The Plot

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The novel developed through a series of long letters that William S. Burroughs sent to various friends. The letters were collected as a selection of manuscripts. Fragments were published in The Chicago Review in 1958, but it was not until 1959 that the work was pub-lished as a novel. The...

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The novel developed through a series of long letters that William S. Burroughs sent to various friends. The letters were collected as a selection of manuscripts. Fragments were published in The Chicago Review in 1958, but it was not until 1959 that the work was pub-lished as a novel. The book was rejected by many American publishers and was finally published as The Naked Lunch in Paris, France. Grove Press put out an American edition under the title Naked Lunch (1962). Shortly after publication, the book was banned by the American government. A trial ensued in which Burroughs was accused of writing a blasphemous and obscene book. Burroughs finally won his case in 1966. The book in the meantime had become a best-seller.

In the introduction to Naked Lunch, Burroughs suggests that the novel is simply a collection of “the notes” that he wrote while he was addicted to heroin. As a result, Naked Lunch cannot be said to have a plot as such. In the novel, Burroughs even tells readers that “this book spill [sic] off the page in all directions” and that one “can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point.” In his letters, Burroughs also suggested that Naked Lunch is in fact a montage of scenes connected only by a series of themes. The narrative wanders through a number of comic sketches, sexual fantasies, and stories that seem to appear from nowhere and often end abruptly. Interspersed with these fragments are discussions of medicine, science, psychic phenomena, and the nature of viruses.

In the course of the novel readers are introduced to several characters, such as Dr. Benway, Detective Clem Snide the Private Asshole, the addict Will Lee, and Hassan Sabbah, as well as The Mugwumps and The Dream Police. Against a background filled with various drug addicts, transvestites, homosexuals, and prostitutes, these characters swirl through a series of episodes confronting one another in a variety of settings ranging from the New York drug underground in the 1950’s and the fantastical Conference of Technological Psychiatry to undefined futuristic locations in a post-apocalyptic world that both is, and is not, America and northern Africa. At various moments readers get the sense that a character by the name of William Seward (who may or may not be William Burroughs) may be the author of the book.

At times, some of the characters can be identified as enemies; later, everyone may have changed sides. The text is dominated by a fear that some unrecognizable, unlocatable agency of control is behind all the actions. The freedom of individuals to pursue whatever drugs, sex, or politics they choose constitutes the underlying message of these disparate episodes. Although several of these themes accumulate toward the end of the novel, the last page actually breaks up and disintegrates into “Quick . . . ,” a highly fragmentary section.

Places Discussed

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*Subway. New York City’s subway system is a dirty underground environment where criminals and drug addicts mix with the citizenry. The stairs, turnstiles, platforms, and closing doors of trains afford opportunities for criminals to elude police. One can emerge from the subway in one place and quickly descend into another, catching a train in another direction. In the subway system, especially late at night, hustlers and thieves take advantage of drunks, robbing them after they have passed out; however, in some stations, such as Queens Plaza, a station with various levels, the police cleverly conceal themselves and make criminal activity risky for the criminals. Burroughs makes the subway stand as a metaphor for the wretchedness and corruption of society.

Freeland Republic

Freeland Republic and Annexia. Dr. Benway arrives from Annexia, a quagmire of bureaucratic requirements, where people are constantly stopped and made to validate themselves by presenting documents. Now Benway is an adviser to the Freeland Republic, a place devoted to free love. In Freeland, Benway takes William Lee, the narrator, on a tour of the Reconditioning Center. In Drag Alley, Benway shows Lee victims of Irreversible Neural Damage. One patient has no apparent awareness but does, as a reflex, bark like a dog and salivate when taunted with chocolate. In the next ward, Benway shows Lee drug addicts waiting for their fixes. An iron shutter opens, and responding to a hog call, the addicts receiving their narcotics make the noises of pigs. Next, Benway reveals the ward housing the mild deviants and criminals. Calling homosexuality a political crime rather than deviancy, Benway remarks that his homosexual patients showed strong unconscious heterosexual drives, while his heterosexual patients showed strong unconscious homosexual drives. Later, as Lee and Benway have lunch, Benway gets a phone message that all the ward subjects have been erroneously released. A horrible general madness occurs, and tourists rush to escape Freeland.

