"Cuddle up with William S. Burroughs"

A week or so ago I finished Naked Lunch. Now it's time to document the experience.

William Lee, "Agent" and drug addict, goes on the run to Mexico. The amoral Dr Benway corrupts the bodies and minds of citizens for the state. Addicts queue for the secretions of the creatures known as mugwumps, or crave the "Black Meat" of giant centipedes. The rich indulge in expensive orgies where young men have their necks snapped during orgasm. Bizarre factions battle for control of the vice-ridden city known as Interzone. After all this and many other episodes, Lee shoots two narcotics officers and goes in search of another hit, perhaps slipping into a different reality as he does so.

That's about as close as I can get to summarising the "plot" of Naked Lunch. Plenty of stuff happens, but there's no narrative, and that's intentional. Instead, there's a tone, a mood, and the evocation of emotion. Burroughs doesn't seem to like pretty things, either, so it's all very ugly. I'm not one to flinch at reading something unpleasant, but the despair and awfulness is unending in Naked Lunch. No-one is happy, everyone's addicted - to junk, to sex (particularly homosexuality, which is presented along "these queers all have something wrong them, and so do I" lines), to a corrupted ideal. Certainly this is not a book that glorifies drug culture, and it often feels like it's written in the blood and junk dripping out of someone's works rather than in ink, but Burroughs spreads the misery around pretty evenly.

It's not hard to see how this was a touchstone for counter culture at the time when it was written. There's plenty of swearing, plenty of explicit sex - which is mostly violent and occasionally fatal - and a hovering intimation that everything here, while surreal, really exists there. This is social commentary by insane allegory, though there are passages where the differences between the book and the real-world being protested are only ones of degree.

Stylistically it sucks you in, and it's not like anything I've read before, but then this is my first experience with the Beat Generation. Burroughs writes with rhythm and pace, his prose like ugly yet effective poetry. He reuses phrases, sometimes within a chapter, sometimes at opposite ends of the book; these motifs reappear in different contexts but, like proper "shelving" in a comedy routine, they make the otherwise random zig zagging seem planned, given pattern to the chaos.

Speaking of comedy, there are occasional laughs, though they're dark laughs, the kind you make so you don't cry from despair. Then there's the use of unsual devices; in the latter third of the book, Burroughs uses fade outs to end some scenes, cutting to conclusions or another thread entirely. For something written in the fifties, that must have crossed literary boundaries; even now, when the grammar of film and television is in ll of our heads, it's not something you see in books.

I came away from Naked Lunch with mixed feelings, that sort of knot in your stomach of "I really wanted to like that, and I did, except for..." My exception, really, was the sex; not that there was so much of it, nor even that it was graphic, but that it was so consistently unpleasant and frequently mixed with awful violence. The sex of Naked Lunch is generally less appealing than the drugs; it's also hard to place when I don't know the context of the writing, so I have to comfort myself with the thought that surely 50s counterculture embraced sex, and the homophobic and prudish language is all satire and irony.

Still, the beat of Burroughs got into my head and soul and I do like Naked Lunch. I'll be back for more Beat writing, though probably I'll try one of the others.

Chapters: 25, plus the "deprecated preface"
Page count: 196 (not counting the additional materials in my edition)
Book's title mentioned on page:
187 (3 times on one page, in reference to the book itself)
Best name encountered: Liquefactionists (one of the warring factions of Interzone)
New words: Bang-utot, curare, Espontáneo, Latah, mezuzzoth, paregoric, pathic, rinderpest, yagé
Inner Five-year-old score: 1 (it has monsters and violence in it, but only of the serious nightmare-inducing kind)
Fun Wikipedia fact: One of my Mum's favourite bands, Steely Dan, takes its name from a dildo featured in the book.

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