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The Invisible Man

Before this point, however, an inordinate amount of space is devoted to guns, with each unit lovingly described and identified thereafter by caliber, as is the custom in men’s action novels of the “Destroyer” variety. Burroughs generally has a rather juvenile fascination with the paraphernalia of warfare and espionage. This can be partially explained by his background.

He was born into comfortable circumstances. His grandfather had invented the oil-filled cylinder and perforated piston that drove the adding machine that came to bear his name, although the assets of the Burroughs Company had mostly passed out of his family’s hands by the time William reached his majority. He was a sickly child, and was removed for his health to the Los Alamos Ranch School, in New Mexico, future home of the atom bomb. There he reluctantly learned to ride and enthusiastically learned to shoot. Back in St. Louis, he made some timid attempts at burglary, all the while consuming large quantities of pulp literature. After college he was tapped for the OSS by Wild Bill Donovan himself, although his application was suppressed by an inimical former housemaster from Harvard. In a 1982 interview, he compared himself to James Angleton, a literary intellectual who did become a high official of the CIA.2

In Howard Brookner’s meticulous and entertaining documentary Burroughs, the subject, after demonstrating his blow-gun and his spring-activated blackjack, wistfully says, “I would like to kill somebody before I die.” At another point, a glassy-eyed and obviously soused Burroughs rants about the “gay state”: “We’ll have an organization with false passports, weapons on arrival…. If anybody says anything against gays, we’ll find ‘em, track ‘em down, and kill ‘em.” Such braggadocio is endemic to American boyishness, and its exemplars can be found in every shopping mall, most of them having shot only beer cans. Burroughs actually did kill somebody, namely his wife, in a drunken William Tell escapade in 1951, and whether this was caused by what he calls “the ugly spirit,” by an unsteady hand, or by his subconscious, will never be known.

But boyishness persists. The Place of Dead Roads must be one of very few novels to be dedicated to its fictional hero (who shares the honor with the unjustly neglected English writer Denton Welch, 1915–1948, whom Burroughs would cast as an incipient wild boy). Kim Carsons is, needless to say, an idealized version of the young Burroughs, and nostalgic glimpses of a St. Louis boyhood recur, as they have, to some degree, in nearly all of Burroughs’s books. In Naked Lunch he makes the point that heroin causes the addict to be controlled entirely by the “front brain,” leading to a flat, uninflected perception of events. When supply is cut off, the “back brain” floods in, and the pains of withdrawal are accompanied by fits of nostalgia.

The contrast between his writing during its preoccupation with addiction and afterward makes an interesting illustration of this. The Place of Dead Roads and the book before it, Cities of the Red Night (originally subtitled A Boy’s Book), are especially sepia-toned. It isn’t just that Kim Carsons is given chunks of Burroughs’s biography for background; the literary model itself harks back. In an effort to make the narrative structures of these two books more linear, and consequently more accessible, Burroughs has somehow been inspired to emulate the language and themes of such pulp masters as Sax Rohmer, H.P. Lovecraft, Max Brand, and The Author of Nick Carter. The boys in both books disport themselves about their stylized adventure-story habitats with exhausting heartiness, working up a big appetite by drilling aliens and bigots, then wolfing down plates of pork and beans. The horrors, meanwhile, are rendered in Lovecraftian adjectives like “unspeakable” and “obscene,” a considerable step down from Burroughs’s formerly businesslike approach to the vile.

Of course, the possibility remains that such affectations are intended as parody. There is, in fact, a conspicuously planted clue to such intentions, in the form of a story which Kim intends to send to Boy’s Life (of all places) featuring Nazi fantasies and extraterrestrial buggery set in a plot vaguely reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard. Nevertheless, Burroughs is both too fond of his boy’s book mannerisms and too inexact in their deployment for the parody to be even slightly convincing.

That the novel’s plot goes nowhere in particular should come as no great surprise. Burroughs’s sense of structure has always been baffling, quite apart from the virtues of plotlessness. Even Junky, his most conventionally linear novel, wanders off into the night, like a guest who goes out for cigarettes and forgets to come back. The Place of Dead Roads is only given shape by the most expeditious of devices, the gunfight scene which frames it at both ends. Otherwise, the action consists of a succession of adventures, shoot-outs, sex scenes, noisome apparitions, and the occasional vignette from the author’s memory, with all the pyrotechnic qualities of an infinitely prolonged bedtime story. Such formlessness can perhaps be attributed to his insistence on a certain automatism on the writer’s part. An awful lot of Burroughs’s devices are derived from surrealism, and when they fail, the result often resembles the numbing generic uniformity of bad surrealist writing. The meanderings and repetitions of Burroughs’s texts, though, are distinguished from the merely sluggish rut-plowing of unmediated writing by their obsessiveness. With their recombinant imagery and interlocking themes, his books all seem to run together into one long novel.

