William S. Burroughs Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 5) - Essay

Burroughs, William S(eward) (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Burroughs, William S(eward) 1914–

Burroughs, an American, writes inventive, obsessive novels. Naked Lunch is his best known work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Naked Lunch belongs to that very large category of books, from Macpherson's Ossian to Peyton Place, whose interest lies not in their own qualities but in the reception given to them in their own time. In itself, Naked Lunch is of very small significance. It consists of a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust, an effort to keep the reader's nose down in the mud for 250 pages. Before reading it I had heard it described as pornography, but this is not the case. The object of pornographic writing is to flood the reader's mind with lust, and lust is at any rate a positive thing to the extent that none of us would exist without it. A pornographic novel is, in however backhanded a way, on the side of something describable as life.

Naked Lunch, by contrast, is unreservedly on the side of death. It seeks to flood the reader's mind not with images of sexual desire but with images of pain, illness, cruelty and corruption. (p. 351)

A book like Naked Lunch requires far less talent in the writer, and for that matter less intelligence in the reader than the humblest magazine story or circulating-library novel. From the literary point of view, it is the merest trash, not worth a second glance. (p. 352)

The only writer of any talent of whom Burroughs occasionally manages to remind one is the Marquis de Sade; but if one turns to the pages of Sade after Naked Lunch the resemblance soon fades, since Sade, however degenerate he can be at times, has always some saving wit and irony. Burroughs takes himself with a complete, owlish seriousness; indeed, in his opening section he seems, as far as one can make out through the pea-soup fog of his prose, to be offering the book as some kind of tract against drug addiction. (pp. 356-57)

Altogether, Naked Lunch offers a very interesting field for speculation, both pathological and sociological. No lover of medical text-books on deformity should miss it. The rest of us, however, can afford to spend our six dollars on something else. (p. 357)

John Wain, "Naked Lunch" (originally titled "The Great Burroughs Affair"; reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1962 by The New Republic, Inc.), in The Critic As Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 351-57.

William S. Burroughs is a great autoeroticist—of writing, not sex. He gets astral kicks by composing in blocks, scenes, repetitive and identical memories galvanizing themselves into violent fantasies, the wild mixing of pictures, words, the echoes of popular speech. It is impossible to suspect him of any base erotic motives in his innumerable scenes of one adolescent boy servicing another like a piece of plumbing; nor should one expect a book from him different from his others…. [In The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead] he more than ever turns his obsession with cold, callous homosexual coupling into a piece of American science fiction. (p. 4)

Actually, he is a cutup who writes in action-prose, kaleidoscopic shifts, spurts, eruptions and hellzapoppins. But with all the simultaneous and cleverly farcical reversals, noises, revolver shots, sado-masochistic scenes on and off the high wire, the book is inescapably a reverie, the private Burroughs dream state. Whole scenes collide and steal up on each other and break away as if they were stars violently oscillating and exploding in the telescopic eyepiece of an astronomer who just happens to be gloriously soused….

More than anyone else I can think of in contemporary "fiction," he showed himself absolutely reckless in writing for his own satisfaction only. And yet he was so inventive, brilliant, funny in his many wild improvisations (he writes scenes as other people write adjectives, so that he is always inserting one scene into another, turning one scene into another), that one recognized a writer interested in nothing but his own mind….

Burroughs is indeed a serious man and a considerable writer. But his books are not really books, they are compositions that astonish, then pall. They are subjective experiences brought into the world for the hell of it and by the excitement of whatever happens to be present to Burroughs's consciousness when he writes. (p. 22)

Alfred Kazin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1971.

Burroughs has been called a prophet of political doom and a satirist of the American scene, but he has in fact never written about institutions so much as about emotion, never about ideas so much as about the experience of degradation or fear. His political outrage has the meaning of a series of expletives strung together with great intensity. What it communicates is not content but energy—that diffuse, furious revolt that gives his work the edgy power of acid rock. Burroughs' cut-up or fold-in method (take a page or tape, cut it into pieces, and paste or splice together in any order except the original one) is designed not only to destroy any coherent statement, but to dissolve the line between personality and society in a jolting music. This very confusion has served to conceal Burroughs the writer and the hater within his many indistinguishable characters, those anonymous voices choking with nausea at being alive. For Burroughs' final subject is not the particular psyche, nor the social scene, but quaking nerves.

