An Unlikely Candidate for Influence: 'Naked Lunch' at 50 Years Young
William S. Burroughs 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.
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.