My cultural knowledge of William S. Burroughs used to go a little bit like this: “Naked Lunch”…ah, hmmm…”Naked Lunch” (the movie). I knew more about him as a reference, from bands I like (Steely Dan, Soft Machine) to a voice to sample (“Language is a Virus” and “Sharkey’s Night” for Laurie Anderson). So it made sense to pick up this very breezy biography by Barry Miles, who has also actively reconstructed some “definitive texts” of Burroughs’ works (and after you read the book, you realize how brain-busting that must have been).
This is the story of a man who leaves his small town, sees the big wide world, does a whole lot of drugs, achieves fame, achieves poverty, then returns to a similar location to live out the rest of his days. Funny how that happens. Of course, in the meantime, he winds up influencing the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Miles traces the themes and influences running through all Burroughs’ works and makes valid the writer’s own claim that all his writing is one large book, with familiar characters and ideas turning up again and again. Just as some film directors start off as comic artists, Burroughs started off as more of a skit writer, composing “routines” with his friends based on wild characters, seeing where they would leave. “Junky” certainly has that quality from the get go; “Naked Lunch” is the culmination of that style. The later cut-up works are microcosm versions of the routines.
At some point Burroughs became so paranoid, and believed that people were just “agents” working for some unseen force, and that women were aliens. He actively pursued Scientology in its earlier stages, when it was a version of Wilhelm Reich’s theories (Burroughs went through the e-meter business and became a ‘clear’) and not a money-making cult. Reading about this made me realize how much Cronenberg put into his film of Naked Lunch–not just an adaptation of the novel, but a psychobiography of Burroughs.
Miles’ book is essential reading for anyone interested in jumping into Burroughs’ work, not just because of the overview it gives of the books, but because so much of his life appears in his novels, that I would imagine a reader would be lost without it.
So therefore I picked up Junky right after putting this book down. Will read it soon….
In the meantime, here’s a page of cut-up machines. And a page of assorted texts.