Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs

naked-lunch-by-william-s-burroughs cover imageGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic
Published: 1959
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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It’s a well-known fact that William S. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch (the title refers to a frozen moment when everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork) whilst he was still under the influence of what he termed ‘the sickness’. In other words he was completely whacked out on drugs (you name it, he was on it) and couldn’t even remember writing most of it when he’d finished. Apparently it was Ginsberg and Kerouac who persuaded him to publish the ‘novel’ without any major rewriting or alterations. But whether you agree with this decision or not (and by the end of the book you will have an opinion either way) there can be no getting around the actuality that in the 40 odd years since its release, Naked Lunch has developed into a virtual phenomenon, changing the face of American literature forever and prompting a major film adaptation from off-kilter cult director David Cronenberg.

And whereas that particular motion picture had a narrative structure of sorts, its source material has nothing of the kind – and is very proud of the fact. Naked Lunch is a collection of very loosely related incidents and anecdotes, many of which take place in a location known as Interzone, a weird Burroughs-esque interpretation of Tangiers (where the author lived for a time) which even has its own political parties, religions and systems of education and law. If the story (?) has a central character, this would probably be Bill Lee, who crops up from time to time and comes across as Burroughs’ literary alter-ego. But much of the 180 or so pages is taken up with descriptions of drug-buying, drug-taking, outlandish sexual acts whilst on drugs, the paranoia of being caught doing these things, and the efforts of the medical profession to tackle or control (a central theme) the problem of addiction.

Obviously the author was somewhat of an expert on the subject and you get innumerable paragraphs going through every possible situation the discerning addict might find himself in, beginning with the purchasing of drugs (I know this one pusher walks around humming a tune and everybody he passes takes it up. He is so grey and spectral and anonymous they don’t see him and think it is their own mind humming the tune) and some situations they only think they’re in – often involving monstrous creatures called Mugwumps (Thin, purple-blue lips cover a razor-sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients). As the book progresses, these scenes get more and more wild until you start to imagine you are on some kind of hallucinogenic trip yourself.

Interspersed with these are some of the most graphic (pornographic?) and depraved depictions of the sexual act you’ll ever read. And because Burroughs was bisexual, these habitually involve young boys being sodomized or gallons of semen spurting across the room. There’s even a long conversation about dildos called Steely Dans (Mary is strapping on a rubber penis: “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” she says, caressing the shaft.).

However, you will also find some of the most entertaining characters ever in this book. People like Dr. Benway, for instance, who runs a hospital where simians are let loose in the operating theater to act as nurses, and where the only cure for addiction is to use a massive apple-corer device on the patients. Or how about Placenta Juan the Afterbirth Tycoon? Or even Hauser and O’Brien of the city narcotics squad, described as a vaudeville team (Hauser had a way of hitting you before he said anything just to break the ice.) And some of the bits detailing the trade of centipede junk, or black meat as it’s known, take this almost to the level of a futuristic fantasy.

One reviewer once likened reading Naked Lunch to licking an ashtray, and I have to admit there are some extremely repugnant elements to it. In addition, there’ll be times when you’ve read a whole page and still don’t know what the hell it was supposed to be about apart from a series of stream-of-consciousness imagining from some bloke who’s really lucky to have lived as long as he did. Is it art? Perhaps. Is it poetry? Probably. Is it advisable to sit down and read the whole thing from start to finish in one go? Definitely not. Burroughs’ defining work should really be dipped into, and even then at your own risk. For just as looking directly at the sun will surely blind you, prolonged exposure to Naked Lunch will almost certainly result in some form of dementia. Unless, of course, you happen to be demented to start with.

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