Influences: William Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH

This is one of those books that you either love or hate; there is definitely no middle ground with this. It’s a difficult book, to be sure, for reasons I will go into later; suffice to say that when David Cronenberg set about filming his 1991 take on this seminal classic of the Beat generation, he found it to be unfilmable as it was and used it instead as a basis for a film that mixes elements of the book along with parts of Burroughs’ biography.

The book was originally published in 1959 as The Naked Lunch, in Paris, by Olympia Press, but not the US, as it contravened obscenity laws there. It wasn’t until 1962 that it did find a release in Burroughs’ home country. Even then, it was a substantially different version from the one published in France, apparently, as it was based on a manuscript owned by Allen Ginsberg. The definite article was dropped from the title from that edition onward (as William Burroughs never intended it to be there in the first place) and thus has it been known as Naked Lunch ever since.

Summarising a novel as complex, and as groundbreaking in its own way, as Naked Lunch is, is extremely difficult in its own right. A conventionally linear narrative structure is completely non-existent – instead it’s a series of loosely-connected vignettes. According to Wikipedia (not entirely reliable I know), Burroughs himself stated that they could be read in any order. Plus the text itself is written in a stream-of-consciousness cut-up style, meaning that words jumble and collide in unexpected combinations. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place in Tangiers (a favourite haunt of the Beat poets in real-life) and Interzone, a strange otherworldly dimension (which, I think, is meant to represent the dreamlike state when under the influence of drugs – something else which the Beat generation were famous for). It brings together, albeit loosely, his experiences in both this world and the one induced through his well-known drug-addiction (let it be known that he probably ingested or sampled every illicit drug known to man – and he still managed to make it into his eighties).

It’s a deeply hallucinatory book, as life and drug-fuelled fugues mix and entwine quite freely. Additionally, the manner in which it was written does a superb job of transmitting those unfocused, hazy states that Burroughs habitually found himself in. While it’s quite hard to read, simply because of the way familiar words have been randomly juxtaposed with one another, for me it’s exactly those chance couplings and surprise concatenations that provide the rhythms and sheer poetry of the narrative. Images leap off the page and into the mind in a way that conventional prose doesn’t inspire very often. Perhaps it’s the very style and the way it has to be struggled with that makes the imagination work harder, in an attempt to make sense of it all. That, for me, is where the true power of this book lies.

I’d heard of Naked Lunch (and its reputation) way before the film (starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Scheider) came out, but it was the film that prompted me to get the book and read it. In some ways, I am glad that this is how it happened, because I found the book far more fulfilling and certainly more powerful than the film. If I’d read the book first, I think my disappointment with the film would have been greater. I have to admit that when first I saw the film it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting and then, having read the book, I completely understood the impossibility (and illogicality) of shooting it as written. Necessarily, Cronenberg spliced the biographical elements of the writer’s life in there with parts of the vignettes, and ended up producing a meditation on the milieu that Burroughs walked in, plus the constant unreality that the drug-taking brought on. It gives us a privileged peek into the writing process, and also why his stories turned out the way they did – experiencing those fluid realities gave Burroughs the power to give us a new perspective on time and linearity, its solidity and also its plasticity. The unconscious imagery, welling up from the deepest parts of his psyche, opened wide the windows on just what made Burroughs tick.

And that, in essence, is how we all see life and reality: from our own unique perspectives. What Naked Lunch, inspired by the drugs, did for Burroughs was to free him from the constraints of both how he saw his situation and environment, and how he saw the novel and its possibilities. Ever since then, many writers have been playing around with narrative forms and structures, with varying degrees of success. It takes a peculiar species of genius to make what is essentially stream of conciousness nonsense (at least to some anyway) and bring meaning and substance to it. And THAT, I would venture to posit, WAS the genius of Burroughs – that not only did the drugs mould his perceptions but that he was able to translate that malleability of vision to the written page perfectly, so that those of lesser means and also those less adventurous could experience it too.

(And by the way, don’t go thinking from the above that I am advocating the use of drugs to facilitate the literary muse, although it has a fine pedigree (the Romantic poets for instance) – it’s a necessary approach to take when talking about Burroughs’ work, and I am describing it here in a purely academic context. So there.)

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One Response to “Influences: William Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH”

  1. Donny Booch Says:

    I liked the book, however, like the movie “Snatch”, I felt the title was misleading.

    I’ve been taking a literary journey of counter-culture works, and Burroughs is my second favorite, after Thompson. I think, perhaps, it’s that I can relate to both authors, since both authors viewed much of the world through the filter of mind-bending narcotics. Many drugs give the user a different perspective on the world, and I will be the first to say that some of those perspectives can be flawed, if not downright wrong. That is not to say that all of the perspectives are wrong, however. The mind, when unfettered with social responsibilities and taboos, can comprehend well beyond the normal scope of reason.

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