February 5, 2014 was the one hundredth anniversary of William S. Burroughs’ birth, so this year we can expect to see and hear a lot about Burroughs, both in favor and critical of his novels and also, more than likely, his life. In fact, Barry Miles, frequent chronicler of the Beat generation, including two respected biographies of Ginsberg and Kerouac, started things off with his well-reviewed biography of Burroughs, Call Me Burroughs: A Life, and Oliver Harris has “restored text” versions of Burroughs’ cut-up novels The Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine due out in April.
I am a longtime admirer of Burroughs’ books. I discovered him when I was in high school from a blurb on the cover of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which the reviewer called, “The funniest piece of American prose since Naked Lunch.” I’d thought Fear and Loathing was about as good as it could get, so I signed Naked Lunch out of the Appleton Public Library to see if it even came close. I had no idea what I was in store for. It was obscene, funny, poetic, confusing, weird, and downright contemptuous of practically everything. I couldn’t figure out how it was a novel, because try as I might to come up with a protagonist or a plot, I couldn’t. I eventually resigned myself to simply enjoying what I could follow: the talking asshole; the mugwumps “sucking translucent, coloured syrups through alabaster straws”; the County Clerk’s office that, as I recall, one could only get to by riding a unicycle across a tightrope; the nefarious Dr. Benway, performing heart surgery with a toilet plunger; the centipedes emerging from the husks of human bodies; the stabbing lyricism, like–“… piece of moon smoke hangs in china blue sky … out on a long line of jissom across the dusty floor … Motel … Motel … Motel … loneliness moans across the continent like fog horns over still oily water of tidal rivers …” I loved it.
I felt a sense of triumph while I was reading it, too: my stepdad would throw away any comics I brought home, which at the time mainly had been Mad Magazine and Howard the Duck. I had the feeling his animosity was less because comics weren’t real literature—I don’t think he cared one fart about literature—but because there was something subversive about them, part of which was their very “trashiness” as comics. And here I was, reading one of the filthiest, most subversive things I’d ever read. I even remember my English teacher asking me if my parents were OK with me reading it. I assured him they were, though I knew that was only because they didn’t know what was in it.
In a way, Naked Lunch ruined literature for me. There was something in Burroughs’ voice that made almost everything else seem wan in comparison. Joan Didion nailed it in her review of The Soft Machine:
It is precisely this voice — complex, subtle, allusive — that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine and about Burroughs. It is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger “satirical” or “black” novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.
While I don’t agree with Didion’s contention that what Burroughs says is not worth paying attention to, I agree that how Burroughs says it is what is most pleasurable about reading Burroughs. Because none of the conventional novels I read after Naked Lunch provided similar pleasures, I found myself turning toward Surrealism and Dada, the anti-traditions in whose trajectory Burroughs’ novels, and perhaps all of the major Beat writers’ works, were clearly a part of. Not literary in any traditional sense—the Surrealists, Dadaists, and Beats sneered at “literature”—Burroughs and his European forebears were creating what best could be described as magical writing. They were, as Burroughs collaborator Malcolm McNeill wrote of Burroughs’ books, writings intended not so much to say something in particular as to make things happen. They’re essentially meaningless while not devoid of significance, coursing with suggestion and possibility. It’s still the kind of writing I prefer and that I would like to see ascendant again after a 40 year reign of realism, which at its worst on each extreme sinks into the most tired kinds of literalism or fantasy. Perhaps as Burroughs’ work is revisited this year, there will be a new dawn of the literature of the potential. I sure hope so.
[NOTE: The title of this essay were the last words of William S. Burroughs.]