November 8, 2009

Shelf Aware: The Naked Lunch.

Ceci n'est pas un livre. This is not a book. It looks like a book, feels like a book, smells like a book. Parts of it even read like a book. But a book it is not. It's an art object, William S. Burroughs' (1914-1997) most infamous invocation of the objet d'art that is a book. Its non-linear text can - intentionally - be read in no particular order, beginning practically anywhere.

What narrative there is doesn't so much unfold as writhe, convulsively convoluted, retracing its own tropes. Its short spurts indulge in wordplay, anecdotal slivers of conversation overheard somewhere smoky over the din of some drunken jazz band across filthy alleys upstairs some dingy hotel room, over sirens and noisy neighbours, trains rumbling underground cars roaring overhead. Spoken word snatches of the city soundscape, the buzz and verve of the urban landscape.

Cataloguing Burroughs' obsessions, in particular pharmacological terminology and hustler's jive, The Naked Lunch samples the lingo - not so much a cut-up as a mash-up - reveling in the qualities of highly specialised talk. A word hoard embellished by "routines", like the one about the adolescent who - literally - gets "his first piece of ass" (in a manner that would make Shylock's detractors faint), or the infamous parable about the man who taught his asshole how to talk.

It roisters in all the stuff that comes out of us, is produced by us, in its undisguised form - the naked us - blending maxims, quotations, antiquated expressions, frequently veering from hip to technical jargon within the same sentence. The anarchy isn't solely designed to shock, but to utterly trash bourgeoise notions of "good taste". Burroughs has it out with practically everyone he couldn't abide: pretentious puritans, fanatical fundamentalists, mercenary merchants, rabid racists, and insipid imperialists. All seen fit for flogging.

Curiously, The Naked Lunch also manages to depress the last half-century's global political hot-buttons: consumerism, bigotry, terrorism, xenophobia, drug and disease pandemics. Proving perhaps that the current struggle is always about the past. Despite his obfuscating manner, Burroughs strove to expose readers to the true state of things; the world through the eyes of a gay man attempting to escape in every manner possible the confines of closeted middle American life.

His writing explored the nature of obedience and manipulation, in order to locate the methods of control which perpetuated the sad state of world affairs, and - if not destroy them outright - disrupt them. For without them society as it had been organised couldn't exist. To Burroughs, the church, the state, and the suppression and repression of sexuality represented the primary tools with which populations could be kept subservient.

"Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out."

The Naked Lunch plunges readers into a fast-moving world of constant, frenetic action, lightly mirroring Burroughs' own itinerant existence, rushing from place to place, from hit to hit, vaguely following an ambiguous clandestine entity whose raison d'être is to bring about the collapse of all systems. It stirs up conflict, chaos, panic, confusion, wherever it appears, engaging in evil regardless of its utility. Like an exceptionally malignant virus.

Burroughs had a particular interest in the constraints imposed by language, the way its limitations determine our ability to define reality. It may be universally agreed that two plus two equals four, but what we mean by "two", and what "four" represents says a lot about who we are and where we come from. Burroughs particularly wanted to expose the culinary camouflage we employ to disguise that which would be hard to swallow if we only took the time to examine what we "actually eat and drink". We may call what quivers at the end of the fork chateaubriand, but that don't change the fact it's a piece of flesh ripped from a living creature.

The manner with which Burroughs rouses the reader may be disagreeable - the multiple fetishistic hangings interspersed with explicit homosexual and heterosexual sex, intended as a critique of capital punishment were once labeled "obscene" and "pornographic" - but sometimes the only way to snap people from their stupor is a slap across the face. Which is what reading Burroughs frequently feels like; as painful as enjoyable. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, to get hung up on Burroughs style is akin to complaining that the man who bangs on your door in the middle of the night isn't particularly eloquent when announcing that your roof is on fire.

Regardless of which version of the text one may be reading - the first published in August 1959 by Olympia Press, the first American edition published by Grove Press in 1962, or the 2001 restored text - The Naked Lunch resists interpretation precisely to point out interpretations' limitations, revealing how in order to perceive a cohesive whole certain things must be ignored. Its antiexpressive, antidiscursive antinarrative calls into question both "expressiveness" and "intentionality" in literature, expanding the concept of writing far beyond its formal limits and intentions.

As such, it has been a source of inspiration for all artists venturing outside the "normal" limits of expression - particularly in film and pop music (there are those who blame Burroughs for Cyberpunk, but they've presumably never heard of Alfred Bester). But despite being the origin of "heavy metal" and numerous band names, most of Burroughs' admirers seem more enamoured with his image than his writing.

Hence his impact on popular culture has been greater than his influence on literature, touching even those who've never read him. The idea of Burroughs - a man who stared into the abyss and came back to report on it - always more appealing than the man himself or his writing ever was. The iconic Burroughs is a middle-aged, deadpan expressionless businessman, neatly attired in a three-piece suit and tie, practical haircut, who'd taken all manner of drugs known to man, and spews notions - with the voice of a St. Louis banker - that would make your parents froth at the mouth.

"That's the sex that passes the censor, squeezes through between bureaus, because there's always a space between, in popular songs and Grade B movies, giving away the basic American rottenness..."

The Naked Lunch is the text that created this cult figure, banned and narrowly escaping censorship in a trial that established the American obscenity standards for the following decades. It follows that the work itself is obscured by myth - often embellished and perpetuated by the writer and his cohorts themselves. There's claims the writer was doped while writing, that it was assembled from jumbled sources in a mad rush two weeks before first being printed in Paris, or that it's Burroughs' first foray into cut-ups.

The last is easiest to dismiss, as Burroughs was first introduced to the technique by Brion Gysin nearly a month after the first edition of The Naked Lunch hit the stands. It's possible Burroughs was writing under the influence, but it's not entirely clear of what: drugs, or his unrequited love for Allen Ginsberg. More likely he simply wanted to obscure just how much of his own experience he (consciously) imbued the text with - particularly his personal politics, which at the time leaned more towards the cooperative than the libertarian.

The order of the text's that comprise The Naked Lunch isn't as random as purported either. While the different editions have differed significantly, the main part of the manuscript - some one hundred pages - had been written by early 1957, and remained largely unaltered since. Towards the end of 1956, Burroughs had kicked his habit for the first (but not last) time, and it's the beginning and end - if, indeed, they are such - that bear the marks of three different pairs of hands (Burroughs', Ginsberg's, and Jack Kerouac's) attempting to cobble a book together on at least four different occasions.

The myths are partially a byproduct of the main dish, a particularly runny concoction, threatening to "spill off the fork in every direction" practically all of the time. They may provide the hapless reader with some semblance of cohesion, yet simultaneously threaten to counter what may be the work's intended purpose. Half a century since it was first published, The Naked Lunch remains a baffling and fascinating indelible stain on the American literary landscape, and has become a preeminent classic of Beat literature.

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