Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

The thematic concerns which Burroughs introduced in Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch, and then continued to pursue in the trilogy consisting of The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express are the product of the years he spent as a kind of drop-out from American...

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The thematic concerns which Burroughs introduced in Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch, and then continued to pursue in the trilogy consisting of The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express are the product of the years he spent as a kind of drop-out from American society before his break-through to his singular writing style in Naked Lunch. They include esoteric theories of addiction, unconventional and often medically suspect solutions to addictive impulses, an obsession with conspiracies of social control, a fascination with the technical means of communication, and a desire to probe the areas of his own psyche which generate the "characters" he places in his novels. All of these are present in Nova Express but what makes the novel distinctive is the manner in which Burroughs addresses the question of language itself. His examination of nontraditional methods of organization, character presentation, and syntactical construction was largely instinctive in Naked Lunch. In the trilogy, he has introduced the theory of the "cut-up" as a specific instrument to employ in assembling passages which test some of his presumptions about the manner in which linguistic arrangements influence perception.

In other books, drugs have been thoroughly investigated (even embraced) as agents of transformation. In Nova Express, chemical substances take a distinctly secondary role as Burroughs suggests that the alteration in consciousness necessary to achieve freedom can be a product of a kind of education into the mind-set of what might be called the hipster's reality. Nova Express is both a demonstration of the effects of this education, a sample (albeit very unconventional and erratic) syllabus for a course of instruction, and an application of the artistic enlightenment Burroughs feels is crucial to break the chains of control, For instance, one section of Nova Express suggests that silence is a desirable state. Burroughs maintains that "a special use of words and pictures can conduce silence," but for him, silence is not merely an absence of sound but a condition conducive to an increased awareness since "most people don't see what's going on around them."

The character known as the Subliminal Kid, an electronics genius, periodically interferes with what seems to be the "reality" of a situation by relocating the angle of perception through mechanical devices. In the context of the space/time continuum which is the setting for much of the novel — a fitting track for a book that is allied with the science fiction genre — this seems like an action consistent with travels on the Nova Express. However, Burroughs goes beyond surreal descriptions of images metamorphosing into new images to imply that the artist's transformative or shaping power is the strongest weapon in the battle with the "all-powerful boards and syndicates of the earth." Somewhat oblique references to a magician-figure resembling Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest (c.1611) suggest that an artist can reach further into the psyche through the use of language than the electronics master; that like Prospero's, this magic is a potent force in the planetary configurations of the Nova universe just as Prospero's was on an isolated island in a spacelike ocean.

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