Word Virus

Mark Luce reviews 'Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader'

By Mark Luce
January 21, 1999 12:00AM (UTC)
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More than a year after his death, the literary reputation of William S. Burroughs remains obscured by the image -- fedora, shapeless gray suits, weathered face and a voice that out-Tom Waitses Tom Waits -- that for more than 20 years has overshadowed his output. Like so many counterculture figures, Burroughs the writer has taken a back seat to Burroughs the icon, the grand old man of American letters featured in hipster movies, Nike and Gap ads and even a U2 video.

"Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader" finally brings the author's actual writing back to the forefront. In their selections, editors James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg highlight the many faces of Burroughs: the narrative pioneer, the sardonic stand-up, the asexual Tiresias-like seer and, in what may be a surprise to many, the humanist.


Stylistically, Burroughs is often lumped with the Beats, but even a cursory reading of "Word Virus" shows he was never a Beat in form or vision. Burroughs is a better writer than his storied companions, more intellectually nimble, skeptical, multifaceted and subtle. While Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg cruised self-promoting highways and smoky jazz clubs searching for the beatific, Burroughs was a homebody, traveling the globe only as a logistical concern, to escape the law, his own demons or the terrible grip of heroin. Burroughs' vision was more sinister than the Beats; he warned of the mechanisms of control, whether through language, drugs or the government. He ridiculed the sanctimonious while playing a straight-shooting tour guide to the post-atomic-bomb landscape of America.

The first collected edition of his work, "Word Virus" traces Burroughs' career more or less chronologically. Primarily a fiction writer, Burroughs borrowed heavily from himself, and with the sections of "Word Virus" broken up by surprisingly balanced biographical commentary from Grauerholz, Burroughs' longtime assistant, the volume contains significant splashes of autobiography if only small amounts of nonfiction. And through the various excerpts and routines we come to see a different Burroughs, not necessarily kinder and gentler, but more complex, harder to pigeonhole as strictly misanthropic or misogynistic. Certainly those elements still exist in his writing, and Burroughs will never be too welcome in feminist literary circles. Some pieces here aren't deserving of any literary circle, such as the juvenilia of the previously unpublished (for good reason) manuscript "And the Hippos Were Buried in Their Tanks," and a few of the many bureaucratic satires/critiques, such as "The American Non-Dream" (from "The Job"), fall flat, victims of political schizophrenia and language overkill.

But in a collection such as this, one has to consider the whole. And underneath all Burroughs' social aberrations, needles, shysters and graphic violence lies a human and -- gulp! -- even moral writer. In the wry rants against the apparatus of control in "Twilight's Last Gleaming" (from "Nova Express"), "The Name Is Burroughs" (from "The Adding Machine") and "From Here to Eternity" (from "Exterminator!"), readers see the classic Burroughs. But in the later work, such as his 1985 introduction to "Queer," where he directly addresses the psychological impact of shooting his wife, Joan Vollmer, and his Red Night Trilogy ("Cities of the Red Night," "The Place of Dead Roads" and "The Western Lands"), Burroughs wrestles with larger questions of mortality and spirituality. This late push toward cosmic reconciliation serves as a logical culmination of his career-long search for meaning amid the chaos. As the excerpts further demonstrate, the twilight trilogy may be his best work, more sophisticated and evocative than the vastly better known and more influential "Naked Lunch."


Apocalyptic, carnal and raw, Burroughs' work bridges the epiphanies of modernism with the Foucaultian cool of postmodernism. He stretches modernist forms and grammar like narrative silly putty, prefiguring the sly mischief of postmodern writers such as Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson. But even in the early work, he cajoles, upbraids and mocks everyone and anything in order to call attention to the dangerous paths humans have constructed for themselves in this century. He accomplishes this with a cast of the disenfranchised: mad scientists, carnival con men, gay schoolboys, bumbling bureaucrats, desperate junkies and maniacal medicine men. Through it all Burroughs eludes easy literary classification; by turns he is a poststructuralist Dashiell Hammett, T.S. Eliot on the nod, Mark Twain with a gun.

In his adopted home of Lawrence, Kan., Burroughs lived on Learnard Street, which he spun into "Learn Hard." Ultimately, his writing, especially in the accessible form of "Word Virus," provides the fruits of just that: life lessons the hard way, stern messages and warnings not to repeat the mistakes he made in fighting against any system that attempts to control. While it may sound macabre, "Word Virus" fuses the many faces of Burroughs into a death mask, a fantastic, weird, disturbing and intriguing tribute to an inimitable American voice.

Mark Luce

Mark Luce lives and writes in Lawrence, Kan.


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