Hassan’s rumpus room

Hassan’s rumpus room. This surreal environment combines promiscuity, perversion, excretion, orgasm, torture, and execution. On one hand, the environment seems elegant and luxurious, with people dressed in evening wear. However, a Mugwump sexually abuses and executes a boy. The scene, according to some critics, is a satire of the death penalty.


Interzone. Sometimes simply called “the Zone,” the Interzone is a nightmare world. At Interzone University, the classroom is disrupted by animals and carts between the lecture platform and the students, who sit on makeshift seats, consume narcotics, and read comics. The professor arrives on a bicycle and declares that he has severe back pain caused by a sexual attack. The lecture apparently focuses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), but the students draw knives and attack. A train roars through, and the professor appeases the class by filling a trough with pearls and allowing pigs to feed. The political parties of the Interzone include the Divisionists, who produce replicas of themselves and aim at world domination through self-replication. The Liquefactionists, in contrast, seek the eventual merging of everyone into one person. The Senders engage in obligatory outgoing telepathy until exhaustion, followed by conversion into centipedes. Factualists oppose all the groups named above, especially the Senders. The narrator reveals that the Zone is one vast building. Whether drunk or not, people regularly fall unconscious. People are forced through walls from one bed to another; all business is conducted in bed. Opposite the Zone is the Island, which is under British military control. In the Zone, peddlers sell most of the merchandise, but transactions become mired in paperwork. The Zone is Burroughs’s most complex satire of politics and business.

Social Concerns

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Considering the howls of outrage from many quarters that greeted the publication of Naked Lunch, and the demands that the book (and the author) be suppressed, it might seem bizarre to describe its author as a man who regards his ideas about the failure of contemporary social systems to be the crux of his entire oeuvre, but William S. Burroughs was accurately described by Mary McCarthy as a "Soured Utopian," and in spite of his own condemnatory comments on many aspects of society, he has stated unequivocally that "My purpose in writing has always been to express human potentials and purposes relevant to the Space Age." The exploration of various forms of addiction in Naked Lunch have more to do "with addiction itself," as Burroughs has observed, than the often sensationalistic detail of an obsession with drugs, sex, money, or power, and Burroughs sees these forms of psychological and physical dependency as elements of a system designed to control human beings so that their biological and aesthetic potential is "perverted by stupidity and inhuman malice." Burroughs sees all of his work as a kind of attack on the various forces which he feels are rendering the planet uninhabitable, and this has led to the depiction in Naked Lunch of people exhibiting the worst manifestations of human behavior that he can imagine to show just how effective these forces have been. The striking, even shocking images of people in Naked Lunch is part of Burroughs's plan to write in an inventive fashion designed to "create an alteration in the reader's consciousness," which accounts for the extremities of the actions he depicts — not to exploit the sensationalistic nature of the physical activities he describes, but to jar the reader out of customary patterns of responding to characterization and conventional narrative structure.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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To fully understand the uniqueness of Burroughs's technical elements in Naked Lunch, it is necessary to consider one of the problems he faced during its period of composition, organization, and revision — although even those elements do not sufficiently describe the manner in which the book was assembled. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg in the early 1950s, Burroughs wrote that he had "hopes of getting what he really means down on paper" but that he "despair[ed] of ever doing so." To Jack Kerouac, he worried about the limits of the genre itself, "I tell you the novel is completely inadequate to express what I have to say. I don't know if I can find a form." The manuscript originally consisted of notes Burroughs had been making for years, plus letters he had written (The Yage Letters, 1963) to Allen Ginsberg, and while he struggled with the shape of his work, he wrote in a frenzy of energy, telling Ginsberg that the force of inspiration "shakes me like a great black wind through the bones." He thought that the chapters might function as a mosaic, with the often sharp transitions creating "the dream impact of juxtaposition," but in a mood of discouragement, he told Ginsberg to "read it in any order. It makes no difference." Ginsberg and other friends who assisted Burroughs all offered suggestions about how to organize the material that Burroughs originally called "Word Hoard" and which Ginsberg described as consisting of "personal letter matter . . . imaginative improvisation and fantasy and routine matter."