Burroughs' novels are the experience of his orgiastic hate. Passion is the work of demon bacteria, "virus powers" that infect with love, or a craving for heroin, cruelty, or power. Men are no more than the hosts of personality parasites, victims that virus-gods use for food. And the sex parasite is the most voracious. Just as Burroughs politicized heroin addiction in Naked Lunch (as the mode of all addictions—of governments to power, of men to cruelty), so in his later novels sex becomes the model for every kind of conflict and degradation. For Burroughs always writes of those lonely, homosexual men who are doomed to be tempted into sex by the likes of Johnny Yen, "the boy-girl god of sexual frustration from the terminal sewers of Venus." His characters tell of lust rolling into degradation and torture, of beautiful boys metamorphosing into slimy green newts. Living is only being wrecked by desire, being violated by men who are not even people….

Yet no matter how far they recede into abstraction, Burroughs' spaced-out men can never escape the sense that every eruption of life is a force for destruction. Burroughs' titles—Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded—tell nearly all: life is a nova express, a fulminating train speeding toward its final, explosive stop. Your ticket to ride is your body, the raging host that makes you ride whether you will or no. (p. 87)

In Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs wrote of people consumed by their own passions, of lovers spliced together in hate, their intestines locked in a parasitic bond. But in Nova Express and The Wild Boys he evolved a way of dealing with every agony. In these novels, a man can escape his hate by going out of his mind. Burroughs turns emotion into a psychic event that releases feeling in a brilliant, removed image….

In The Wild Boys, Burroughs finally emerges as a fury, the demon artist he calls the Incomparable Yellow Serpent, who "shifts from AC to DC as a thin siren wail breaks from his lips." Pictures "leap from his eyes blasting everyone to smoldering fragments…. When comes such another singer?" demands Burroughs.

Burroughs' fantasies are clearly meant to kill off all the straights. What he wants are vindicators, "wild boys," the sudden coming of "a whole generation … that felt neither pleasure or pain." (p. 88)

Josephine Hendin, "Angries: S-M as a Literary Style," in Harper's (copyright 1974 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the February, 1974 issue by special permission), February, 1974, pp. 87-93.

On the eighteenth-century notion that ruins are more sublime than the real thing, [Exterminator!] is a novel only by default. It is a continuing series of vignettes, which is an unhip way of saying spliced interfaces. But they all have one thing in common: they are mercifully short.

Heterogeneous people are yoked violently together, and like divers they emerge from Burroughs's shallows more bent than alive…. Burroughs's fantasies are from the Eisenhower era, when all good Americans went to Kerouac before they died. And the bad Americans? They stayed in Paris.

Burroughs is at his best when he looks into his mirror and writes. There is a clever satire on a tired old trendy, 'The Coming Purple Better One', who wouldn't say boo to a goose. Especially when it takes the form of a youth-cult, marching en masse and demanding its rights. But this portrait of an innocent at home is the only whiff of clean air among all the cocaine. Much of the novel flirts with 'experimentalism', on the principle that fake diamonds are a writer's best friend. Burroughs's flashes of montage and the occasional rash of block capitals (a variation on plaster of Paris) have the unmistakeable flavour of what the French used to call 'staircase wit', or the lines you should have said before you left the party. Or what Burroughs might call that sinking feeling many times removed. Experimentalism is, nowadays, generally after the fact and most Americans must tiptoe where the French and Irish have already stamped.

There is a desperate conventionality about this 'novel', as if it could explode but only just. (pp. 333-34)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 16, 1974.

