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Literature

Naked Lunch” at 50

The years haven’t dulled the grotesque, ‘gut-grabbing jolt’ of this twisted classic

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Look out, Burroughs! There’s a mugwump behind you!
Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh
Mark Dery

For its anniversary edition of William S. Burroughs’ notorious Naked Lunch, which turns 50 this year, Grove Press has restored the wrapper from the 1959 succès de scandale. The first edition was published in France by Olympia Press, which subsidized highbrow censor-bait (J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita) with one-handed bathroom reading (sample titles: There’s a Whip in My Valise; Sarabande for a Bitch), much of it written pseudonymously by literati hard-pressed for rent money.

When the underground writers Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg buttonholed Olympia publisher Maurice Girodias, exhorting him to publish Burroughs’ novel, Girodias riffled through the manuscript with a jaded eye. “All the way to Page 17,” he lamented, before sex reared its, er, head. And even then, “it’s only a blow job!” Thinking fast, Hoffenberg told Girodias that the book’s title was American slang for sex in the afternoon. An orgy, to be exact. Girodias was sold. (In fact, the title, contributed by Jack Kerouac, referred to the cold, hard Truth, speared on the tines of the writer’s intellect—the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork,” as Burroughs put it.)

Grove’s 50th-anniversary edition sets the calligraphic squiggles of Brion Gysin’s original illustration against the pond-scum green of Olympia’s “Traveler’s Companion” jackets. (Hairy-palmed smut fans “were as fascinated by the ugly plain green covers,” Girodias observed, “as the addict by the white powder, however deceptive both may prove to be.”)

Granted, the new cover is retro-cool, like something Don Draper might find in the Greenwich Village pad of that reefer-smoking painter he was seeing in the first season of Mad Men. But, given the book’s reputation as the hash-addled grimoire of Old Weird Bohemia, doesn’t it deserve weirder? Naked Lunch is a beatnik Necronomicon, reeling from one free-associated incantation to another; its black-comedic vignettes are spells against corrupt power, puritan morality, Cold War witch-hunting, imperialism, bigotry, bourgeois vacuity.

In my dreams, the commemorative edition would be bound in Mugwump skin and fitted with a lock and key carved out of the creatures’ “razor-sharp beak of black bone.” (In Naked Lunch, Mugwumps are a surreal metaphor for the posthuman extremes of heroin addiction. Languid, clammy creatures, they “nourish themselves exclusively on sweets,” like Burroughs’ junkies, and “secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” It’s at this point, by the way, that the eager Olympia reader, having settled down for a long winter’s fwap fwap fwap, is realizing this isn’t Sarabande for a Bitch.)

At the very least, the publisher could’ve commissioned Smith & Wesson to 3D-print a collector’s edition in the shape of Burroughs’ beloved .45. Equipped with a pneumatic mechanism, like the one that powers the handgun the writer brandishes in the 1983 documentary Burroughs, it could even double as the ultimate deterrent to housebreakers—a pillow book with stopping power.

Not that its literary impact alone doesn’t rock most readers back on their heels. Fifty years on, Naked Lunch still delivers the gut-grabbing jolt of the autoerotic hangings that punctuate its pages, every death erection and post-mortem ejaculation described with a grim relish that walks the line between cry of conscience and shudder of fetishistic pleasure.

It was these gore-nographic sequences, which Burroughs insisted were a sardonic critique of capital punishment, that resulted in the book’s landmark obscenity trial in 1965. Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer offered spirited testimony in the book’s defense—regrettably not included in the new Grove edition, but front and center in the 1982 Black Cat edition that electro-shocked my world—and in 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that the book possessed “redeeming social value” and was therefore not obscene.

