William Burroughs Essay - Critical Essays

Burroughs, William

Burroughs, William 1914–

An American experimental novelist, Burroughs gained both fame and notoriety with Naked Lunch. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)

Burroughs's strength lies in his uninhibited prose, his ability to attack the nerves, but this prose is, in The Naked Lunch, in the service of a didactic aim (as in Swift's satires, which are not really novels), not an artistic one. It is in books like The Ticket that Exploded that Burroughs seems to revel in a new medium for its own sake—a medium totally fantastic, spaceless, timeless, in which the normal sentence is fractured, the cosmic tries to push its way through bawdry, and the author shakes the reader as a dog shakes a rat….

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 189.

The basis of Burroughs' fiction from Naked Lunch forward has been his depiction of the endemic lusts of body and mind which prey on men, hook them, and turn them into beasts: the pushers as well as the pushed. His model of this condition is, of course, drug addiction: the junky being the creature of total need and hence of total vulnerability. He is controlled both biologically and socially—both by the insatiable demands of his body and by the ruthless economy of the drug market….

Much of Burroughs' manner derives from the caustic mentality and idiom of the carny, the con-man, the vaudeville hoofer. Though it wanders across continents, Naked Lunch is firmly rooted in the dark side of the American imagination, where the figure of the cracker-barrel hustler has had a complex and vivid career. Burroughs' rural sheriffs, county clerks, and doctors, for example, recall the frontier comedy of Twain, T. B. Thorpe, George Harris, among others. They produced a wild humor, raw and crafty, based on the bodily functions, deformations, and torments. Burroughs brings it up to date, thickens it with other idioms, but it is essentially the voice of the native American underground….

[Although] Burroughs has broken up the syntactical logic of English in order to renovate and heighten its expressiveness, and to rescue it—and us—from the debased and insidious uses to which it is put—one finds that the method often lands him in merely a different kind of banality. The associations that invest the images with significance and tie them together in some kind of meaning derive from habits of thought and feeling that Burroughs feels free to indulge, and perhaps has to indulge to keep track of himself. Thus, what is gained in language is lost in content. The result is often arresting fragments of scenes, characters, thoughts that never develop and merely repeat the same circuit of consciousness—a kind of brilliant merry-go-round of Burroughs' psyche.

Still Burroughs is such a good writer, his imagination works in such original as well as compulsive ways, that one can only reserve judgment about the eventual outcome of these experiments. Moreover, for all of his acting out of impulse and cutting up of phrases he is a deadly serious man. If he has one foot in the garish, corrosive sensibility of the addict, the carny, the lower depths of show biz, the other is anchored in a moral austerity that is almost Puritanical. However curious or perverse it may seem, the modern writer he most makes me think of is T. S. Eliot, whose language and themes pervade Burroughs' later work far more than those of any other author and whose own experiments in pastiche and collage such as The Waste Land are a major resource of the modern tradition which Burroughs is attempting to extend….

He is one of the small group of American novelists today who are both vital and complex, and though his last three books seem to me to reach a brilliantly lit dead end, they also may prove to possess the kind of genuine innovation that keeps fiction alive and the literary enterprise going.

Theodore Solotaroff, "William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need" (1967), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 247-53.

[William S. Burroughs] has iterated and reiterated in all his interviews, literary and otherwise,… that he does not wish to be considered a Beat writer…. But the Beats certainly—and probably most importantly—were also a social movement. William S. Burroughs knew that…. And to the extent that the Beats have wielded social influence, Burroughs should be considered one of them. Distinctions in style and literary intent that may have meant a great deal to him have been, for the most part, lost on his readers. If they did perceive the intellectual differences that separated him from Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, et al., they saw even more clearly that he shared with the others the reckless antagonism to the postwar American scene that seemed to activate the whole Beat movement. And of them all, his rejection was the most categorical and emphatic, the most contemptuous, his rage the most eloquent. Those who responded to this, whose attitudes toward authority and the star-spangled status quo, were soon radically changed, saw Burroughs simply as one of "their" writers, no more or less Beat than the rest.

It may seem here that I am trying to minimize the literary importance of Burroughs' work and simply consider him from the point of view of his effect on his audience. But that would be a mistake, of course, for he is a very considerable prose artist—intellectually accomplished, technically innovative, the sort of absolute writer who, given different subject matter, would have enormous appeal to academic critics. Even so, some seem to see him as a kind of John Barth of the drug culture. There is a general willingness to accept Burroughs—or to accept Naked Lunch, anyhow—by many critics who dismiss the work of the Beats out of hand….

There is a tendency among Burroughs' readers to regard him as a kind of holy monster. His books so obviously go beyond art into an area of purest, rawest experience that it is easy to forget the writer, the maker, the man behind them. There is a writer at work there, all right, and not some mad, glassy-eyed Rasputin who spends his time belching, and cursing, and torturing children for pleasure.

Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971, pp. 165-84.