In [Burroughs'] world writers and doctors are the only heroes, while missionaries are sent forth to bring home the genitals of black men. Like Fellini, Burroughs is probably not exaggerating. That's the way he sees things. Characterisation is laughable in the context of the average Burroughs bloodbath. But perversion, the subconscious, the future, whichever terminology you prefer to speak of it in, his world is very much there before your eyes, believed in, relished, detested, lived through. You could say Burroughs was a writer of exotica, too much a creature of his own imagination. [In Exterminator!, as in earlier novels, his] world is peopled … with all manner of subterranean freaks and failures. On the other hand if there is anyone truly creative in novel-writing today, as distinct from merely interpretative, it must be him. As I said before, it depends on your terminology. Personally I think he's a poet. (p. 455)

Hugo Williams, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 29, 1974.

William Burroughs's Exterminator! seeks quite deliberately to exploit a mixture of modes. Its styles shift, from a dull, low colloquial, spliced together without punctuation ("You couldn't say exactly when it hit familiar and dreary as a cigarette butt ground out in cold scrambled eggs the tooth paste smears on a washstand glass why you were on the cops day like another just feeling a little worse than usual which is not unusual at all well an ugly thing broke out that day in the precinct …"); to an end-of-the-world romantistic ("In the desolate markets the bright fabrics and tinware no longer flap and clatter in the winds of God. There are few purchasers and fingers that touch the merchandise are yellow and listless with fever"); to a brisk documentary ("Sunday August 25: Out to the airport for the arrival of McCarthy. An estimated fifteen thousand supporters there to welcome him mostly young people. Surprisingly few police. Whole scene touching and ineffectual particularly in retrospect of subsequent events"). These styles, and a good many others, occur in discrete and discontinuous sections, united not even by continuous "characters" but only by a common exploitation of the comic-apocalyptic motifs that one easily associates with Burroughs's work.

It is an extremely demanding way to write a book, to begin to do something different every five pages or so, and to bring it off requires not only skill but virtuosity of a very high order. The greatest likelihood is that the book will seem frightfully uneven, demonstrating that its author does some things better than others, which seems to me very much the case with Exterminator!. Another likelihood is that a book so discontinuous will seem, at its end, not to have been structured but only to have grown by accretion, like a scrapbook, and this too seems to me the case with Exterminator!. For all of its brutality, there is so much comic-strip stylization to its whores, pimps, junkies, presidential advisers, and scientologists, that the brutality never seems quite persuasive. (pp. 305-06)

Philip Stevick, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974.

The very name of Burroughs conjures up contorted works of quirky brilliance, a warp of vision through a wild woof of language. [In "The Last Words of Dutch Schultz" we] have instead, astoundingly, the script for a gangster film, pure and simple. Well, not so pure—neither the hero nor the heroin—but very simple, and very good.

"The Last Words of Dutch Schultz" turns out to be a straightforward, skillful piece of work for the movies, a good old-fashioned film biography of a bad old-fashioned racketeer. To suit the genre, the text is in many ways conventional beyond belief….

It's true that there are a few passages that twist and run with the old Burroughs dazzle…. But heady passages … are very rare; the text remains essentially functional, workmanlike. The genuinely amazing fact is not that the script is a fiction, but that Burroughs has composed a work in the Hollywood vein—relentlessly stereotyped, virtually a parody—that is at the same time congruent with the rest of his unique work. This screenplay makes evident a couple of things about Burroughs that were not nearly so obvious before.

For one thing, it reveals the humorist in Burroughs, the helplessly appalled, obsessed joker. The sequence about the Whisperer, whose voice is a tape recorder, is revoltingly and mirthlessly funny. For another, the screenplay sheds a flickering new light on all those kaleidoscopic hallucinations that go swirling through his books: home-movie loops, of course they are, to be replayed ad nauseam in a tiny theater—the terrified soul. Cinematic extravaganzas, celluloid nightmares. If we are tempted to pin generic labels on anything, it would be a hindsight better to call his novels "Film Scripts in the Form of Fiction." (p. 4)

Alan Friedman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 22, 1975.