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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 3 June 2016

"The Soft Machine" by William Burroughs

I think I have figured out a rationale for the William Burroughs technique. Because any fool can write gay porn and cut it up and reassemble the pieces randomly.

Think of the Burroughs style as a symphony. Early in the book (but also at intervals elsewhere) he plays a theme. This theme has to be a crystal clear image, as vivid and as unforgettable as a line in a poem. The elaborate around the theme. Bring in other themes. Experiment with variations (but never so varied that you cannot spot the theme). Use different tempos, vary the volume and the style. A Burroughs book is like a symphony.

What makes a theme is its ability to set an idea down in a few brilliantly-chosen words.

I noticed in The Wild Boys, also by Burroughs, that "there are lots of colours in this book; they are almost his favourite adjectives. Yet his palette isn't terribly extensive and the same colours are repeated again and again." This is an example of his use of themes.

Some of the themes are also found in other Burroughs books. He does seem to be fixated on the early sexual experiences of 'Johnny' and 'Kiki'. Early in this book "he threw himself across the wash basin pressing his stomach against the cool porcelain. I draped myself over his body laughing. His shorts dissolved in rectal mucous ans carbolic soap." We will meet with dissolving shorts, rectal mucous and carbolic soap later in the book. Other repeated themes include boys being hanged and the urban myth that as they die their penises become erect and they ejaculate. It sounds as if Burroughs experimented with autoerotic asphyxia (which allegedly causes a semi-hallucinogenic rush) as well as gay sex and heroin.

There are an awful lots of mentions of molluscs and crustaceans: these often inhabit the bodies of young boys. He also likes lists. Carl (another character found in other cooks) paddles his canoe into a "lagoon infested with" a whole aquarium of exotic life including and "aquatic panther and other noxious creatures dreamed up by the lying explorers who infest bars marginal to the area." Note that 'infest' is used twice in the same sentence; Burroughs didn't seem to believe in editing.

Burroughs is wonderful at one-liners that are perfect images like sparkling little diamonds of prose:

  • His eyes flickered the question
  • Trace a line of goose pimples up the thin young arm.
  • The sick dawn flutes of Ramadan
  • My time was running out its last black grains
  • Dead young flesh in stale underwear vending sex
  • Plaintive ghost in the turnstile
  • I'm Johnny Yen, a friend of - Well, just about everybody
  • You're dead nada walking around visible
  • caustic erogenous slime
  • 'Salt Chunk Mary' had all the 'nos' and none of them ever meant 'yes'.


In the end I found it difficult to read. He runs out of fresh new images and peddles the old ones time and again. There are a lot of gay sexual encounters although many of them seem to be the same encounter told again and again. I guess that is like life. But without the erotic angle this book might be unreadable. I applaud what he is trying to do but perhaps the form needs to be briefer, a short story rather than a novella.

June 2016; 129 pages

The theme of ejaculation by hanging also appears in Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

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