I bought Naked Lunch back in 1997, I think. I never could get into it past the Introduction sections. I really liked William S. Burroughs’ opinions on addiction and the junkie mindset. His opinions sounded so authoritative, with a mixture of almost clinical objectivity (which drugs he’d become addicted to, how much and how often he’d tried to cure himself) and an acid-tongued cyncical editorializing on the Doctors and approaches that had failed him. Burroughs’ voice is cold and smart and sharp, but soaked in a bitter backwash of pain and regret. But, as much as I liked his observations in the intro and the epilogue of Naked Lunch, I’ll be damned if I could get into the guts of the book in any meaningful way. I wasn’t ready for it, I guess.
The closest I ever got to seeing the whole Naked Lunch novel rendered was by watching Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch movie, which was a collage of Burroughs’ stories and experiences, framed in a narrative featuring cockroaches, centipedes and throbbing anthropomorphized typewriters with talking assholes for mouths. I think the first talking asshole typewriter reveal was the biggest moment in that movie for me. It still makes me laugh.
Cronenberg captured or interpreted a lot of Burroughs’ imagery, and did his work as much service as possible, I think, while making somewhat necessary concessions to his own film tropes. I’m still crawling through Naked Lumch the novel, and digesting it slowly, while regurgitating scenes from Naked Lunch the Movie.
So, flash forward another 16 years, and I found myself reading Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time (and generally liking it), and getting a sideways introduction to Burroughs via Kerouac’s “Old Bull Lee” persona. Now I’ve restarted reading Naked Lunch, and it seems I’m ready for it now. Burroughs writes in this crazy, satirical voice with these cut-up chunks of narrative that mostly use a terse, clipped style, resembling a secret agent’s espoionage report, or a detective’s telegram. I found myself picturing him in his fedora and long overcoat, banging out reports in his almost anonymous, government worker voice, with hints of vernacular from the streets of New York or Tangier. It began to feel like watching a documentary film about a Raymond Chandler detective who was addicted to morphine, and whose cases were just falling apart in his face.
So, the writings of Burroughs are very interesting to me because of his challenging style. But Burroughs the man seemed a dependent, fucking mess. The portrait drawn of him in the book “Call Me Burroughs” demonstrates his ample wit and dry humour, but also his itinerant life, co-dependence in relationships, his many (many) addictions, and all the complicated pain that he endured as a gay (or bi?) man. I really don’t know what to make of his life from what I’ve read so far, except that he was probably fortunate to have survived it into his eighties. Burroughs took a beating, but a good deal of his misfortune arose (I think) from his own bad judgement and misadventure.
I started to envision something of a lineage growing down from the post-WWII Beats, down through later poets like Bob Dylan, and especially Jim Morrison. Old Beats like Ginsberg and Lucien Carr quoted Rimbaud’s idea of pursuing a “sustained derangement of the senses” as a path to finding the truth, or perhaps, as a way of escaping a rigid, distasteful reality. I could never do that, personally. I have often wanted to escape reality, but not through drugs or alcohol – just through my imagination or mental escapes into fantasy.
In my teens I loved Jim Morrison, and now after reading about the Beats a bit more, and relistening to “American Prayer” by the Doors, I truly think that no child of the Beats pursued a sustained derangement of their senses like Jim Morrison did. “Break on Through to the Other Side” was Morrison, singing about that same break with conventional values and ways of thinking that drove Burroughs, Kerouac and the Beats.
William Burroughs used a cut-up, collage technique in Naked Lunch. That is very intriguing to me. I’ve played with collage with images from magazines, comics and photos, inspired by Gary Lee-Nova, my art school multimedia instructor (himself a life-long fan and scholar of Burroughs). But I’ve never done it with words. Sometime, I want to look at different ways to derange my thoughts after I put them down on paper or record them.
These days, with composition and acquisition being commoditized into microscopic electronics, there might even be an app for that.