An Unlikely Candidate for Influence: ‘Naked Lunch’ at 50 Years Young

Naked Lunch, the chaotic masterpiece by William Burroughs, turned 50 this year, and odds are you probably haven’t read it. Not unlike Ulysses, War and Peace or anything by Thomas Pynchon, Naked Lunch is often lauded but seldom read, even by admitted bibliophiles. But for those who have indeed read it, the book packs a literary punch that continues to ripple through Western culture, particularly among avant-garde writers and (strangely enough) musicians.

Which brings to mind the question: why is Naked Lunch still relevant 50 years later? Or, conversely, is it still relevant? Is this book just meaningful to a few fans and leftover NYC lit-punks who hope their special brand of shock still resonates long after the anger of youth has faded and the office job has begun to make sense? Or does Naked Lunch offer something more to the present day than anyone expected?

My short answer is a resounding yes, which will become increasingly clear. Admittedly, my initial reaction to this question is a completely visceral one. Indulgent, even. On the umpteenth re-read, the book still seems as fresh, funny, and alive to me as it did the first time I worked through it, laughing out loud at the frantic humor and squirming at the blatant horror told in multiple voices. Now, I read it to make myself feel better, and I doubt I’m the only one.

We who fixate on the book are generally obsessive about it. Buying each available edition — Naked Lunch (the North American version), The Naked Lunch (the title of the book in the UK), and Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (the recent “upgrade” to the original North American text by Burroughs biographer Barry Miles and curator of the Burroughs estate James Grauerholz) — we fixate on the disconnected narrative. Usually, we hate Cronenberg’s attempt at making a movie of the book. We know far too many of the book’s lines by heart. In many ways, our mania for the book approaches an almost religious reverence.

But it’s not just the literary equivalent of super fans who have taken notice of its importance. Academia is preparing to mark the birthday, as well. Conferences commemorating the book are planned for early July in Paris, where a collection of essays about Naked Lunch will be released by eminent Burroughs scholars Oliver Harris and Ian MacFayden. This will be followed by an October conference in New York City. Slowly but surely, the book is drifting away from being only in the realm of fan fiction into full-fledged inclusion in the literary canon.

Entry into the canon has been a long road for this book, as was Burroughs’ entry into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983. Both the book and the author have had more than their share of objections in the past. The Times Literary Supplement famously hosted the “Ugh” correspondence between supporters and detractors of the book in the winter of 1963–64, over the course of an unprecedented three months of issues. Many more negative reviewers of Burroughs’ work would come and go, the critic David Lodge among them; and yet the book and the reputation of the author have somehow survived these critics.

But why? How?

I think it is ultimately the quality of the work, something that easily eludes a reader who is not paying attention. Naturally, the quality can be missed amid the constant barrage of imagery and frantic scenes of everyday horror, the kind of horror you find at home. Yet upon looking back, you find that the language is amazingly precise and razor sharp most of the time. It cuts both ways, like a drunken surgeon. The voices of the street, the junky, the pusher, the academic, the scientist, the campy homosexual — all come together with delicate exactitude. It is language reminiscent of T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, a poem from which Burroughs often stole phrases, incorporating them into his own work like a prescient thief. In short, what has preserved Naked Lunch is a superb depth of understanding about how language works at the roots of the text.

Beyond that, however, there is also the constant feeling of an author who holds back nothing and has nothing to lose. Or maybe everything to lose. Either way, he doesn’t seem to care. In the midst of the horror show scenes of giant black centipedes straight out of Kafka’s paranoid visions, endless dizzying drug narratives, or the pornographically sexualized hanging of young male bodies is a novel that is violently hilarious. Gut-wrenchingly funny, at points, as his routines — Burroughs’ name for his short vignette-style narrative pieces — often illustrate.

