When I first read Naked Lunch, as a teenager sleeping rough in a Greek olive grove, I thought it funny, baffling and vile, its hallucinatory horrors recalling paintings by Francis Bacon — ‘mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth’. A diet of ouzo and dodgy mousaka played havoc with my bowels, and the pages before me were soon behind me, which I thought would please William Burroughs, whose humour was decidedly cloacal.
It would also have pleased Edith Sitwell, whose review suggested that such was a fitting use for the book: ‘I do not wish to spend the rest of my life,’ she sniffed, ‘with my nose nailed to other people’s lavatories.’ By happy chance, I learn from Burroughs (an excellent film by Howard Brookner, found on video.google) that long before he wrote Naked Lunch he used to act out ‘routines’ with his friend and lover, Allen Ginsberg, with Ginsberg playing ‘the well-groomed Hungarian’ and Burroughs in drag as Dame Edith.
The 50th-anniversary edition has much the same cover as my old copy — I hadn’t realised that the sinister head which illustrates it was from a photograph of Burroughs — and the same crappy paper, but the notoriously ragged text has been given a welcome polish by Barry Miles, a biographer of Burroughs, and James Grauerholz, who looked after him for many years. They have also included new material — out-takes, introductions and letters. In a letter to Irving Rosenthal (identity unexplained, but apparently an editor), Burroughs writes, emphatically even for him, ‘this is not a novel’.
One sees what he means. There is a cast of characters (the Rube, the Vigilante, the Sailor and the Gimp, the Paregoric Kid, ‘Fats’ Terminal and the sublimely foul Dr Benway) who are evidently fictional, but not always distinguishable from one another — ‘subject,’ as he puts it in an Atrophied Preface, ‘to say the same thing in the same words, to occupy, at that intersection point, the same position in space-time’. These protoplasmic characters commit unspeakable acts on one another, usually involving drugs, sex or surgery, and sometimes all three, but their acts are quite random and entail no narrative development or coherence. And any narrative that does emerge is constantly interrupted by hellish visions, broken incantations and sci-fi didacticism about Mayan codices and giant centipedes.
If it’s not a novel, what is it? In another appended introduction, Burroughs claims it is a kind of treatise on heroin addiction, or ‘the junk virus’: ‘Since Naked Lunch treats this health problem, it is necessarily brutal, obscene and disgusting.’ Actually, some readers may find the druggy bits rather less offensive than the rabid misogyny (‘Women have poison juices’), the violent homosexual pornography, and the relentless blasphemy against the Abrahamic religions (‘Islam Inc’ etc.), none of which has anything to do with heroin addiction.
Naked Lunch was ‘extracted’ by Ginsberg from letters Burroughs wrote him from Tangier (which features as ‘Interzone’) and the chaotic manuscripts he produced there during his years as an addict, and was given its title by Jack Kerouac — the ‘frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork’. Burroughs was prompted to write it (and all his other books, some of which bear a closer resemblance to novels) by the death of his wife, Joan Vollmer, who once complimented him, ‘Well Bill, you’re supposed to be a faggot, but you’re better than a pimp in bed’, and whom he killed in Mexico City during a drunken game of William Tell — an incident he attributed to his possession by the ‘Ugly Spirit’.
So Naked Lunch should properly be read as the lament of a tormented soul — there are sad references to Joan, and to ‘my little Willy’, their doomed son, William Burroughs Jnr (outlived by his father) — as an act of attempted expiation and exorcism. It isn’t read that way, of course, but as an anarchic celebration of derangement and depravity, and as one of the key texts — with Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road — of the Beat movement, and the counter-culture that followed. It has inspired other writers — J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Irvine Welsh — and a film by David Cronenberg, and supplied the names of such art-rock bands as Soft Machine, Velvet Underground and Steely Dan.
For such a nightmarish book, it is surprisingly witty and charming, its junkie riffs as compelling as the street voices on The Wire, and for such an ugly book it is surprisingly beautiful, its flowers of evil bursting through cracked concrete: ‘A shambles! A filthy shambles! By Allah I never see anything so downright nasty!’ Half a century on, it is worth revisiting — or regurgitating.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 15, 2009