been, Naked Lunch could have been quite a boring book.

Gyrus said...

I agree it's not a complete accident that Naked Lunch was a literary success, i.e. I think Burroughs had literary ambition as well as a wicked mind and a vat of majoun. I'm sure he found it all the tastier for knowing that he was probably one step ahead of the critics and theorists, not in intellectual appreciation, but a visceral feel for where literature needed to go (for him at least). Also the 1945-1959 collected letters give the impression he wasn't that unselfconscious: "The two chapters of Naked Lunch that have been described as pornographhic are inteneded as a tract against Capital Punishment in the manner of Swift's Modest Proposal." A must-read, those letters, astonishingly vivid sense of his "channelling" the text of the novel. And hey, just checked on Amazon and looks like another volume is due in December. Wahey!

Loki said...

some excellent comments here and while I feel I have been a little misinterprted the points you make are valid and oddly reassuring...

I do not doubt that Burroughs has always been a serious novelist, regardless of timelines, publication debates etc but what I feel (though this is part intuition, part troublemaking) is that he didn't come to Naked Lunch with the same agenda and political lucidity that he brought to his later writings. Yes, he had various political / philosophical issues to raise and yes, perhaps there was even a vaguely defined conceptual theme throughout the routines but I'd argue that this does not constitute a personal theoretical / mythological system until the later cut-up/fold-in novels and that Naked Lunch is a more fluid and personal work because of it.

I'd also argue that, while certainly unusual, Naked Lunch is not Experimental Fiction because it has no clearly defined hypothesis (e.g. the leaking future...) or ethic.

Gyrus said...

OK, I'm down with that. Reading the letters from the period, it's obvious he was in the grip of some pretty powerful gnosis writing Naked Lunch. He was full of serious literary intentions, and gropings towards what he wanted to do with the novel, but yeah, the writing process was guided more by this rush of otherness, often debilitating and scary, than by his ideas. The ideas were used (and evolved) by his revelations. Maybe the balance slipped the other way with the cut-up experiments. But - no criticism in this. I think it's a standard dynamic: plunging right in, then learning to swim. It is easy to forget that Naked Lunch is cut-up free! He experienced it, then (via Gysin), discovered a technique to (re)create the experience.

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