The Naked Lunch
by William S. Burroughs
Grove Press, 6.00
“You can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” says Burroughs, suiting the action to the word, in “an atrophied preface” he appends as a tail-piece. His book, he means, is like a neighborhood movie with continuous showings that you can drop into whenever you please—you don’t have to wait for the beginning of the feature picture. Or like a worm that you can chop up into sections each of which wriggles off as an independent worm. Or a nine-lived cat. Or a cancer. He is fond of the word “mosaic,” especially in its scientific sense of a plant-mottling caused by a virus, and his Muse (see etymology of “mosaic”) is interested in organic processes of multiplication and duplication. The literary notion of time as simultaneous, a montage, is not original with Burroughs; what is original is the scientific bent he gives it and a view of the world that combines biochemistry, anthropology, and politics. It is as though Finnegans Wake were cut loose from history and adapted for a cinerama circus titled “One World.” The Naked Lunch has no use for history, which is all “ancient history”—sloughed-off skin; from its planetary perspective, there are only geography and customs. Seen in terms of space, history shrivels into a mere wrinkling or furrowing of the surface as in an aerial relief-map or one of those pieced-together aerial photographs known in the trade as mosaics. The oldest memory in The Naked Lunch is of jacking-off in boyhood latrines, a memory recaptured through pederasty. This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction—the others are entertainment.
The action of The Naked Lunch takes place in the consciousness of One Man, William Lee, who is taking a drug cure. The principal characters, besides Lee, are his friend, Bill Gains (who seems momentarily to turn into a woman called Jane), various members of the Narcotic Squad, especially one Bradley the Buyer, Dr. Benway, a charlatan medico who is treating Lee, two vaudevillians, Clem and Jody, A. J., a carnival con man, the last of the Big Spenders, a sailor, an Arab called Ahmed, an archetypal Southern druggist, Doc Parker (“a man don’t have no secrets from God and his druggist”), and various boys with whining voices. Among the minor characters are a number of automobiles, each with its specific complaint, like the oil-burning Ford V-8, a film executive, the Party Leader, the Vigilante, John and Mary, the sex acrobats, and a puzzled American housewife who is heard complaining because the Mixmaster keeps trying to climb up under her dress. The scene shifts about, shiftily, from New York to Chicago to St. Louis to New Orleans to Mexico to Malmo, Sweden, Venice, and the human identities shift about shiftily too, for all these modern places and modern individuals (if that is the right word) have interchangeable parts. Burroughs is fond too of the word “ectoplasm,” and the beings that surround Lee, particularly the inimical ones, seem ectoplasmic phantoms projected on the wide screen of his consciousness from a mass séance. But the haunting is less visual than auditory. These “characters,” in the colloquial sense, are ventriloquial voices produced, as it were, against the will of the ventriloquist, who has become their dummy. Passages of dialogue and description keep recurring in different contexts with slight variations, as though they possessed ubiquity.
The best comparison for the book, with its aerial sex acts performed on a high trapeze, its con men and barkers, its arena-like form, is in fact a circus. A circus travels but it is always the same, and this is Burroughs’ sardonic image of modern life. The Barnum of the show is the mass-manipulator, who appears in a series of disguises. Control, as Burroughs says, underlining it, can never be a means to anything but more control—like drugs, and the vicious circle of addiction is reenacted, worldwide, with sideshows in the political and “social” sphere—the social here has vanished, except in quotation marks, like the historical, for everything has become automatized. Everyone is an addict of one kind or another, as people indeed are wont to say of themselves, complacently: “I’m a crossword puzzle addict, a High-Fi addict,” etcetera. The South is addicted to lynching and nigger- hating, and the Southern folk-custom of burning a Negro recurs throughout the book as a sort of Fourth-of-July carnival with fireworks. Circuses, with their cages of wild animals, are also dangerous, like Burroughs’ human circus; an accident may occur, as when the electronic brain in Dr. Benway’s laboratory goes on the rampage, and the freaks escape to mingle with the controlled citizens of Freeland in a general riot, or in the scene where the hogs are let loose in the gourmet restaurant.