The "routine matter" actually constitutes the core of Naked Lunch. Burroughs thought of the passages of "routine matter" as "skits" or "routines" and his longtime friend, collaborator, and orchestrator of public performances for more than two decades, James Grauerholz, calls them "an absurdist form of soliloquy." Burroughs used them originally as a way to overcome a kind of natural reticence, since the man performing these routines was, in a sense, another self operating in a theatrical realm which made unabashed displays of zaniness possible. Burroughs was exhilarated by the creation of these routines, explaining to Ginsberg how they were "uncontrollable, unpredictable, charged with potential danger for Lee [that is, the William Lee character which is one of his fictive auto-equivalents]," and they offered him access to the turbulent regions of his subconscious mind, the ultimate subject of the book. As Skerl has commented, though, "in a narrative form, he needs characters, action, and setting to convey his ideas," and consequently, Burroughs located the novel in several sections of the United States (New York City, a hideous heartland main street) and in what vaguely corresponds to a tropical country (Mexico conflated with South America), a place called Freeland (which Burroughs said is modelled on Scandinavia but which seems like the United States with a socialist government), and the Inter-zone. He had originally thought of Naked Lunch as a novel of the Inter-zone, which he based on Tangier, a place in the 1950s where drug use, casual sex, free-wheeling bohemianism, superstition, and misogyny combined to produce a setting where all kinds of wandering, rootless hustlers and hipsters commingled. Further, he fashioned a political system of four parties (Liquefactionists, Conferents/Senders, Divisionists, and Factualists) competing, but as he admitted, this was artificial and did not work very well, which is why it is not crucial to the organization of the novel.

Within this loose but workable arrangement, Burroughs had to devise a voice which would convey his singular style of expression. Grauerholz calls the creation of this voice "a man breaking through into unexplored literary territory," and it includes such diverse elements as the Victorian model of the unflappable, self-effacing English explorer in colonial realms; the inner-city addict hip to the drug scene; the academic capable of quasi-scientific jargon which explains everything in terms of theories based on dubious experiments; and the manic prankster high on language itself who can pull all these strains into an unfolding collage of speech and rhythms orchestrated like a jazz improvisation, what Ginsberg called the "Grand style" of Naked Lunch. In addition, the hard, flinty mood of the introduction and the somewhat more reflective musing of the "Atrophied Preface," which makes up the last chapter, function as frames, allowing Burroughs to set up and comment on the intervening material. As Skerl asserts, the action of Naked Lunch "is the flow of consciousness" and the voice of consciousness is a literary expression of the mind of the man who wrote the book. Burroughs knew the work of Samuel Beckett, who was pursuing some similar motifs, but aside from the precedent of James Joyce, there is little in the way of literary expression that anticipated what Burroughs was doing. Naked Lunch is more akin to the work of painters, jazz musicians, and poets like Ginsberg (or other Beats) who were pressing the boundaries of literary possibility. In a sense. Burroughs is the precedent — his innovations and inventions stand on the threshold which many others in the twentieth century have subsequently crossed.


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Since Burroughs himself has used the techniques of film in some of his books, notably The Wild Boys (1971), which is structured in accordance with montage editing theory, and The Last Lords of Dutch Schulz (1970), which is subtitled A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script, it was inevitable that an imaginative filmmaker would eventually attempt to make a film version of one of his books. As far back as the 1970s, one of his artistic collaborators Tony Balch spoke of a project to film Naked Lunch, but all of the problems involved in putting even a relatively straightforward film together prevented any progress until 1990. Then, David Cronenberg, the director of The Fly (1987), Videodrome (1983), and The Brood (1979), which dealt with the consequences of biological mutation, wrote a screenplay which was produced by Twentieth-Century Fox studios with an adequate production budget. The studio undoubtedly wanted to capitalize on Burroughs's growing popularity among a young segment of the population, but was still taking something of a risk. Although it was not conspicuously successful on its original release, the film has — like much of Burroughs's work — become a kind of cult item and continues to reach a widening audience in videotape form.

