Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" Turns 50

j d worthington

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Which pretty much says it all: William S. Burroughs' odd, surreal, often controversial novel, was first published in 1959, and has now reached the half-century mark. Like James' Ulysses, it also faced obscenity charges and was banned and read surreptitiously (and illegally) for a time, yet convinced a judge that it did have redeeming social and artistic value -- which which I would agree -- and therefore the ban was lifted; but the controversy has remained.

Nonetheless, it has also become ensconced in the ranks of major twentieth-century novels, just as Burroughs has become an icon of the latter part of that century; and doesn't look as if it's going to fade away anytime soon.

Why mention it here? Well, if you've read the novel, you probably wouldn't have to ask; if not, then the answer is that, like many of Burroughs' novels, there are strong elements of a science-fictional and/or fantastic nature to the book, but whether it can be considered as genuine sff is, I suppose, up to the individual reader. Ballard certainly felt it was at least closely allied to the field, calling Burroughs one of the twentieth century's greatest mythographers.

At any rate, for those interested, just thought I'd pass along the note of this little milestone....
 

j d worthington

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Another book I've not read but been curious about. Whats the basic synopsis of this book?

I'm not sure one can give a "basic synopsis" of this one, as it is a surrealist novel, which jumps from vignette to vignette, where the text is a product of the "cut-up" method:

Cut-up technique - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

But here is Wiki's take on the "plot" of the novel:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_Lunch#.22Plot.22_summary

So, it's an unconventional novel, to say the least; no linear narrative, though with a strong structure nonetheless; bitingly satirical, pointed, and often varying between outrageously funny and jolting, even brutal, in its approach. Burroughs pulls no punches here, but I'd say there's a genuinely humane ethic behind the whole....
 

j d worthington

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Yes, Burroughs' concern with addiction as a theme runs throughout much of his work, and is (naturally) fueled by his own experiences in that regard. But he makes it a larger thing, too, noting how anything can become an addiction; a parasitic relationship, as it were, with something which is non-living yet given life (and even an anthropomorphosis) by the "junkie".

This even extends to language:

The "Other Half" is the word. The "Other Half" is an organism. Word is an organism. The presence of the "Other Half a separate organism attached to your nervous system on an air line of words can now be demonstrated experimentally. One of the most common "hallucinations" of subjects during sense withdrawal is the feeling of another body sprawled through the subject's body at an angle . . yes quite an angle it is the "Other Half" worked quite some years on a symbiotic basis. From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. In the beginning was the word. In the beginning of what exactly? The earliest artifacts dateback about ten thousand years give a little take a little and "recorded" -- (or prerecorded) history about seven thousand years. The human race is said to have been on set for 500,000 years. That leaves 490,000 years unaccounted for. Modern man has advanced from the stone ax to nuclear weapons in ten thousand years. This may well have happened before. Mr Brion Gysin suggests that a nuclear disaster in what is now the Gobi desert wiped out all traces of a civilization that made such a disaster possible. Perhaps their nuclear weapons did not operate on the same principle as the ones we have now. Perhaps they had no contact with the word organism. Perhaps the word itself is recent about ten thousand years old. What we call history is the history of the word. In the beginning of that history was the word.

-- The Ticket that Exploded, pp. 49-50​

The reference to the human race having been "on set" is from another conceit of Burroughs: that everything is a movie -- a particularly dull and inartistic movie being produced by a corrupt and monopolistic reality studio run by a venal, inept, alien who is also a pusher; his product in both cases being the same thing:

George Raft went home tiring from films altogether -- but available for civilian jobs -- once in a while -- sticky end for Old Black Bird -- "Martin's reality film is the dreariest entertainment ever presented to a captive audience." He stated flatly.[...]

Martin's film worked for a long time. Used to be most everybody had a part in the film and you can still find remote areas where a whole tribe or village is on set. Nice to see but it won't do you much good. Even as late as the 1920's everybody had a good chance to get in the film.[...]

[...] The film stock issued now isn't worth the celluloid it's printed on. There is nothing to back it up. The film bank is empty. To conceal the bankruptcy of the reality studio it is essential that no one should be in a position to set up another reality set. The reality film has now become an instrument and weapon of monopoly. The full weight of the film is directed against anyone who calls the film in question with particular attention to writers and artists. Work for the reality studio or else. Or else you will find out how it feels to be outside the film. I mean literally without film left to get yourself from here to the corner . ." Every object raw and hideous sharp edges that tear the uncovered flesh.

-- ibid., pp. 150-51​

He makes these addictions, and the sense of "outsideness", major themes of all of his work, including Naked Lunch, which is really quite a sterling achievement in many ways.

I don't know if it would be at all to your taste, Larry -- in fact, I rather doubt it would, given comments on some other books of the past -- but if any of the above intrigues you, you might give it a go.... (But on the subject of sex -- also an addiction -- yes, be warned: there is some pretty graphic stuff in Burroughs' work, so at least be braced for that, as well....)
 

AE35Unit

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I think it would leave me scratching my head to be honest. I don't like philosophical novels,ones that question things that we take for granted. Like what is life? Why are we here? Are we here? Is life simply a part of our subconscious? That kind of stuff just goes over my head! Just give me a story I can read without having to think about the consequences of events therein.
 

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