Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 22)
William S(eward) Burroughs 1914–
Burroughs is best known for his controversial Naked Lunch, which was based in large part on the author's years as a drug addict. To achieve a surreal, hallucinatory effect, Burroughs experiments with techniques such as "folding-in" or "cutting-up" in which his own writing or the works of other authors are reorganized so that words and events occur in random sequence.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 15, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II; Vol. 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers.)
Alvin J. Seltzer
Burroughs' novels are so chaotic that life itself seems calm and ordered by comparison. Structure and plot simply do not exist; characters are flat, interchangeable, and strangely unimportant; the narrative thrashes about with no apparent direction or coherence, and words scatter like so many jig-saw-puzzle pieces thrown into the air. Each book is a montage of startling images, fragmented episodes, scraps of dialogue, patches of exposition, and cultural echoes ranging from Renaissance drama to modern poetry, from Christian and Eastern myth to Madison Avenue jargon. The language itself is a pastiche from the media of journalism, film, literature, Holy Scriptures, textbooks. Burroughs seems to have cast the novel out like a net to catch whatever debris it can drag in from the outside world, and the result is a circus of confusion: laughs, thrills, horrors—you name it, it's all there. Images zoom by, explode, writhe, choke, puke themselves up into new combinations. Subtle satire merges with outrageous burlesque; low comedy mixes with the most sordid reality; the worlds of business, science, and entertainment become indistinguishable. Everything gushes together in a dizzying experience that revolts, amuses, shocks, and confuses the disoriented reader. Even familiar images, adjectives, styles, and references cannot be worked with in a conventional manner, since the random juxtaposition which places them in strange contexts somehow distorts their reality...
(The entire section is 3870 words.)
[Junky] has its historical value, for it was one of the very first books to crack the veneer of the Eisenhower era, to reveal its schizoid nature, that empty smile glowing at the top and the nightmare working its way up through the back alleys. And it has its literary value, too. In some ways its detachment, its amoral cool, its clear hard prose give its nightmare vision a force that even Burroughs' later experimental explosions and naked lunches cannot match. Lee's search for "the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk" is still going on, and this bleak book remains a major navigational aid. (p. 16)
R.H.W. Dillard, "Books in Brief: 'Junky'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), Vol. XIV, No. 2, April, 1977, pp. 15-16.
(The entire section is 132 words.)
William S. Burroughs, if not unambiguously of the Devil's party, is the author of the most sinister American novel, "Naked Lunch," to attain the status of a classic. Nor have his books, since he published in 1959 those "detailed notes on sickness and delirium" (his description), become less sinister, or more coherent. "Port of Saints" is gamely described by its jacket copy as "the mind-boggling story of a man whose alternate selves take him on a fantastic journey through space, time, and sexuality." We are further told that the volume was written, or assembled, or whatever it is that Burroughs does with scissors and eggbeater to concoct his books, before the author's return to the United States in 1973. So we have here something of a period piece, revolving … around a stylized struggle between a sick American society and a healthy, tribalized counterculture. In Burroughs' fantasy, the heroic outsiders are the Wild Boys, or Parries, for Paranormals—the enemy being the loathsome Norms, led by Mike Finn, if you can call it led. "Under the rule of Mike Finn it didn't pay to be good at anything. In consequence the whole structure of Western society had collapsed."… All overtones of political allegory are soon swallowed, however, by Burroughs' absolutely Olympian joy in destruction of any sort, whether engineered by explosives technology or surreal diseases…. Burroughs also enjoys describing homosexual contacts preferably multiple and intermixed with...
(The entire section is 792 words.)
Thomas M. Disch
"Cities of the Red Night" is a book of limited but, for its own happy few, intense appeal. Opium addicts who are sexually aroused by witnessing and/or enacting garrotings and hangings will find "Cities" a veritable gallows of delight…. Guided by Ix Tab, a jealous goddess, Mr. Burroughs has eliminated from his book everything incidental to the central task of spinning and respinning the same yarn—characterization, wit, stylistic graces, anything that might detract from the erotic fascination of death by hanging. Even the romance of heroin addiction, which offered an alternative Universal Metaphor to interpreters of "Naked Lunch," has dwindled to a few rather pro forma evocations of his new drug of preference, opium. In this book drugs are merely a means to an end, and that end is the gallows….
Mr. Burroughs's eternal tale is told in varying modes. Sometimes it is a fantasy of life aboard a pirate ship. Sometimes it is the story of a private eye investigating the hanging and decapitation of various attractive young victims. Sometimes his décor derives from sci-fi of the more brain-damaged variety…. (p. 14)
Readers who would like to add the thrill of hypocrisy to the other pleasures of the text can take their cue from the jacket copy of "Naked Lunch," published in 1959, where Mr. Burroughs's achievements as a moralist, satirist and all-around genius were saluted by John Ciardi, Robert Lowell and Norman...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
One of William Burroughs's many gifts is to employ the methods of caricature by exaggerating essential traits, and yet to avoid a two-dimensional effect. Readers who previously have been scared off only by Burroughs's experiments with language, scissors and paste, have nothing to fear from Cities of the Red Night, which is written entirely in straight-forward English, much of it the spare, Hammett-like prose of Junky and parts of Naked Lunch…. [In] the last few years Burroughs has repeated himself with increasing tedium, altering only the intensity of his apocalyptic fantasies and his sci-fi porn: almost everything now contains references to Mayan codices and page after page of boys with sudden erections which other boys put to instant use.