On a level usually thought to be “harmless,” addiction to platitudes and commonplaces is global. To Burroughs’ ear, the Bore, lurking in the hotel lobby, is literally deadly (” ‘You look to me like a man of intelligence.’ Always ominous opening words, my boy!”). The same for Doc Parker with his captive customer in the back room of his pharmacy (“…So long as you got a legitimate condition and an Rx from a certified bona feedy M.D., I’m honored to serve you”), the professor in the classroom (“Hehe hehe he”), the attorney in court (“Hehe hehe he,” likewise). The complacent sound of snickering laughter is an alarm signal, like the suave bell-tones of the psychiatrist and the emphatic drone of the Party Leader (“You see men and women. Ordinary men and women going about their ordinary everyday tasks. Leading their ordinary lives. That’s what we need…”).
Cut to ordinary men and women, going about their ordinary everyday tasks. The whine of the put-upon boy hustler: “All kinda awful sex acts.” “Why cancha just get physical like a human?” “So I guess he come to some kinda awful climax.” “You think I am innarested to hear about your horrible old condition? I am not innarested at all.” “But he comes to a climax and turns into some kinda awful crab.” This aggrieved tone merges with the malingering sighs of the American housewife, opening a box of Lux: “I got the most awful cold, and my intestines is all constipated.” And the clarion of the Salesman: “When the Priority numbers are called up yonder I’ll be there.” These average folks are addicts of the science page of the Sunday supplements; they like to talk about their diseases and about vile practices that paralyze the practitioner from the waist down or about a worm that gets into your kidney and grows to enormous size or about the “horrible” result of marijuana addiction—it makes you turn black and your legs drop off. The superstitious scientific vocabulary is diffused from the laboratory and the mental hospital into the general population. Overheard at a lynching: “Don’t crowd too close, boys. His intestines is subject to explode in the fire.” The same diffusion of culture takes place with modern physics. A lieutenant to his general: “But, chief, can’t we get them started and they imitate each other like a chained reaction?”
The phenomenon of repetition, of course, gives rise to boredom; many readers complain that they cannot get through The Naked Lunch. And/or that they find it disgusting. It is disgusting and sometimes tiresome, often in the same places. The prominence of the anus, of faeces, and of all sorts of “horrible” discharges, as the characters would say, from the body’s orifices, becomes too much of a bad thing, like the sado-masochistic sex performances—the automatic ejaculation of a hanged man is not everybody’s cantharides. A reader whose erogenous zones are more temperate than the author’s begins to feel either that he is a square (a guilty sentiment he should not yield to) or that he is the captive of an addict.
In defense, Swift could be cited, and indeed between Burroughs and Swift there are many points of comparison; not only the obsession with excrement and the horror of female genitalia but a disgust with politics and the whole body politic. Like Swift, Burroughs has irritable nerves and something of the crafty temperament of the inventor. There is a great deal of Laputa in the countries Burroughs calls Interzone and Freeland, and Swift’s solution for the Irish problem would appeal to the American’s dry logic. As Gulliver, Swift posed as an anthropologist (though the study was not known by that name then) among savage people; Burroughs parodies the anthropologist in his descriptions of the American heartland: “…the Interior a vast subdivision, antennae of television to the meaningless sky…. Illinois and Missouri, miasma of mound-building peoples, grovelling worship of the Food Source, cruel and ugly festivals.” The style here is more emotive than Swift’s, but in his deadpan explanatory notes (“This is a rural English custom designed to eliminate aged and bedfast dependents”) there is a Swiftian factuality. The “factual” appearance of the whole narrative, with its battery of notes and citations, some straight, some loaded, its extracts from a diary, like a ship’s log, its pharmacopeia, has the flavor of eighteenth-century satire. He calls himself a “Factualist” and belongs, all alone, to an Age of Reason, which he locates in the future. In him, as in Swift, there is a kind of soured utopianism.