An example: one recurring character in Burroughs’ fiction is Dr. Benway, the archetypal arrogant quack doctor. He is senile, an addict of any number of drugs to which he has easy access, and he’s utterly without remorse for himself as a person. In one scene, he leads an agent assigned to “engage the services of Doctor Benway” through the halls of what is called the Reconditioning Center of Freeland, showing off his work:

Spot of bother there. Scalpel fight with a colleague in the operating room. And my baboon assistant jumped on the patient and tore him to pieces. Baboons always attack the weakest party in an altercation. Quite right too. We must never forget our glorious simian heritage. Doc Browbeck was … [a] retired abortionist and junk pusher … Well Doc had been in the hospital mess all morning goosing the nurses and tanking up on coal gas … I had a yagé hangover, me, and in no condition to take any of Browbeck’s shit. First thing he comes on with I should start the incision from the back instead of the front, muttering some garbled nonsense about being sure to cut out the gall bladder it would fuck up the meat. Thought he was on the farm cleaning a chicken. I told him to go put his head back in the oven, whereupon he had the effrontery to push my hand, severing the patient’s femoral artery. Blood spurted up and blinded the anesthetist, who ran out through the halls screaming. Browbeck tried to knee me in the groin, and I managed to hamstring him with my scalpel … Violet, that’s my baboon assistant — only woman I ever cared a damn about — really wigged.

Perhaps, if anything keeps new readers coming back to the book, it is the humor of the thing. It is an effective hook. Burroughs piles scene upon scene of over-the-top imagery, cut precisely with grotesquery and violence. There are talking assholes, ridiculous political parties warring over unnamed goals, perfectly framed satirical images of the rich, fat racists of the 1920s America of Burroughs’ youth. Is it this blatant honesty and cynicism that keeps the book a fresh and important document, even 50 years later?

Strangely enough, Naked Lunch is probably not the first of Burroughs’ books most people read. As far as I can tell, it is usually Junky, his unapologetic personal account of being a morphine addict. This is probably because it is a more immediately accessible story. There’s less work involved for the reader, and it’s a legitimately fun read (though it should be noted that there is no specific plotline, either). The book stands on its own merits as a pulp crime novel. From all accounts, it is quite factual, though I’m no morphine addict.

Naked Lunch, though, is an entirely different thing altogether.

Which isn’t to say that Naked Lunch is not accessible. It is, but it does take some work. It is a book that demands the reader to pay attention and usually to read the pages a few times over. As only the rarest art can do, Naked Lunch is one of those novels that draws a line in the literary sand. Either you loathe, love, or simply do not understand the book. As Burroughs prescribes for his audience in its final pages, “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point … Naked Lunch is a blueprint, a How-To Book … Naked Lunch demands Silence from The Reader. Otherwise he is taking his own pulse … ” This is a book that imposes conditions on its audience. It has its own set of rules. There is little patience for those who want to lightly browse through the book on a lazy Sunday afternoon — it just won’t work. I have yet to meet someone who finds reading Naked Lunch a mediocre experience.

This is probably due, in part, to the fact that the book has no clear linear narrative. There is no basic storyline to follow, despite what some may try and impose on the text. And there is no specific message to be conveyed to the world, though the book is clearly a moral work in the vein of Swift. Things just happen. Take this description of a street gang: “Rock and roll adolescent hoodlums storm the streets of all nations. They rush into the Louvre and pour acid in the Mona Lisa’s face. They open zoos, insane asylums, prisons, burst water mains with air hammers, chop out the floor of passenger plane lavatories, shoot out lighthouses, file elevator cables to one thin wire, turn sewers into the water supply … ” The basic destruction of the famous image almost mimics the purpose of the author in terms of the literary world. The message at that moment seems to be: Bring it all down to the ground. Inject a little anarchy into things.

This anarchy is reflected in a revolving and inconsistent cast of characters. The only character in the novel that seems to crop up continually is Burroughs’ alter-ego, William Lee. And he is not always present, nor is his existence crucial to the success of the book. Characters come and go for no reason, and none of them make or break the narrative structure, since there isn’t one.

The best way to describe ‘Naked Lunch’ is to see it as a random collection of vignettes.

The best way to describe Naked Lunch is to see it as a random collection of vignettes. As Burroughs says, “Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word horde … ” And he does, assaulting the reader with image after image, voice after voice, until the book ends. Initially made up of letters from Burroughs to Ginsberg in a repeated attempt to seduce the younger poet into a long-term romance, the book ends up seducing the reader instead. But beyond that link, it is not a traditional novel in any sense.