The plot of Cities of the Red Night takes place in two time dimensions, the 18th century and the present, which occasionally overlap so that characters from one turn up in the other in vaguely disguised form. The 18th-century parts are set mostly aboard ship and later, after the ship is taken over by pirates, on an island…. The modern equivalent is the commune, the only refuge from the forces of Control which are represented by all government agencies and bureaucracies. (pp. 19-20)
The endless parade of boys with parted buttocks, the hangings with concomitant ejaculations, the erotic qualities of guns, the Countess de Gulpa who reanimates headless...
(The entire section is 334 words.)
M. J. LaHOOD
Port of Saints is a bizarre trip through the murky depths of a man's psyche, a search for identity that seems a distorted cross between James Joyce and Henry Miller. A tour de force of sharply etched scenes, partly autobiographical, it is designed to show the wasteland of modern life perfectly reflected in the wasteland of a developing consciousness.
The major flaw in the novel is the lack of correspondence between that mirrored world and the one that most men see. The developing psyche is not everyman's; it is the nearly psychotic mind of a sadomasochist homosexual. Only an acceptance of this world view as meaningful can save Port of Saints from being dismissed as decidedly minor. But is this a vision that many can share?… This is not great literature; it isn't even very good. Burroughs is one more modern author, in a growing list, who has significant writing skill, but whose vision of the human condition is so distorted, so depraved, that even the occasional correspondences with reality of the second-rate author are mostly missing from his work. The piercing epiphanies of the great writer are lacking completely.
M. J. LaHood, "English: 'Port of Saints'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 326.
(The entire section is 212 words.)
Twenty years ago, William Burroughs published the most brilliant satire in English since Gulliver's Travels. The Naked Lunch, indeed, has many points of similarity with Swift's masterpiece: a mocking contempt for power and its wielders, a shrinking disgust from the flesh (in both cases resulting in some of the most revolting scatalogical passages ever printed), a vision of mankind as almost irredeemably base, a keen eye for moral soft spots in the prevailing culture, a hatred of jargon and pomposity, a profound comic sense, a fierce indignation about privilege and, far from least, a tough, flexible prose style.
The chief difference was that Burroughs provided no Gulliver, no voyager of goodwill, with whom the reader could identify. The Naked Lunch was structured like a fairground, a series of booths each vying with the next to present a more shocking, alarming or grotesque attraction. But the fundamental impulse of the two books was the same: to rub mankind's nose in its own filth and, hopefully, turn it into a cleaner and nobler beast.
Cities of the Red Night is, according to its blurb, 'without doubt William Burroughs's magnum opus, perhaps even more important than The Naked Lunch'. Alas, it is not, and it gives me much pain to have to say it. The new book is to the old one as a pile of rubble is to a cathedral. It is discernibly made from the same materials but it has no...
(The entire section is 553 words.)
It's hard to imagine what once seemed so liberating about The Naked Lunch, a famous cult novel of the Beat generation. A not unsympathetic critic, Leslie Fiedler, found much of it 'dull protest literature, manifestoes against cops and in favour of junkies and homosexuals'—which is not sympathetic, but not right either. I can't call to mind anything less 'in favour of' drugs or homosexuals. Burroughs was being honest about his own opium addiction, which he saw as dependence and subjection, and thus as one of the representative horrors of civilisation. But neither was it an effective 'protest' novel. The mayhem he depicted, whether caused by cops or other 'control systems' in society or in the mind or body or in outer space, was such as to rob protest of any meaning. This is particularly true of a favourite image, the hanged man's orgasm, which occurred so obsessively and to such numbing effect that it removed the horror from hanging just as surely as it removed anything erotic from the orgasm. The furious energy of destruction in the orgies of The Naked Lunch was about as liberating as a Tom and Jerry cartoon….
Cities of the Red Night strikes me as a blander, more literary sort of novel, with patches of urbane narrative in quite an 18th-century vein; and with parodies of other literary styles, which temporarily help the reader to get his bearings…. [But Burroughs shows no sign of change] in the 'Red Night'...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
I would like to be able to say that Cities Of The Red Night is William Burroughs' most successful fiction since Naked Lunch, that it pushes beyond the kaleidoscopic kineticism of that telegraphic masterpiece to discover some terrible beauty powerful enough to shock us out of our complacency as the planet is poisoned. Although the book is full if its stunning surprises, they may shock only the uninitiated.
Burroughs has by now been transcribing his renegade vision of apocalypse and plague for over three decades. He sees the end of possibility in America as one karmic consequence of western imperialism, and takes as a symptom of our diseased state the internal cancer of bureaucratic systems. He has presented this view with a fierce and lonely intensity without making it particularly accessible. Burroughs has been the perennial innovator, and the linguistic deconditioning demanded by the Naked Lunch tetralogy, the maze-mosaic architecture, the parodies and cut-ups, the volatility of character metamorphosis has all insured an audience of cognoscenti. There have been promises in recent years, in The Wild Boys and Exterminator especially, that Burroughs was ready to return to narrative (if not to the naturalistic voice of his first novel, Junky, at least to telling stories instead of sinister vaudeville) but Cities Of The Red Night is a return to his essential mode of fragmented dissonance....
(The entire section is 477 words.)