The immortal awfulness of “Naked Lunch”

William S. Burroughs' subversive classic turns 50 -- and is still as vile and embarrassing as it always was

Topics: Fiction, Books,

The immortal awfulness of "Naked Lunch""Naked Lunch: 50th Anniversary Edition"

Everybody remembers his first time. Nobody talks about William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch,” which celebrated its 50th birthday this past November (dated from its 1959 publication in Paris by Maurice Girodias’ infamous Olympia Press), without indulging in a dreamily solipsistic nostalgia trip. Lewis Jones, in the London Spectator: “When I first read “Naked Lunch,” as a teenager sleeping rough in a Greek olive grove …”; Barry Miles, the author of a hilariously credulous Burroughs biography (“El Hombre Invisible”) and co-editor of this commemorative volume, on a Columbia University panel: “I was living in this hippie commune apartment in London … The book completely knocked me out, the epitome of stoned humor and bohemian subversion.”

I’ll join in the fun. I first encountered “Naked Lunch” in eighth grade, in the backseat of my parents’ car — a clear-cut case of child abuse by neglect. I’d purchased it on a family outing to Waldenbooks, a store that, it’s interesting to note, mostly traffics in kitten calendars and “Cathy” bookmarks. “Please,” I thought, “don’t let Mom ask to see this.” You could read any page at random — as Burroughs essentially intended, once insisting in a letter, underscored, and in all caps, that it wasn’t a novel — and get sick to your stomach. “Junk sick,” as Burroughs would say, in another context.

Barnes & Noble ReviewWhy is “Where were you when …,” a question for assassinations and catastrophes, so often asked with respect to this book? Maybe because reading “Naked Lunch” is an act of violence to one’s psyche. Jack Kerouac, who suggested the book’s title (based on a misreading of the phrase “naked lust”) and typed up the manuscript, claimed it gave him nightmares. Good for him, or at least for his unconscious mind. There is something gratingly adolescent about those who insist on the essential humor of a work replete with violent interspecies pornography (“The Mugwump pushes a slender blond youth to a couch and strips him expertly”); fetishistic descriptions of putrefaction and disease (“[h]e’s got a prolapsed asshole and when he wants to get screwed he’ll pass you his ass on three feet of in-tes-tine”); and general nastiness (“Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?”).

The book is very occasionally funny, in a Mickey Spillane meets the Marquis de Sade kind of way, but its savage imagery, non-linearity, repetition and plotlessness make it something worse than nightmarish — they make it boring, even embarrassing. There are frequent authorial intrusions along the lines of “Note: Catnip smells like marijuana when it burns. Frequently passed on the incautious or uninstructed.” The reader begins to feel like a baby sitter whose young charge is describing an R-rated movie he was accidentally allowed to see. In Burroughs’ case, the movie is about opiate addiction, which he deliberately cultivated over a lifetime, perhaps for something to write about.

Burroughs the man was as awful as he was beloved. He enjoyed a very comfortable upbringing in St. Louis — his grandfather invented the adding machine — and received an allowance for much of his life, but petulantly insisted “we were not rich.” He had a son he didn’t take care of, whose mother, Joan Vollmer, he’d shot dead in a drunken game of “William Tell.” Adding insult to murder, he spent much of his writing life glorifying the incident, imagining that a so-called Ugly Spirit had invaded him and forced his hand. He even attempted a kitschy sweat lodge “exorcism” late in life, described in nauseatingly approving detail in the Miles biography.

Burroughs is often said to have exerted a major influence on popular culture. This seems limited to the fact that his work is alluded to in a Joy Division song (“Interzone,” named for a setting in “Naked Lunch”); that he has a brief role in Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989); that he has an even briefer cameo in a U2 video; and that the rock group Steely Dan is named after a dildo featured in “Naked Lunch.”

It is unthinkable that Burroughs’ writing had a significant influence on anyone above high-school age. “Naked Lunch” is ostensibly about addiction and “control”; Burroughs and his myrmidons have even argued that the pornographic leitmotif of hanging represents a Swiftian satire of capital punishment — nice try. Really, it is about shock for shock’s sake, as is apparent to the precocious young people to whom it tends to appeal, and as is doubly apparent in the fact that it is remembered by readers as a sensation rather than in terms of its contents. Nobody will quote “Naked Lunch,” not even its scabrous Dr. Benway, as literature — if at all, it will be as an inside joke.

“Naked Lunch” is one of those regrettable works that must be defended on the grounds that it does well what it set out to do, with no consideration given to whether what it set out to do is worth doing. It is very like a nightmare — so? Its vocabulary is pathetically limited, with “insect,” “erectile,” and “atrophied” appearing as adjectives over and over again, whether or not they make any sense; its stunted imagination reaches reflexively to drug culture and medical or anthropological gross-out lore. Its satire is all telegraphic, all punch line: Just because you have a loudmouth Southern sheriff or a big-city detective, doesn’t mean you’ve said anything useful or interesting about racism or due-process violations.

Burroughs is one of those figures whose intelligence is overestimated because, slight though it is, it contrasts sharply with his outrageous public persona. Even on the subject of narcotics, the one thing he should be expected to understand, he’s hopelessly muddled. His “Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs,” printed in the British Journal of Addiction, Vol. 53, No. 2, and appended to this and to other editions of “Naked Lunch,” seems oblivious to the fact that a sample pool of one person is not medically valuable. And he writes in “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” that “[t]he junk virus is public health problem number one of the world today” (emphasis his), only to pretend three decades later, in “Afterthoughts on a Deposition,” that he was referring to “anti-drug hysteria … a deadly threat to personal freedoms.” This is a shameless distortion of his unambiguous previous message. It reveals what has been evident to many readers all along: Burroughs was always ready with high-minded defenses of his work, which could only elicit one aesthetic response: revulsion.

Still, “Naked Lunch” serves a very valuable and reliable purpose. Get to it early enough, somewhere between the Hardy Boys and Holden Caulfield, and the fatigue and tedium will inoculate you against all sorts of intellectual malfeasance. You’ll never swallow the line that obscenity is a hallmark of genius, or that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom (usually it leads to the palace of excess, except when it leads to the hovel of incomprehensibility). Dismiss Burroughs as a pull-my-finger bore and you’re ready to dismiss Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, the Chapman Brothers, Jonathan Littell and a host of others too dull to mention.

“I am not an entertainer,” Burroughs wrote in 1959. You can sure as hell say that again.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>