In Naked Lunch, Burroughs wrote: “Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out.” Certainly addiction had forever dispelled any such notions for Burroughs himself. He first came in contact with the stuff toward the end of World War II, when someone gave him a case of morphine Syrettes on consignment. He sold them, but kept a few for himself. He began seeking it out and soon found himself addicted. Junk became the center of his life; his struggles to raise money for it, obtain it, and occasionally kick it are documented in his autobiographical novel, Junky, first published in 1953. He underwent several cures of the conventional sort, at the government facility in Lexington, Kentucky, and elsewhere, but to little avail. In 1957 he sought treatment from Dr. John Yerbury Dent, a London physician who was experimenting with apomorphine, a solution of morphine boiled in hydrochloric acid. This concoction supposedly provided the effect of an opiate without being habit-forming, permitting the user to gradually cut back on intake without withdrawal symptoms or the danger of relapses. Burroughs has proselytized for this method, and asserts that its suppression by the FDA is the result of conspiracy.

Addiction gave Burroughs an education in the mechanics of control. As he wrote in Naked Lunch: “Junk is the ideal product…the ultimate merchandise…. The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.” Burroughs learned to look for the strings attached to all forms of exchange, including the use of language. Accordingly, he began collecting strategies to force his writing away from patterns imposed by habit. In Tangier he met Brion Gysin, a British-born painter and poet, who was experimenting with cut-ups, a scrambling device that usually involved quartering a sheet of text and randomly rearranging the pieces. After some fooling around, Burroughs began using this technique with paradoxical deliberateness. In his writing of the 1960s, as exemplified by The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express, the narrative is stretched and twisted by the deployment of chunks of cut-up matter. A paragraph of straight prose will be followed by one of distorted prose in which lumps of the first can be sighted in new permutations.

This kind of echoing disturbingly transforms familiar elements the way dreams do. Cut-ups flaunt the randomness of language by demonstrating that unplanned groupings of words can prove at least as expressive as purposely fashioned phrases. Of course, Burroughs used cut-ups very calculatingly, choosing only one or two lines from a cut-up page, reducing the brew to its essentials. “Anything they can do you can do better,” he wrote in The Job. “Pick up The Concise Oxford Dictionary mix your own linguistic virus concentrates fire burn and cauldron bubble mix it black and mix it strong folks hereabouts have done you wrong return confluently the complement: e.”

Burroughs is not merely being fanciful in characterizing language as a “virus.” His knowledge of its malign uses has led him to a deterministic idea of the hegemony of the word. For him language determines event. He resembles the turn-of-the-century Parisian clochard-philosopher Jean-Pierre Brisset, who imagined a Francophone Adam speaking his first words, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” then turning the sounds around in his mouth until they formed “sexe,” and behold, he had one.3 Burroughs sees language as a code imposed on humans by that authoritarian, dualistic Them, regulating their behavior within narrowly defined limits. The code can be broken only provisionally. As he wrote in Cities of the Red Night, “Changes…can only be effected by alterations in the original. The only thing not prerecorded in a prerecorded universe are the prerecordings themselves. The copies can only repeat themselves word for word. A virus is a copy. You can pretty it up, cut it up, scramble it—it will reassemble in the same form.”

Burroughs might be describing his own writing: no matter how he twists or pulls or shakes it, throws in cut-ups of Conrad or Rimbaud, it continues to sound like the voice of Burroughs, with the same clipped phrases and the same obsessions. Indeed, his voice is so prerecorded that it is frequently hard to tell apart the composed and the manipulated sections of his work. The Place of Dead Roads uses scarcely any cut-ups, per se, but seems instead a large-scale cut-up of his sensibility, the pieces falling apparently at random.

