SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

By Gary Kamiya

Published August 4, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the last of the great shockers is gone. Joyce's Bloom sat contentedly amid the smell of his shit, Henry Miller shoved pricks in our faces, Genet and Celine ripped off the masks, but for pure literary devastation, William S. Burroughs trumped them all. He came in from another galaxy and left the door open behind him. You had to put on a space suit to read Burroughs, and you still froze.

Burroughs brought the Big Cold into our literature. He pushed literature way out, past all the stop signs, into a wasteland where the faces screamed like Francis Bacon portraits and the pain wasn't literary. He was the first writer to visit the other world of junk with a functioning camera, and nobody has ever run that nightmare movie so well. But it wasn't just about dope -- that would have been a mere novelty act, sensationalism for decadents. Burroughs had the scary genius to turn the junk wasteland into a parallel universe, one as thoroughly and obsessively rendered as Blake's.

Burroughs was the killer, the icy-faced old poet who recorded every movement of the extraterrestrial machinery that was eating his flesh. He was 20th century drug culture's Poe, its Artaud, its Baudelaire. He was the prophet of the literature of pure experience, a phenomenologist of dread. While the rest of the Beats were rehearsing their fuck-you-mom-and-Eisenhower-too versions of Romanticism, Burroughs was already unspeakably old, already a veteran of evil campaigns on several really gnarly planets. Next to him, Ginsberg and the rest seemed like schoolkids.

That this laconic Midwesterner -- "Old Bull Lee," Kerouac dubbed him in "On the Road" -- ended up as the paterfamilias of his renegade generation is one of our odd half-century's better jokes. Some father figure! A homosexual ex-junkie whose claim to fame rests on one book, who killed his wife playing William Tell in Mexico City and whose epiphanic image -- repeated ad nauseam when he later foolishly codified his "cut-up" technique into a system -- was a teenage cock ejaculating while train whistles blew nostalgically in the distance. Follow him!

But when you read "Naked Lunch," you understand why Burroughs was the man. "Naked Lunch" remains one of the unquestionable masterpieces of the 20th century -- eminently worthy of its honored place as the book whose obscenity trial effectively ended literary censorship in America.

The odyssey of "Naked Lunch," as recounted in John De St. Jorre's "Venus Bound," is a fascinating one. Burroughs wrote the book in Tangier, Morocco, between 1954 and 1957. Writer Paul Bowles visited Burroughs and described his somewhat unusual compositional technique: "(Burroughs' hotel room) was the dirtiest place I had ever seen. 'What's all this paper on the floor, Bill?' I asked. 'It's my new work,' he said. He told me it was all right to leave it there. There were hundreds of pages of yellow foolscap all over the floor covered with footprints, bits of old cheese sandwiches, rat droppings -- it was filthy. When he finished a page he'd just throw it on the floor. He had no copies and when I asked him why he didn't pick it up, he said it was OK, it would get picked up one day."

In 1957, a raft of Burroughs' Beat friends, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Peter Orlovsky, arrived in Tangier and placed his chaotic, provolone-encrusted manuscript in some order. And finally, in 1959, it was published by Maurice Girodias' legendary Olympia Press, which released it in Paris as No. 76 of the "Traveller's Companion" series. (According to Girodias, he initially rejected the manuscript because of its moth-eaten condition and total lack of conventional narrative organization. According to Terry Southern, however, the Frenchman initially rejected it because it didn't have enough sex in it: "All the way to page 17!" Southern recollects Girodias as saying. "And it's still only a blow job!" ) Grove Press published it in the U.S. in 1962. The state of Massachussetts tried to suppress it in 1966 but lost, in a landmark case.

Burroughs may turn out to be the last experimenter who could still surprise us. Perhaps that's because his experimentations seem organically linked to actual experience. His vaunted "cut-up" technique, a kind of literary version of 12-tone composition, would have been merely an empty formalism -- except that it recapitulated the eternally recurring nightmare logic of the junkie's brain. If hell circled around and around without end, then Burroughs' sentences would, too. And they did.

The abysses and demons of "Naked Lunch" are justly celebrated -- the horrific vision of an age of coming Total Control, the cosmic entropy that collapses everything into insect twitches, the time loops that make escape impossible. But often forgotten, beneath the book's monstrous outer-space aspect, is how screamingly funny it is. "Naked Lunch" combines audacious formal experimentation -- endlessly recurring motifs, a deliriously non-linear narration, half-psychotic, half-allegorical science fiction-y themes -- with a deep-dish American slapstick humor made up of equal parts Mad magazine, Jonathan Swift, Catskill comedy and drag-queen bitchiness, all delivered in deliciously dead-on slang. Burroughs is probably the hippest writer of slang since Mark Twain: Certainly you'd have to go back to Twain to find another writer whose jokes carry the vernacular rightness of Burroughs'.

Burroughs' trademark is the rapid and hilarious juxtaposition of outrageous, cartoony metaphysical evil -- people turning into huge blobs of ectoplasm, prolapsed rectums wandering around blindly feeling for some action -- with casually deflating argot, sometimes that of a bland bureaucrat but usually that of a world-weary New Yawk hustler.

Take the scene in "Naked Lunch" when a narc named Bradley the Buyer, a man "so anonymous, grey and spectral the pusher don't remember him afterwards" "hunts up a young junkie and gives him a paper to make it." "'I just want to rub up against you and get fixed.' 'Ugh ... well all right ... But why cancha just get physical like a human?' Later the boy is sitting in a Waldorf with two colleagues dunking pound cake. 'Most distasteful thing I ever stand still for,' he says. 'Some way he make himself all soft like a blob of jelly and surround me so nasty. Then he gets wet all over with green slime. So I guess he come to some kinda awful climax ... I come near wigging with that green stuff all over me, and he stink like a rotten old canteloupe.'"

And then, in one of those dazzling insane changes that the man runs, Mahler to Captain Beefheart to Coltrane on the same page, Burroughs pulls back, focuses wide and blows away the whole Beat tribe of America-bashers: "And the U.S. drag closes in around us like no other drag in the world, worse than the Andes, high mountain towns, cold wind down from postcard mountains, thin air like death in the throat ... But there is no drag like U.S. drag. You can't see it, you don't know where it comes from. Take one of those cocktail lounges at the end of a suburban street -- every block of houses has its own bar and drugstore and market and liquorstore. You walk in and it hits you. But where does it come from? Not the bartender, not the customers, nor the cream-colored plastic rounding the bar stools, nor the dim neon. Not even the TV. And our habits build up with the drag ..."

Taken alone, any one of "Naked Lunch's" many voices -- allegoristic sci-fi, drug-crazed fever visions, haunted personal memories -- would pall. Together, however, they make a wild cocktail that captures, with singular precision, something at once mad, hilarious, terrible and essential. I've read "Naked Lunch" four times -- for fun and terror. How many avant-garde works can you read four times for any reason?

Others have pushed through the doors left open by Burroughs. Performance artists, evil unfettered cartoonists like S. Clay Wilson and R. Crumb, high poets of modernist hallucination like Denis Johnson, musicians like Jim Morrison and Lou Reed, numberless directors and painters. But he will have no real follower, for he was an original. He was a lab-coated technician of an inner world whose dreadful charts are documents -- and an artist who summoned new words to describe experiences for which there had been no name. He walked the line between art and experience, what happened and the telling of it, with an amazing and dangerous style.

Adios, Bill ... The great gray wind is blowing forever now ... skin sloughed off like old lizard parchment ... no more creepy ectoplasm and twitch of unspeakable insect need ... sleep on, amigo. You're out of this cough-syrup burb for good ... you gave us new language for old dreams ...

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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