Thursday, November 26, 2009

284. Naked Lunch – William Burroughs

History: This book was originally published in 1959.
Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
Naked Lunch is considered Burroughs' seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. Extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of often 'obscene' language (something Burroughs recognized and intended), the book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles. It was one of the most recent American books over which an obscenity trial was held. The book was banned by Boston courts in 1962 due to obscenity (notably child murder and acts of pedophilia), but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. This was the last major literary censorship battle in the U.S. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes, as it was found to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.
Upon publication, Grove Press added to the book supplementary material regarding the censorship battle as well as an article written by Burroughs on the topic of drug addiction. In 2002, a "restored text" edition of Naked Lunch was published with some new and previously suppressed material added.
On a more specific level, Naked Lunch also protests the death penalty. In Burroughs' Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness, perhaps the most shocking and pornographic section of the book, "The Blue Movies" (appearing in the vignette A.J.'s Annual Party) is deemed "a tract against capital punishment." Within "The Blue Movies," three adolescents take part in hanging one another, wherein Burroughs lewdly mocks by incorporating auto-erotic asphyxiation.
Plot: The book begins with the adventures of William Lee (aka Lee the Agent) who is Burroughs' alter ego in the novel - as well as his pen name for Junky. His journey starts in the US where he is fleeing the police, in search of drugs and his next fix. There are short chapters here describing the different characters he travels with and meets along the way.
Eventually he gets to Mexico where he is assigned to Dr. Benway; for what, he is not told. Benway appears and he tells about his previous doings in Annexia as a "Total Demoralizator". The story then moves to a state called Freeland—a form of limbo—where we learn of Islam Inc. Here, some new characters are introduced; Clem, Carl, Joselito amongst others.
A short section then jumps in space and time to a market place. The Black Meat is sold here and compared to 'Junk', i.e. morphine. The action then moves back to the hospital where Benway is fully revealed as a manipulative, uncaring and corrupt monster.
Time and space again shifts the narrative to a location known as Interzone. Hassan, one of the notable characters of the book and "a notorious liquefactionist," is throwing a violent orgy. AJ crashes the party and wreaks havoc, decapitating people and imitating a pirate. Hassan is enraged and tells AJ never to return, calling him a "factualist bitch" - a term which is enlarged much later when the apparently "clashing" political factions within Interzone are described. These include the Liquefactionists, the Senders, the Factualists, the Divisionists, who occupy "a midway position". A short descriptive section tells us of Interzone University, where a professor and his students are ridiculed; the book moves on to an orgy that AJ himself throws.
The book then shifts back to the market place and a description of some form of government. Characters including the County Clerk, Benway, Dr Berger, Clem and Jody are sketched through heavy dialogue and their own sub-stories.
After the description of the four parties of Interzone, we are then told more stories about AJ. After briefly describing Interzone, the novel breaks down into sub-stories and heavily cut-up influenced passages.
In a sudden return to what seems to be Lee's reality, two police officers, Hauser and O'Brien, catch up with Lee, who manages to kill both of them. Lee then goes out to a street phone-booth and calls the Narcotics Squad, saying he wants to speak to O'Brien. A Lieutenant Gonzales on the other end of the line claims there's no one in their records called O'Brien. When Lee asks for Hauser instead, the reply is identical; Lee hangs up, and goes on the run once again.
Review: Maybe not your music, or for that matter mine, but surely music nevertheless. This "novel", moreover, extols thing that today are rather taken for granted like illegal (and in the book and in Burroughs personal life seemingly excessive) drug use, homosexuality, the use of `obscene language', the dehumanization of modern society. Sound familiar? Of course, but Burroughs said it when it was not fashionable to do so. No wonder he was the "mentor" for those young kids, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, etc. when they hit New York in the mid-1940s looking for "something". Using believable metaphors representing addiction to such things as, most notably heroin and control, along with medical practice such as Benway resorting to subway abortions after having his license revoked, and even homosexuality and WASP supremacy, Burroughs repudiates America's consumerist post-World War II state, and the overall human condition.
Opening Line: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…”
Closing Line: “No glot.. C’lom Friday”
Quotes: “Look down at my filthy trousers, haven’t been changed in months… the days glide by strung on a syringe with a long thread of blood.”
“And once he has scored he holes up for several days like a gorged boa constrictor.”
Rating: Not my cup of tea, but important.

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