Mary McCarthy on William S. Burroughs’s ‘The Naked Lunch’

In 2013, The New York Review of Books celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. During the course of the year we will reprint excerpts from some other notable pieces published in the Review over the last five decades.

The following is an extract from Mary McCarthy’s review of William S. Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, which appeared in the first issue of The New York Review in February 1963. It can be read in full at nybooks.test/50/naked.

Dejeuner sur l’Herbe

Mary McCarthy

“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….

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….

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…

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