William S. Burroughs Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Because of their experimental techniques, the works of William S. Burroughs (BUR-ohz) are especially difficult to classify within established literary forms. Exterminator! (1973), for example, although published as a “novel,” is actually a collection of previously published poems, short stories, and essays. Other unclassifiable works are book-length experiments, often written in collaboration and in the “cut-up, fold-in” technique pioneered by Burroughs, which might be considered novels by some. The “cut-up, fold-in” technique is similar to the picture art of collage in that text from other authors, news stories, or other works is randomly inserted and then reedited to go with the general text by the author. Examples among Burroughs’s works are Minutes to Go (1960), written in collaboration with Sinclair Beiles, Gregory Corso, and Brion Gysin; The Exterminator (1960), written with Gysin; Time (1965), which contains drawings by Gysin; and uvre Croisée (1976), written in collaboration with Gysin and reissued as The Third Mind in 1978. White Subway (1965), Apomorphine (1969), and The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs (1970), written in collaboration with Daniel Odier, are additional short-story and essay collections. The Dead Star (1969) is a journalistic essay that contains photocollage inserts, APO-33 Bulletin: A Metabolic Regulator (1966) is a pamphlet, and Electronic Revolution, 1970-71 (1971) is an essay that fantasizes bizarre political and business uses for the cut-up, fold-in technique.

Burroughs also published scores of essays, stories, and articles in numerous journals, periodicals, and short-lived magazines. One of Burroughs’s most revealing publications, The Yage Letters (1963), collects his correspondence with Allen Ginsberg concerning Burroughs’s 1952 expedition to South America in search of yage, a legendary hallucinogen. In these letters, Burroughs is Govinda, the master, to Ginsberg’s Siddhartha, the disciple.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William S. Burroughs’s best-known novel, Naked Lunch, was made notorious by American censorship attempts and consequently became a best seller. Burroughs, who wrote primarily for a cult audience, was essentially a fantasist and satirist (some of his work is also considered science fiction), and he is often misread; in these respects he has been compared accurately to Jonathan Swift. Both writers focus on the faults and evils of humankind and society, employ fantastic satire to ridicule these shortcomings, and hope through this vehicle to effect some positive change in the human condition. Burroughs’s works are exceptionally vicious satires, however, “necessarily brutal, obscene and disgusting”—his own description of them—because they must mime the situations from which their recurring images and metaphors (of drug addiction, aberrant sexual practices, and senseless violence) are drawn.

Burroughs’s focus on drug addiction and the paranoia and nonlinear thought processes of his characters also make his writing comparable to some of Phillip K. Dick’s novels, such as The Man in the High Castle (1962) and A Scanner Darkly (1977). Burroughs’s work Blade Runner: A Movie (1979), although unrelated to the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, which is based on Dick’s work Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), may have at least been the inspiration for the motion picture’s title.

Superficially, Burroughs’s satiric attacks are aimed at humanity’s “addictions” to pleasure or power in any of the many forms either craving might take. Those who, obeying the dictates of “the algebra of need,” will stop at nothing to fulfill their desires have, in the terms of the moral allegory Burroughs creates, “lost their human citizenship” and become nonhuman parasites feeding on the life essences of...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Burroughs, William S. Conversations with William S. Burroughs. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Edited by Allen Hibbard.

Burroughs, William S. Burroughs Live. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Collection of interviews is informative for readers hoping for a personal glimpse of the novelist. Burroughs, however, was notorious with interviewers for being a difficult subject to draw out.

Caveney, Graham. Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Unconventional biography features an imaginative visual presentation that superimposes the text on reproductions of photographs, newspaper clippings, and other visual elements, all printed on multicolored pages. Considers the myths and legends surrounding Burroughs as well as his life and influence on later generations of musicians, writers, and artists.

Cook, Bruce. The Beat Generation. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. Cook’s survey of the Beat generation emphasizes their social impact rather than their literary importance. He devotes a chapter to Burroughs’s work, notably Naked Lunch, describing it as primarily self-revelation. He includes a biography of Burroughs and an interview that takes place in London.

Goodman, Michael Barry. Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.” Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981. Offers a narrative history of the writing, publication, critical reception, and subsequent censorship of...

(The entire section is 690 words.)