Review: Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch 1

I bought a copy of Naked Lunch at the most excellent Book Lady in Charlotte, NC, and read it over the course of a few days.

It was sweltering mad hot as I read Naked Lunch; the nightmare of Ohio’s high midwestern summer spun itself out in days of bright, flat light and soaked air, the white sun unwinking in skies cloud-washed and bleared, like half-finished Renaissance paintings; stupid, cruel, brutal days that came one after another, seemingly endlessly, like a fractal growing out…

Naked Lunch, Burroughs says, is not a novel, which is a helpful fib. The book definitely shambles into view with a much different physiognomy than your average novel. A series of episodes are related, concerning a number of umbrageous characters; episodes sometimes stand in coherent or incoherent isolation, sometimes continue stories that have begun elsewhere in the book, and/or elaborate on ideas or concepts introduced before or after in the text.

The plot with which Naked Lunch begins and ends is the narrative of an addict named Lee as he tries to escape a city full of cops, agents, and other squares. The Lee story quickly fractures beyond repair as episodes begin digressing, snaking in characters, locations, and scenes with no direct connection to Lee’s story other than being informed by the same controlling aesthetic and its metaphors, preoccupations, concerns.

None of this is helpful, none of it gives you the slightest idea what Naked Lunch really is; some excerpts, then. Burroughs intended Naked Lunch to be readable in any order you choose: front to back, back to front, scattershot at random. “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point…I have written many prefaces,” he writes near the end of the book; and then later, even nearer the end:

The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement. This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and streets noises, farts and riot yips and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bullhead, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trance, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle…

Burroughs’s prose style: elastic, omnivorous, digestive, panglossal, striking out with a thousand tongues, slipping into different registers at a highwire clip.

Look at that dragontail first sentence, which:

1) Starts with a biblical tang (“The Word”) that 

2) segues into an almost-affectless instructional tone to talk about the book it is a part of (“divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken”) with just a hint of offness in its grammar (“be all in one piece,” “the pieces can be had in any order”), then 

3) flows into a sonic near-free association (“back and forth in and out fore and aft”) before

4) deflating itself with the slangy, lewd, lowbrow (and also still with the torqued grammar) simile of “an innaresting sex arrangement.”

(Note: Burroughs is also capable of straightforward beauty too, plain accessible great writing: “heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells” is frightening, coldly gorgeous; it wouldn’t be out of place in a story from Jesus’ Son)

Naked Lunch is not really a ‘drug book.’ 

But it’s also the ultimate drug book. Characters in it do heroin and cocaine et al., but Naked Lunch shows us drugs and highs that transcend even the degradation of the hardest of ‘real’ drugs; and everybody is an addict of something. Early on there is the case of Bradley the Buyer, a narc so anonymous-grey he can buy from any pusher without suspicion; but eventually Bradley develops strange addictions of his own:

Well the Buyer comes to look more and more like a junky. He can’t drink. He can’t get it up. His teeth fall out. (Like pregnant women lose their teeth feeding the stranger, junkies lose their yellow fangs feeding the monkey.) He is all the time sucking on a candy bar. Baby Ruths he digs special. “It really disgust you to see the Buyer sucking on them candy bars so nasty,” a cop says.

The Buyer takes on an ominous grey-green color. Fact is his body is making its own junk or equivalent. The Buyer has a steady connection. A Man Within, you might say. Or so he thinks. “I’ll just set in my room,” he says. “Fuck ‘em all. Squares on both sides. I am the only complete man in the industry.”

But a yen comes on him like a great black wind through the bones. So the Buyer hunts up a young junky and gives him a paper to make it.

“Oh all right,” the boy says. “So what you want to make?”

“I just want to rub 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 like 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 cantaloupe.”

Characters like Bradley are always transforming, mutating, growing orifices, emitting strange liquids in response to their addictions and secret needs – like fucked up renditions of myths, corrupted fables warning against corrupting yourself,  against submitting to the Control that bloods the heart of any addiction big or small.

The plot, the real plot of Naked Lunch is a catalog of horrors. Its aesthetic payload detonates and opens up collapsed shafts in our hearts, ones we’d hoped to keep closed, forgotten or at least ignored. Naked Lunch is a spelunking expedition into depravity and unhappiness; the heightened, hellish scenes of disgusting, demeaning, dehumanizing acts are exaggerations, but still proof of the shuddering dereliction inherent in our sick human souls as we progress through the days, succumbing to addictions more or less quotidian.

Drug addiction is, of course, its own separate thing, an illness onto itself. In some of the ancillary material appended to the text Burroughs makes that clear. But the junky in Naked Lunch is also an everyman, hearkening to the demands of his inexplicable sickness like we all do. I don’t know why I’ll spend an evening paralyzed on the couch, rereading articles I’ve already read on my phone, for hours – but I do it anyway.

Burroughs also highlights the very troubling fact that, when it comes to our secret susceptibility to Control, pleasure and pain are really the same thing.

“I deplore brutality,” [Doctor Benway] said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”

See Proverbs for Paranoids 3: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” See your own sick heart.

So the ugliness on display is not a shocky, shlocky thing in Naked Lunch. It’s central metaphor, both narrative and textual, for our spiritual sickness. Here’s the central image of a heroin addict Burroughs refers to again and again:

I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampule boxes and garbage piled to the ceiling. Light and water long since turned off for non-payment. I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. If a friend came to visit – and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit – I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision – a grey screen always blanker and fainter – and not caring when he walked out of it. If he had died on the spot I would have sat there looking at my shoe waiting to go through his pockets. Wouldn’t you?

Yes, you would.

Naked Lunch is about putting things in front of you. Like all great books, it makes you see – which sounds facile but is both true and profound. The ugliness in the plot of Naked Lunch is a metaphor, but its aesthetic ugliness is a drill, the ice pick for breaking up our own frozen seas, a scourge for finding better ways, a disruption pattern from the last free radio tower.

In no direct way is Naked Lunch a depiction of any hopeful aspect of life or reality, but its total commitment to drilling deep, to being unafraid of ugliness in what it says or how it says it, is vital and hopeful. It’s plausible – likely – possibly certain – in the world we live in, to unremember that life can be more than a series of nonconsequential transactions; it’s even easier to forget that this unremembering is, itself, an addiction.

Naked Lunch, bedraggled subway sage, teaches that the only escape from the bullshit is to jump right at it and show expose it, to impale it on the end of a fork. “The way OUT is the way IN…” As always, Art is the only eyes we’ll ever have.


A note on the text: I read the “Restored Text” of Naked Lunch, which purports to make many textual corrections and also includes a pretty sizable annex of outtakes and other material. I read the three postscripts but none of the outtakes; I generally want to hew as close as possible to the text as originally released unless there are obvious reasons why that original text is not optimal.

If you decide to buy Naked Lunch on the strength of this review, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

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