When William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch, he could not have been a less likely candidate for the eventual position of great American writer. At least, not on the surface. Yes, he’d gone to Harvard. He had read widely, and he was remembered for quoting Shakespeare from out of the blue on seemingly random topics. This only solidified his reputation as both genius and slacker. Among his friends, he was a revered figure, infamous for his strange, prescient advice; but he had no aspirations towards being a writer. In fact, his most rewarding job before accidentally becoming a writer was as an exterminator. He liked meeting all the different sorts of people, he said, allowing him to collect characters along the way.

In 1954, when the material that would eventually materialize as Naked Lunch (in 1959) was being written, Burroughs was a man who had published one real-crime pulp novel about a heroin/morphine addict (titled Junky), one who had killed his common-law wife by shooting her in the head while drunk and who now lived in a small one-room apartment in Tangiers. Burroughs had gone there to escape what he saw as ever-encroaching laws, he once said. Presumably, and on the advice of his lawyer, it was also because Mexican authorities were not eager to bother with the prosecution of what was perceived to be a rich kid from America who fucked up and landed on the wrong side of the law. At the time, he was thoroughly addicted to opiates, stacking boxes of pharmaceutical grade Eukodol left over from World War II higher and higher along the walls of his room.

In short, he was a criminal on the run, for all intents and purposes. He was not exactly a Romantic figure like Rimbaud, the 19th century French poet whom Burroughs revered as a fearless homosexual in a time of oppression, a writer who brooked no opposition and explored all avenues. Burroughs aspired to this, but it was not him yet. Writing was what Burroughs did to kill time in a world without acquaintances, while he waited for letters to arrive from Allen Ginsberg. He was a deadbeat father and an addict who was hiding out from the law until things cooled down and people forgot him. No wonder that Naked Lunch begins with the paranoid line, “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making there moves … ” Through the writing of Naked Lunch, however, Burroughs would transform from a person on the sidelines to a much-sought-after figure of the 1960s counterculture.

Some have called Naked Lunch the logical follow-up to Joyce’s Ulysses, and it is easy to see why they might say that. Both books appear fractured and somewhat random in their style. But, whereas Joyce crafted a highly structured (almost over-structured) novel with a very distinct narrative core, Naked Lunch was cobbled together as much by Burroughs’ friends Jack Kerouac, Alan Ansen, and Allen Ginsberg as it was by Burroughs himself. Kerouac, because of his adept typing skills, was enlisted to put some structure to the random collection of blood-stained, dirty pages. Even though it caused him to have nightmares, he did succeed in giving the book some life of its own, though he initially only got through two chapters. Ginsberg and Ansen would help finish the first draft, finally putting Burroughs cacophony into a sort of coherent order. Not that Burroughs seemed to care much at the time, but he then had something to submit to publishing houses.

Looking back on this story, it’s somewhat unreal. It is an unlikely, yet quintessential American rags-to-riches (well, fame really, not riches) story. A down-and-out loser from a moderately well-to-do family finds his path and somehow makes good in his own way as a writer of all things, despite book bannings and a general panning of the popular press. Eventually, he succeeded in becoming a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983, sealing his place in American literature alongside some very famous names.

The end result was quite a turnaround from the filthy room in Tangiers where the author stared at his shoes for eight hours a day and wrote a book about every horrible thing that popped into his head, throwing blood-stained sheets over his back as he typed them. You can quickly see why the book has no linear narrative. There was never a fully formed plan to write a novel in the first place — Jack Kerouac provided him the title for it a decade before — there were only letters to Ginsberg and typing to pass the time.

However, it is this desperation and rage against the constraints of a highly codified, law-laden world that fuels this writing. Burroughs the writer was anything but what he was supposed to have been, beginning his adult life studying medicine in Vienna, and he, a Harvard graduate from a family that made the St. Louis social register. Not unlike a local Martha Stewart, his mother even wrote books on home design and flower arranging for the Coca Cola Company. Among so many respectable citizens, William Burroughs could only stand out as a blight on the family name.

