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Vol. LXIII, No. 47
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
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Book Review

Who’s Been Eating My Naked Lunch? — A Golden Anniversary

Stuart Mitchner

The stained, tattered, infectious-looking object you see before you is the anti-Kindle, anti-ebook, anti iPhone whatzit, not to mention the antithesis of all those bright immaculate “real books” lining the shelves at Labyrinth and Barnes & Noble like so many shiny new apples. This first edition of William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, published by the Olympia Press in Paris in 1959 (“Not To Be Sold in the U.S.A. or U.K.”), has maintained its shabby charisma through 50 years of heavy use and one act of violence. I bought it at a street market in Rome, marked down to 1000 lire (around $1) due to the fact that pages 85 to 90 were missing. Missing’s not the word for it: they’d been ripped out.

My guess is Burroughs wouldn’t mind. The author who played with cut-up and folded-in texts like a gambler rolling the dice or spinning the subliminal roulette wheel might even find a certain aesthetic allure in this violation by an anonymous assailant. For Burroughs, a constructive engagement with seemingly alien, intrusive, or unexpected phenomena is a condition of life and art. In his 1965 Paris Review interview with Conrad Knickerbocker, he laments the fact that “most people don’t see what’s going on around them.” Speaking to writers in general, Burroughs added: “For God’s sake, keep your eyes open!” As far as that goes, the idea of “inattentional blindness” is a hot topic in 2009, witness Nick Paumgarten’s Talk of the Town piece about the pitfalls of texting in the November 9 New Yorker (“Out to Lunch”), which shows how messaging overkill can cause you to “fail to notice really obvious stuff around you, like a guy in a gorilla suit.”

Stuff Happens

Chances are that if Burroughs were around today he’d be taking enthusiastic advantage of the new technology. He might also enjoy the way texting and email play fast and loose with accepted forms like syntax, capitalization, and spelling. He had a foretaste of it himself when Olympia decided the title of the book they were publishing was The Naked Lunch rather than Naked Lunch, the intended title that was restored when the Grove Press edition was published in 1962.

As for the six pages someone tore out of the copy pictured here, I didn’t mind the gap. Being already attuned to the non-linear, wide-open badlands topography of the work, I just kept right on going; no problem. When the U.S. edition appeared, I checked out the missing section long enough to see that it contained some of the most graphic episodes in a three-ring circus of sex, torture, and death execution-style featuring Johnny, Mark, and Mary. I figured I wasn’t missing much since I found what I read of it off-puttingly self-indulgent, as Burroughs himself seems to admit (“the sex scenes were for my own amusement”); these were among the passages that got the book banned in Boston, brought to trial, and eventually judged “not obscene” by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

The truth is that in spite of the convoluted razzledazzle testimony for the defense by Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and others, Naked Lunch remains profoundly, vehemently, unapologetically obscene.

Minding the Gap

The ripping out of pages 85-90 by some pedophile or closet psychopath (or maybe only a horny college kid from the States) occured during the surreal scene (well, all the scenes are surreal) where a professor at Interzone University is giving a lecture on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. That work, along with Coleridge’s great fragment (speaking of cut-ups)”Kubla Khan,” was the subject of The Road to Xanadu, a 600-page scorched-earth investigation of the poet’s reading habits by Burroughs’s one-time Harvard professor John Livingston Lowes. It seems likely that so vast a study of so formidably acquisitive a consciousness may have helped shape Burroughs’s later ideas about the way “cut-ups make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time.” Recasting the Mariner and literature’s most famous captive audience, the Wedding Guest, as the Talker and the Listener in analysis, the professor declares, “Gentlemen I will slop a pearl: You can find out more about someone by talking than by listening [Burroughs’s italics]” — which is the point at which the pages were torn out.

Here’s what you get if you follow the principle of the cut-up and couple the last words on page 85 with the first words on page 90:

“… by listening green and dripping in summer dawn, black against a clear winter day.”

Not bad. The Ripper was a poet and didn’t know it.


Rereading Naked Lunch on its 50th anniversary, I have all I can do to keep track of even a fraction of the associations and influences it generates. The nightmarish slapstick dynamics that have you either gritting your teeth, rolling your eyes, or laughing out loud owe something to the incomparable Nighttown phantasmagoria in James Joyce’s Ulysses. On the other hand, there’s Burroughs’s pal Terry Southern, whose creations Guy Grand and Dr. Strangelove seem to have been cooked up in the same pot with Naked Lunch’s A.J., “Last of the Bigtime Spenders” and the inimitable Dr. Benway (“Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can?”). I also find myself thinking of Monty Python and the Firesign Theatre, of Lenny Bruce at his most caustic, and of a comedian who used to do inspired turns between dancers at the Fox Burlesque in Indianapolis; and I think of Sherlock Holmes, not only for the cocaine angle but the hint of a spectral Basil Rathbone in Burroughs’s face. I’m also reminded of film noir plastic surgeons and nocturnal scientists; of Hunter Thompson and of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Not to mention that the terms “interzone” and “heavy metal” derive from Burroughs, as does the name of the rock group Steely Dan, whose repertoire includes one of Naked Lunch’s recurring theme songs, Duke Ellington’s ghostly “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”

To this eat-and-run sampling of associations, I’d add that scholar of the inexplicable, Charles Fort, whose life was devoted to debunking the false gods of science, a cause Burroughs sympathized with. Fort’s shade seems to rise up from the page every time Burroughs mutters one of his numerous factual asides.

The Voice

You can hear Burroughs speaking when you read him, so well has he managed to project into print the reedy sometimes almost Harry-Trumanesque monotone that stays low and sinister even when his inflection is up and earnest. When you actually hear him talking or reading, as you can on YouTube, it’s pretty much what you would have expected, only better since he’s as vocally versatile as a carnival pitchman. While he favors the inflections of the hustler, the dealer, and the dirty old man, you can also hear a hint of Ezra Pound, of all people, in Burroughs. If you doubt this, listen to a recording of Pound reading at the top of his bent and then watch the YouTube clip of Burroughs doing his Dr. Benway routine on a 1981 broadcast of Saturday Night Live; what you’ll hear is not unlike the same sly, stagey twang.

The Benway clip was part of a documentary aired on the BBC series Arena two weeks after Burroughs’s death on August 2, 1997. Twelve years later the ex-junkie, ex-criminal who was inducted into the American Academy in 1975 is being celebrated around the world on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece. In June, Naked Lunch@50 Anniversary Essays (Southern Illinois University Press) was launched with several days of events in Paris (including one in the Beat Hotel). In Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs spent his last 20 years, festivities included an exhibit of his paintings. Chicago celebrated Burroughs in August with another art exhibit and a showing of the documentary William S. Burroughs: The Man Within; the emcee was Peter Weller, who starred in David Cronenberg’s film of Naked Lunch (which I have never been able to sit through without dozing off); also on hand was that “terrorist Obama was palling around with,” Bill Ayers. London and Bristol hosted special events in September. There were four days of celebration in New York in October, and this month Iowa City, Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco joined in. The most recent event was last weekend in San Francisco with readings from Naked Lunch, where the author was billed as “a father of the counterculture.”

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