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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 18 July 2016

"Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs

Naked lunch? William Burroughs remembers Jack Kerouac as coming up with the title and he himself didn't understand it at first but now he says that it is "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". Jack Kerouac remembers it as being entitled when Allen Ginsberg was reading it aloud and misread 'naked lust' (which never made the final text).

This book starts well, with an account of a junkie evading capture by the Narcotics police by jumping on a subway train. But the text at the start is pocked with explanatory notes woven into the text. Nevertheless, some of Burroughs razor sharp images come through.

But then the book degenerates. It becomes a procession of rude remarks about women, black people, Arabs, religions: Burroughs seems to be trying his hardest to offend everyone he can. He is obsessed with shit, there is the usual smattering of gay sex (reprising the idea in the Soft Machine that men ejaculate when they are hanged), and as with the soft machine he has a morbid fascination with insects and crustacea. And after the first few pages, the crystal observations seem to have deserted him, although there is a late stand. "It's a wildly unpretty spectacle" (p 177)

This is the book in which Steely Dan makes an appearance (there are three of them, they refer to robust metal dildoes). In this part, Burroughs becomes interested in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and I wondered with John Livingstone Lowes would have made of Burroughs had he analysed his work rather than that of Coleridge in his study of the imagination, The Road to Xanadu.

Although Naked Lunch is hailed as a prime example of the Burroughs 'cut-up' technique, where he supposedly wrote narratives and then chopped them up so that scenes and characters recur, this book has this technique less obviously than The Wild Boys, my favourite Burroughs so far, and The Soft Machine though it is done with rather more effect than in The Ticket that Exploded. Rather, it is assembled into vignettes in which one character or one theme is briefly explored. In the book, Burroughs claims that "You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point" (p 187)(although the book is structured in that the cop chase at the beginning is mirrored by a similar scene very near the end) and "There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing ... I am a recording instrument ... I don not presume to impose 'story' 'plot' 'continuity'" (p 184). I thought the book was summed up in another quote: "Vast adolescent muttering." (p 98)

Nevertheless, the book does have some fascinating moments. Burroughs had a vivid if diseased imagination and there are some ideas that make me want to write a story about them. Here are some other moments where the observation was acute, or the concepts original, or he was just funny:

  • "Fingers of rotten ectoplasm" (p 5)
  • "You know how old people lose all shame about eating, and it makes you puke to watch them?" (p 6)
  • "I am a ghost wanting what every ghost wants - a body" (p 8)
  • "mosaic of sleepless nights" (p 9)
  • "Hustlers of the world, there is one Mark you cannot beat. The Mark Inside ..." (p 11) 
  • "the threat of torture is used to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved." (p 21)
  • "Last night I woke up with someone squeezing my hand. It was my other hand ..." (p 56)
  • "Guess he can make his own penicillin" (p 60)
  • "ribs you could wash your filthy overalls on" (p 85)
  • "Sucking terror from needle scars" (p 194)

But when all is said and done, it wasn't his best. July 2016; 196 pages
Page references refer to the paperback of the restored text edited by James Grauerholz and Barry Miles and published by Fourth Estate in 2010

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