Burroughs’s fixations have led him down the garden path on numerous occasions. He flirted with Scientology, enthralled with its promised vacuuming of infantile traumas and acquired prejudices, until he found it to be precisely the kind of malign authoritarian system he sought to escape.4 His notion of the power of language has led him to suggest that Bolivar’s ultimate failure in liberating South America from oppression lay in his retention of Spanish; Chinese, he thinks, would have freed the masses psychologically.5 His most questionable fancy, though, derives from the odd fact that his experiments with chance have only reinforced his determinism. On the subject of coincidence, Burroughs invariably sounds like a devotee of dowsing or UFOs. He insists that cut-ups can predict the future. In “Handkerchief Masks,” a tape experiment from the early 1960s, radio newscasts from different stations are randomly interwoven. Thus, when an item about President Johnson suddenly cuts to “appeared before a grand jury on perjury charges,” the accident can be retrospectively claimed as prophetic of Watergate.6 A newspaper account of a fire with twenty-three casualties juxtaposed with mention of the suicide of a male aged twenty-three can be taken as evidence of larger designs, but when both are contrasted with October 23, 1935, the date when Dutch Schultz was gunned down, it is difficult to distinguish between paranoia and literary affectation.7

Burroughs clearly wants his readers to discard such distinctions, just as he long ago stopped distinguishing between his life and his work. His persona is so entirely sui generis that one cannot imagine his having the writer’s usual difficult beginnings. The recently published Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953–1957, shows Burroughs in a completely new light. His voice in these is not only surprisingly personal, but so touchingly unsure that it is necessary to remind oneself that he wrote them between the ages of thirty-nine and forty-three. He was then living in Tangier on an allowance supplied by his parents, not long after the shooting of his wife and his adventures in South America. He was trying to kick heroin, again and again, in desultory fashion. When not scouring drugstores for substitutes, or chasing boys and worrying about their fidelity, he was attempting to establish himself as a writer. He had already written Junky, quickly and for money, and was casting about for a voice, not realizing that he already possessed one.

The letters are full of feeble promises and tentative plans: “I have started writing a Chandler-style straight action story about some super Heroin you can get a habit on one shot with it or something similar—I’m not even sure yet.” “I am writing an article on Tanger. Perhaps New Yorker: ‘Letter from Tanger.”’ “I am planning to write, when I get the time, a short book just on Yage like Huxley’s peyote book. Positively no school-boy smut.” Meanwhile, he is developing “routines,” solely for the amusement of his correspondents, and in the four-year course of the exchange they gradually turn into Naked Lunch. The shift in both attitude and style is painful and unmistakable. The book operates like time-lapse photography; it is a rare instance of a writer’s development made visible in a brief text.

Naked Lunch, the book he eventually produced, is still his best. None of his later writings can match its imaginative power, its acute observations, or its astringent humor. It remains a milestone of a kind, going further than any book in plumbing the untouchable aspects of American life at a time when defiance had become a kind of competition among writers. For a while it seemed as though it would be the last book to be banned for obscenity—it was not, in fact, cleared for sale in Massachusetts until 1966, three years after Mary McCarthy’s enthusiastic review was published in the first issue of this paper. Now that the most innocuous antiques are being dragged from the shelves in jerkwater school districts, it seems just as formidable as it did then. Naked Lunch has never been successfully imitated, and the competition is mostly forgotten. It could be said that Burroughs had shot his wad with this volume, since few of his later themes are not somewhere present within it, and originally done up in a fashion that is more readable and convincing.

By sheer force of repetition, however, accompanied by shrewd press-agentry, he has constructed an edifice, which includes the invention of a self that is as much a work of art as any of his books. The figure that Burroughs cuts is an almost folkloric type, a sort of Pecos Bill of America’s underside. Just as intellectual vagrants Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim respectively incarnated the bum who is writing the history of the universe and the perpetually mendicant garret poet, Burroughs has forever stamped a stereotype with his own personality. He is the dangerous figure in a worn business outfit who haunts schoolyards and mutters vague fragments about planetary conspiracy. That he is being filmed, photographed, and interviewed incessantly in his decline will someday provide the proof that he actually existed, not just as the author, but as his own creation.


Dead Roads July 19, 1984

  1. 2

    Exterminating” in Semiotext(e), vol. 4, no. 2, 1982.

  2. 3

    La Grammaire logique, suivi de La Science de Dieu, by Jean-Pierre Brisset (Paris: Tchou, 1970).

  3. 4

    Ali’s Smile and Naked Scientology (Bonn: Expanded Media Editions, 1978).

  4. 5

    The Revised Boy Scout Manual” in Re/Search, no. 4/5, 1982.

  5. 6

    Nothing Here Now but the Recordings” (London: Industrial Records, 1982).

  6. 7

    The Dead Star (Nova Broadcast Press, 1969).

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