Cronenberg decided to base the film on the book to some extent and to include incidents from Burroughs's life and legend as well. The main character, William Lee (one of Burroughs's recurring names for a protagonist sharing some of his traits), is shown in the depths of addiction, living in the nightmare world of the Interzone. Cronenberg wanted to actually film in Tangier but the Gulf War made this impossible and he ended up working on a huge set in a warehouse in Toronto. This allowed him to create a hallucinatory vision of Tangier much closer to the surrealistic setting of the novel. The film begins in New York City, however, where Burroughs/Lee is working as an exterminator. In the opening scenes, two friends (based on Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, to some degree) discuss writing with him in a saloon. When he returns home, his wife (played brilliantly by Judy Davis) is shooting up bug powder, "A very literary high. A Kafka high. It makes you feel like a bug," she tells him. When Lee is taken into custody by narcotics officers, he is interrogated by a huge, roachlike insect who tells him his wife is an agent of the Interzone Corp. and may not even be human. He goes to a Dr. Benway (another of his auto-equivalents) to cure his addictions and when he returns home, tells his wife to prepare for a William Tell routine. Corresponding to the tragic event in 1951 when Joan Vollmer was shot, he misfires and after her death flees to Inter-zone.

There, he begins to write about her death — as he did indirectly in Queer which was not published until 1985 — but finds the typewriter transformed into a half machine/half bug which begins to dictate back to him. When not at work, he wanders through the bars and dives of the city, meeting other writers (based on Paul and Jane Bowles), interacting with the homosexual subculture and experiencing various hallucinations brought on by ingesting all sorts of substances. The manuscript of Naked Lunch is accumulating on the floor of his room, flung from the typewriter in a frenzy of creative energy, but Lee is depressed since publication seems unlikely, even after Hank and Martin (Ginsberg and Kerouac) arrive and help him to find some order for his work.

Scenes based on some of the most outrageous descriptions of para-human sexual activity alternate with Lee's apparently extemporaneous monologues, which are actually well-wrought versions of some of the wittiest passages in Naked Lunch, The course of the film is inevitably episodic, although less so than the book since Lee's character provides a central focus. Lee seems to be on the verge of leaving Interzone at the conclusion, but customs guards at the border of neighboring Annexia demand a demonstration of his writing skills. Paralleling Burroughs's own admission that "I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death," Lee shoots the latest incarnation of Joan (again played by Judy Davis) and enters Annexia. As Francis Poole observes in an astute review, Cronenberg is "adept at creating a universe in which the unimaginable coexists with the mundane. All the creatures of Naked Lunch are the kinds of creepy-crawly things that might be conjured up by the imagination of an addict ... By focusing more on the writer as a lost soul submerged in the world of drugs and decadent sex, Cronenberg gives insight into not only the destructiveness of addiction but the creative process as well," Films generally disappoint people who have previously enjoyed the book on which they were based, but given the situation, one might regard Cronenberg's effort as a complement to the book and a bio-commentary on Burroughs's life.


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Goodman, Michael Barry. Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981. A narrative history of the writing, publication, critical reception, and censorship of Naked Lunch in the United States. Well documented, it includes much previously unpublished material.

Miles, Barry. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible. London: Virgin Books, 1992. An entertaining overview of Burroughs’ literary and artistic output. Includes chapters devoted specifically to Tangier and to Naked Lunch. Offers a personal portrait of Burroughs the man and artist.

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Henry Holt, 1988. A detailed biography of William Burroughs which discusses Naked Lunch, its style, themes, and organization. Includes interesting photographs of Burroughs taken throughout his life.

Mottram, Eric. William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need. Critical Appraisal Series. London: Marion Boyars, 1977. A study of Burroughs’ work as a radical critique of Western power structures and the myths that support them. Mottram analyzes Naked Lunch and other works of Burroughs’ fiction in comparison with other radical thinkers.

Skerl, Jennie. William S. Burroughs. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A very good introduction to Burroughs’ life and work until 1981 and the publication of The Cities of the Red Night. Provides insight into the creation, themes, and techniques of Naked Lunch.

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