Of course, Naked Lunch is obscene, in the sense that it’s slimed from head to toe by the moral obscenities it wrestles with. In “Howl” (1956), the poem that introduced America to the Beat generation, Ginsberg banged his head against the padded walls of a soulless society “of cement and aluminum” that institutionalized its freethinkers, “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.” Burroughs, by contrast, shoves America headfirst into the bilge of its hypocrisies, its blood-soaked history, the Pepsodent-smiling brainlessness of its consumer culture. The Beat sensibility, at least as embodied in Ginsberg, was about Whitmanesque brotherly love, a Blakean embrace of cosmic interconnectedness. By that definition, the misanthropic Burroughs, who aspired to a reptilian cool, was no more a Beat than Marcel Duchamp was a surrealist.

In Naked Lunch, Burroughs dips his brush in the paint-pot of deepest irony, darker than the Jonathan Swift of A Modest Proposal (to whom his social satire owes a debt), darker even than Céline or Bierce or Mencken, whose affectionate contempt for the “booboisie” and flat-Earth fundamentalists Burroughs shares. It’s the gleeful relish—in air quotes—of his tone that confuses some readers, especially in the States, where the irony gland is routinely removed at birth.

In the obscenity trial, Ginsberg quoted, as an example of the book’s sociopolitical critique, Burroughs’ hilariously depraved caricature of small-town America and Southern justice. The passage he cites is set in the town of Pigeon Hole, whose inhabitants are “people of such great stupidity and such barbarous practices that the Administration has seen fit to quarantine them in a reservation surrounded by a radioactive wall of iron bricks,” where they while away the hours in idle chat:

“So they burned the nigger and that ol’ boy took his wife and went back up to Texarkana without paying for the gasoline and old Whispering Lou runs the service station couldn’t talk about nothing else all fall: ‘These city fellers come down here and burn a nigger and don’t even settle up for the gasoline.’”

Regarded suspiciously by the locals, the narrator (a Burroughs surrogate named Lee) appeals to the county clerk “as one Razor Back to another.” The clerk, who “often spent weeks in the privy living on scorpions and Montgomery Ward catalogues,” is wary:

“‘You don’t look like a bone feed mast-fed Razor Back to me ... What you think about the Jeeeeews ...?

“‘Well, Mr. Anker, you know yourself all a Jew wants to do is doodle a Christian girl ... One of these days we’ll cut the rest of it off.’

“‘Well, you talk right sensible for a city feller ... Find out what he wants and take care of him ... he’s a good ol’ boy.’”

In the transcript, the judge sounds irony-challenged:

THE COURT: “Well, let me ask you this: Is that sentence offensive, grossly offensive to you?”

GINSBERG: “No. Burroughs is defending the Jews here. Don’t you realize he is making a parody of the monstrous speech and thought processes of a red-necked Southern, hate-filled type, who hates everybody, Jews, Negroes, Northerners? Burroughs is taking a very moral position ...”

“Don’t you realize”: You can almost hear Ginsberg’s incredulity at the judge’s inability to read between the lines.

In its mordant irony, Burroughs’ voice anticipates, by more than a decade, the gonzo narrator of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” (1970). The “inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture,” Thompson’s bestial “whiskey gentry” are close cousins of Burroughs’ atavistic hicks. At the same time, the Burroughs of Naked Lunch harks back to Mark Twain—not the twinkly eyed rascal enshrined in sentimental memory, but the scarifying social critic who narrates the account, in Huckleberry Finn, of a lynching gone wrong, set in a one-horse Arkansas town where nothing makes the mob happier than “putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him,” except maybe tarring and feathering “poor friendless cast-out women.”

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Beyond the Weekly
Naked Lunch at 50

Yet it’s not Burroughs’ deep-dyed irony or pitilessly black humor that makes Naked Lunch the least-read notorious novel of the 20th century. (All right, second least-read, after Finnegans Wake). Rather, it’s the brain-twisting realization that Naked Lunch “does not hold together as a novel for the simple reason that it is not a novel” at all, as Burroughs explained, in a letter to Ginsberg, but “a map of consciousness,” an interlocking assemblage of short pieces “connected by interweaving of theme and character.”