So, throwing all caution to the wind, this son of a once-respectable St. Louis society family penned a novel about graphic gay sex, lurid scenes of erotic hanging rituals, and bizarre sci-fi scenes where drugs are consumed for relief and fun, instead of the stereotypical 1950s myths about drugs being the domain of the poverty-stricken dregs of society. He laid everything out for display and fundamentally changed the way writers would think of honesty in literature, achieving the mark of true greatness in 20th century literature by releasing the last banned book in the United States.

This did nothing to heal wounds at home. His mother, spending her retirement raising Burroughs’ son, would always refer to Naked Lunch only as “that awful book”.

But that same awful book has gone on to inspire countless artists. There are almost too many to name. Steely Dan, the 1970s prog-rock band, stole their name from a kind of vibrator mentioned in the book. The term “heavy metal”, though it has nothing to do with music in the context of the novel, is taken from Burroughs. David Cronenberg, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, and Patti Smith all admit to having been influenced by the book. The band Sonic Youth has written more than a few songs about Burroughs’ work, and Naked Lunch in particular, even using one of his paintings for the cover of their NYC Ghosts and Flowers album. Even Kurt Cobain, not long before he killed himself, played guitar accompaniment to Burroughs reading some of his work.

So why all the attention in popular media? Burroughs was no fan of rock and roll, let alone the legions of punk fans who found inspiration for their music in his work. The only consistent thread I can find to tie all of these somewhat disparate strands together is the iconic use of language in Naked Lunch. Burroughs had a way of phrasing things just so, like a kind of marketing genius who sold out before the money came in.

The novel as a whole is haphazardly crafted, if one can even use that term. Burroughs even describes the book for the reader so that they know how to approach it: “This book spills off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yipes and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos … and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky … ”

However, the language is not haphazard. At times, it seems as if every word means something more than you think. His phrases stay with you, and the earnestness behind them seems to have the depth that only great novels have. Like Bloom walking through Dublin’s streets in 1904, William Lee escaping the “devil-doll stool pigeons, crooning over [his] spoon and dropper” as he vaults the turnstile at Washington Square Station has a special resonance — this is an image you can feel, which is the mark of art that survives for centuries.

This may be the ultimate justification for the novel. While it is funny and haunting — two very appealing attributes — it possesses a much deeper substrate of powerful language. Were it only famous as a shocking novel favored by teenagers, it would not be able to stand up to the passing of time. Even books like The Catcher in the Rye seem dated these days, despite the success it has enjoyed for six decades. But Naked Lunch could have been written yesterday. In part, the book has survived the passing of time because the mythology of the author boosted it to fame among the young idealists of the 1960s who created the world in which we presently live. Burroughs’ reputation preceded him, mostly due to the work of Allen Ginsberg creating a highly Romantic story about him among the right publishers and editors. This created much of the initial excitement about Naked Lunch in the literary journals of the 1950s, though the American version wouldn’t see the light of day until late 1962.

But the book has continued to stay current because of the cacophony of voices that evokes a real world hidden between the covers of the book, which is the mark of real art. Because of this, the book demands attention and will continue to demand it until the day comes that powerful words mean nothing to Western literature. Given that our greatest works are built on this foundation of verbal distinction that seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

Fifty years after its initial publication, Naked Lunch appears to stand alone. Novels of equal verbal complexity just don’t seem to be written anymore. Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho comes to mind, but even that does not match the circus-like cacophony of Burroughs’ work. David Foster Wallace’s gigantic Infinite Jest surely packs the intellectual muster, but has none of the visceral impact. Will Self is an admitted Burroughs fan, but his novels do not garner the fanaticism that Burroughs’ work did. Speculation as to why nothing new comes close to the power of Naked Lunch is likely pointless. It certainly speaks to a kind of inspired mania that was as rare in its day as it is today. Maybe America is better off not replacing its old geniuses with new ones after all. Let the book stand as beacon of hope that exciting literature is not really dead, just nodding off in the grey junk dawn …