Yet what saves The Naked Lunch is not a literary ancestor but humor. Burroughs’s humor is peculiarly American, at once broad and sly. It is the humor of a comedian, a vaudeville performer playing in One, in front of the asbestos curtain to some Keith Circuit or Pantages house long since converted to movies. The same jokes reappear, slightly refurbished, to suit the circumstances, the way a vaudeville artist used to change Yonkers to Renton when he was playing Seattle. For example, the Saniflush joke, which is always good for a laugh: somebody is cutting the cocaine/the morphine/the penicillin with Saniflush. Some of the jokes are verbal (“Stop me if you’ve heard this atomic secret” or Dr. Benway’s “A simopath…is a citizen convinced he is an ape or other simian. It is a disorder peculiar to the army and discharge cures it”). Some are mimic buffoonery (Dr. Benway, in his last appearance, dreamily, his voice fading out: “Cancer, my first love”). Some are whole vaudeville “numbers,” as when the hoofers, Clem and Jody, are hired by the Russians to give Americans a bad name abroad: they appear in Liberia wearing black Stetsons and red galluses and talking loudly about burning niggers back home. A skit like this may rise to a frenzy, as if in a Marx Brothers or a Clayton, Jackson, and Durante act. E.g., the very funny scene in Chez Robert, “where a huge icy gourmet broods over the greatest cuisine in the world”: A. J. appears, the last of the Big Spenders, and orders a bottle of ketchup; immediate pandemonium; A. J. gives his hog-call, and the shocked gourmet diners are all devoured by famished hogs. The effect of pandemonium, all hell breaking loose, is one of Burroughs’ favorites and an equivalent of the old vaudeville finale, with the acrobats, the jugglers, the magician, the hoofers, the lady-who-was-cut-in-half, the piano player, the comedians, all pushing into the act.
Another favorite effect, with Burroughs, is the metamorphosis. A citizen is turned into animal form, a crab or a huge centipede, or into some unspeakable monstrosity like Bradley the Narcotics Agent who turns into an unidentifiable carnivore. These metamorphoses, of course, are punishments. The Hellzapoppin effect of orgies and riots and the metamorphosis effect, rapid or creeping, are really cancerous onslaughts—matter on the rampage multiplying itself and “building” as a revue scene “builds” to a climax. Growth and deterioration are the same thing: a human being “deteriorates” or “grows” into a one-man jungle. What you think of it depends on your point of view; from the junkie’s angle, Bradley is better as a carnivore eating the Narcotics Commissioner than he was as “fuzz”—junky slang for the police.
The impression left by this is perplexing. On the one hand, control is evil; on the other, escape from control is mass slaughter or reduction to a state of proliferating cellular matter. The police are the enemy, but as Burroughs shrewdly observes in one passage: “A functioning police state needs no police.” The policeman is internalized in the citizen. You might say that it would have been better to have no control, no police, in the first place; then there would be no police states, functioning or otherwise. This would seem to be Burroughs’s position, but it is not consistent with his picture of sex. The libertarian position usually has as one of its axioms a love of Nature and the natural, that is, of the life-principle itself, commonly identified with sex. But there is little overt love of the life-principle in The Naked Lunch, and sex, while magnified—a common trait of homosexual literature—is a kind of mechanical mantrap baited with fresh meat. The sexual climax, the jet of sperm, accompanied by a whistling scream, is often a death spasm, and the “perfect” orgasm would seem to be the posthumous orgasm of the hanged man, shooting his jissom into pure space.
It is true that Nature and sex are two-faced and that growth is death-oriented. But if Nature is not seen as far more good than evil, then a need for control is posited. And, strangely, this seems to be Burroughs’ position too. The human virus can now be treated, he says with emphasis, meaning the species itself. By scientific methods, he implies. Yet the laboratory of The Naked Lunch is a musical-comedy inferno, and Dr. Benway’s assistant is a female chimpanzee. It is impossible, as Burroughs knows, to have scientific experiment without control. Then what? Self-control? Do-it-yourself? But self-control, again, is an internalized system of authority, a subjection of the impulse to the will, the least “natural” part of the personality. Such a system might suit Marcus Aurelius, but it hardly seems congenial to the author of The Naked Lunch. And even if it were (for the author is at once puritan and tolerant), it would not form the basis for scientific experiment on the “human virus.” Only for scientific experiment on oneself.
Possibly this is what Burroughs means: in fact his present literary exercises may be stages in such a deliberate experiment. The questions just posed would not arise if The Naked Lunch did not contain messages that unluckily are somewhat arcane. Not just messages; prescriptions. That—to answer a pained question that keeps coming up like a refrain—is why the book is taken seriously. Burroughs’s remarkable talent is only part of the reason; the other part is that, finally, for the first time in recent years, a talented writer means what he says to be taken and used literally, like an Rx prescription. The literalness of Burroughs is the opposite of “literature.” Unsentimental and factual, he writes as though his thoughts had the quality of self-evidence. In short, he has a crankish courage, but all courage nowadays is probably crankish.
Letter June 1, 1963