William S. Burroughs Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William S. Burroughs did not begin writing seriously until 1950, although he had unsuccessfully submitted a story titled “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” to Esquire in 1938. His first novelistic effort, Queer, which deals with homosexuality, was not published until 1985. Allen Ginsberg finally persuaded Ace Books to publish Burroughs’s first novel, Junkie, which originally appeared under the pseudonym William Lee as half of an Ace double paperback; it was bound with Maurice Helbront’s Narcotic Agent. While strictly conventional in style, Junkie is a luridly hyperbolic, quasi-autobiographical first-person account of the horrors of drug addiction. Of little literary merit in itself, this first novel is interesting in that it introduces not only the main character, Lee, but also several of the major motifs that appear in Burroughs’s subsequent works: the central metaphor of drug addiction, the related image of man reduced to a subhuman form (usually an insectlike creature) by his drug and other lusts, and the suggestion of concomitant and pervasive sexual aberration.

In Naked Lunch and its three less celebrated sequels, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, and The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs weaves an intricate and horrible allegory of human greed, corruption, and debasement. Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), these four works seize on the evils—or the tendencies toward a certain type of evil—that the author sees as particularly malignant in the contemporary world and project them into a dystopian future, where, magnified, they grow monstrous and take on an exaggerated and fantastic shape.

While progressively clarifying and developing Burroughs’s thought, these novels share themes, metaphorical images, characters, and stylistic mannerisms. In them, Burroughs utilizes the “cut-up, fold-in” technique, which has its closest analogue in the cinematic technique of montage. He juxtaposes one scene with another without regard to plot, character, or, in the short view, theme, to promote an association of the reader’s negative emotional reaction to the content of certain scenes (sexual perversion, drug abuse, senseless violence) with the implied allegorical content of others (examples of “addictions” to drugs, money, sex, power). The theory is that if such juxtapositions recur often enough, the feeling of revulsion strategically created by the first set of images will form the reader’s negative attitude toward the second set of examples.

In these novels, Burroughs develops a science-fiction-like, paranoid fantasy wherein, on a literal level, Earth and its human inhabitants have been taken over by the Nova Mob, an assortment of extraterrestrial, non-three-dimensional entities who live parasitically on the reality of other organisms. Exploitation of Earth has reached such proportions that the intergalactic Nova Police have been alerted. The Nova Police are attempting to thwart the Nova Mob without so alarming them that they will detonate the planet in an attempt to destroy the evidence (and thus escape prosecution in the biologic courts) while trying to make what escape they can. The most direct form of Nova control, control that enables the Nova Mob to carry on its viruslike metaphysical vampirism with impunity, is thought control of the human population through control of the mass-communication media. Nova Mob concepts and perspectives attach themselves to and are replicated by the terrestrial host media much as a virus invades and reproduces through a host organism, a thought-control process analogous to the “cut-up, fold-in” technique itself. By the middle of Nova Express, the reader is caught up in a war of images in which the weapons are cameras and tape recorders. The Nova Police and the inhabitants of Earth have discovered how to combat the Nova Mob with their own techniques (of which these novels are examples) and are engaged in a guerrilla war with the Nova Criminals, who are desperately trying to cut and run. The ending of The Ticket That Exploded is optimistic for Earth but inconclusive, leaving the reader to wonder if Earth will be rid of the Nova Mob or destroyed by it.

Naked Lunch

A vividly and relentlessly tasteless fantasy-satire that portrays humankind’s innate greed and lack of compassion in general and contemporary American institutions and values in particular, Naked Lunch immerses the reader in the impressions and sensations of William Lee (Burroughs’s pseudonym in Junkie). Lee is an agent of the Nova Police who has assumed the cover of a gay heroin addict because with such a cover he is most likely to encounter Nova Criminals, who are all addicts of one sort or another and thus prefer to operate through human addict collaborators. Nothing of importance seems to occur in the novel, and little of what does happen is explained. Only toward the conclusion does the reader even suspect that Lee is some sort of agent “clawing at a not-yet of Telepathic Bureaucracies, Time Monopolies, Control Drugs, Heavy Fluid Addicts.” The “naked lunch” of the title is that reality seen by Lee, that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” The random scenes of mutilation and depravity, bleak homosexual encounters, and desperate scrambles for drug connections into which the book plunges yield its two key concepts: the idea of addiction, the central conceit that human beings become hooked on power, pleasure, illusions, and so on much as junkies do on heroin, and that of “the algebra of need,” which states simply that an addict faced with absolute need (as a junkie is) will do anything to satisfy that need.

The Nova Criminals are nonhuman personifications of various addictions. The Uranians, addicted to Heavy Metal Fluid, are types of drug addicts. Dr. Benway, Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin (a single character), and the insect people of Minraud—all control addicts—are types of the human addiction to power. The green boy-girls of Venus, addicted to Venusian sexual practices, are types of the human addiction to sensual pleasure. The Death Dwarf, addicted to concentrated words and images, is the analogue of the human addiction to various cultural myths and beliefs; he is perhaps the most pathetic of these depraved creatures. Burroughs explains: “Junk yields a basic formula of ’evil’ virus: the face of evil is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control.” As poet and literary critic John Ciardi noted, “Only after the first shock does one realize that what Burroughs is writing about is not only the destruction of depraved men by their drug lust, but the destruction of all men by their consuming addictions, whether the addiction be drugs or over-righteous propriety or sixteen-year-old girls.”

The Soft Machine

Burroughs viewed The Soft Machine as “a sequel to Naked Lunch, a mathematical extension of the Algebra of Need beyond the Junk virus.” Here, the consuming addiction, displayed again in juxtaposition with scenes of drug abuse and sexual perversion, and through a number of shifting narrators, is the addiction to power over others. The central episode is the destruction by a time-traveling agent of the control apparatus of the ancient Mayan theocracy (Burroughs’s primary archaeological interest), which exercises its control through the manipulation of myths; this is a clear analogue of the present-day struggle between the Nova Police and the Nova Mob that breaks into the open in the subsequent two novels.

The time traveler uses the same technique to prepare himself for time travel as Burroughs does in writing his novels, a type of “cut-up, fold-in” montage: “I started my trip in the morgue with old newspapers, folding in today with yesterday and typing out composites.” Because words tie people to time, the time traveler is given apomorphine (used to cure Burroughs of his heroin addiction) to break this connection.

The “soft machine” is both the...

(The entire section is 3374 words.)