Indeed, alongside the compulsive confessionalism or pop-psychological exploration of character motivation that is a hallmark of much American fiction, Naked Lunch looks as alien as the “flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede” prized by the book’s Black Meat addicts, a vile delicacy so “overpoweringly delicious and nauseating that the eaters eat and vomit and eat again until they fall exhausted.” The Rabelaisian grotesques and Lovecraftian horrors that swarm over its pages are psychologically flat, and intentionally so—cartoon characters in the stream of comic monologues that gives the book its jump-cutting rhythm. Even the hardboiled narrator is depthless, a pulp archetype familiar from noir-movie voice-overs and tough-guy detective stories.

And there’s the book’s unapologetic plotlessness. Naked Lunch is a record of the restless, peripatetic consciousness of a writer who defiantly announced, in the book itself, “I am a recording instrument ... I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’ ... Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function ... I am not an entertainer ...” (Another uncanny echo of Huckleberry Finn, which Twain prefaces with a tongue-in-cheek “Notice” announcing that “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”)

Living in a cheap hotel room in Tangier, Morocco, in 1956, Burroughs jammed on his typewriter for as long as six hours at a stretch, employing the surrealist technique of automatic writing (facilitated by judicious doses of kif and the potent hash cakes called majoun) to riff virtuosically on his verbal “routines,” legendary among the beats. In William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, Barry Miles sets the scene:

The floor was littered with manuscript pages torn from the typewriter in haste and thrown over his shoulder. [...] He hunched over his typewriter, furiously pounding the keys, hair awry, chuckling to himself, sweating profusely in the heat as he developed endless majoun-inspired routines about Interzone [the mythic, polymorphously perverse Tangier of Naked Lunch] and its cast of characters ...

If Finnegans Wake crystallized the collage consciousness of industrial modernity, Naked Lunch presages the multitasking, mashed-up sensibility of our remix culture, where we always have at least a half-dozen windows open in our minds: “This book spills off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises ...” In a laconic, corner-of-the-mouth drawl that crosses the St. Louis upper class into which he was born with the underworld whose brutal honesty was always more congenial to his cast of mind, Burroughs channels the comic-strip unconscious of American society in all its nightmare hilarity.

To that end, he remixes archetypal American genres, cross-fading from true crime (You Can’t Win, the 1926 autobiography of the opium addict and petty criminal Jack Black, was a seminal influence on Burroughs’ writing) to advertising, with its housewives climaxing in consumer ecstasy over gleaming new appliances; from Hugo Gernsback-era sci-fi, with its subhuman mutants and telepathic Mayan priests and insect overlords from Aldebaran, to the bloodless jargon of Pentagon technocrats; from the fastidious descriptions of unimaginably repulsive diseases in medical textbooks (Burroughs spent a semester at the University of Vienna, studying medicine) to the spiritualist mumbo-jumbo of the mail-order New Age. Seemingly every other paragraph, he interjects stranger-than-fiction trivia culled from his prodigious reading: “Latah is a condition occurring in Southeast Asia. Otherwise sane, Latahs compulsively imitate every motion once their attention is attracted by snapping the fingers or calling sharply. A form of compulsive involuntary hypnosis. They sometimes injure themselves trying to imitate the motions of several people at once.” At intervals, he flashes back to his St. Louis youth, recounting sweet-sad memories in the language of boy’s adventure stories, set to the strains of “East Saint Louis Toodle-Oo.”

And everywhere, prose poetry of dark, hallucinatory beauty:

The Rube flips in the end, running through empty automats and subway stations, screaming: “Come back, kid!! Come back!!” and follows his boy right into the East River, down through condoms and orange peels, mosaic of floating newspapers, down into the silent black ooze with gangsters in concrete, and pistols pounded flat to avoid the probing finger of prurient ballistic experts.

Norman Mailer put it succinctly in his trial testimony when he said, “The man has extraordinary style ... an exquisite poetic sense.”

With half-a-century’s hindsight, we can finally see Naked Lunch for what it was. Nearly 40 years before the web became an everyday reality, Burroughs was chasing hyperlinks across America’s historical unconscious, as well as the interconnected infinity of his own majoun-dreaming mind—surfing the web before the web was born.

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