Published on November 8th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Naked Lunch: The Most Difficult Thing I’ve Ever Read
I read the abridged version of Moby Dick in fifth grade. I read the unabridged version in sixth grade. I read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in tenth grade…and eleventh…and twelvth…and my freshman year of college. I read Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way in 2011, but William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is the most difficult thing I’ve ever read.
It wasn’t until I finished the novel and started reading Burroughs’ commentary on the book that I began to understand it. I was lucky enough to read the restored text edition with additional letters and notes from Burroughs.
“You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” says Burroughs (187). And it’s true. If you were to start reading at the end and finished at the beginning, your understanding and the book’s effect would be identical had you started at the beginning and read to the end. It’s very Proustian in its form, but Burroughs has no intention of telling a linear story – or any story for that matter.
“The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement. This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yips and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bullhead, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trance, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells” (191).
The confusion Burroughs instills in his readers is intended, but a strong reader can get past that confusion only by soldiering on. I could have quit, but Burroughs’ imagery kept my eyes glued to the page. I now have the equivalent of “withdrawal dreams” because of reading this book. Images of orgies ending in multiple hangings now haunt me. I found myself reading sections twice just to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. The book was banned in Boston until the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled the book had certain “social value.”
That social value is really just a warning. I guarantee those judges thought this book would keep people from trying heroin, and I don’t blame them. I had no interest in trying junk before reading Naked Lunch, and I still don’t – unless, of course, I get really fucking old like Alan Arkin’s character in Little Miss Sunshine.
What makes Burroughs’ imagery so haunting is abiding by the most important rule of writing.
“There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing…I am a recording instrument…I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’…Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function…I am not an entertainer” (184).
Larry Donner of Throw Momma from the Train would say, “Write what you know,” and that’s exactly what Burroughs did. He was a junkie for over a decade and had tried virtually every form of treatment before he finally “awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five” (199). If anyone knows about this sort of drug use, it’s Burroughs, but calling himself a “recording instrument” is what I find most interesting and what I feel Hunter S. Thompson took to heart.
Thompson is famous for his tape recorder, and was known, like Kerouac (who gave Naked Lunch its name), to write directly from tape recordings of quotes and notes. Burroughs also used notes he wrote while battling withdrawals from heroin for Naked Lunch. I think this glorification of new technology was a result of a movement towards more “real” literature, and the new technology allowed Thompson to be even more “real” than his Beat predecessors, despite how unreal much of Thompson’s work may seem.
The point is, you may be shocked to learn what is factual and what is fiction. Burroughs turned the novel, typically a work of fiction, into a fantastic, autobiographical account of past events – exaggerated memoirs if you will – and he did it all while torpedoing the conventional stylistic form of the novel.
Burroughs pushed all the boundaries further than anyone before him. He pushed the boundaries of censorship, the boundaries of form, and the boundaries of the novel itself.
Naked Lunch with the additional notes and letters from Burroughs is actually one of the most informative and conclusive collections of first-hand narcotics experience and research. Any junkie or wannabe junkie should read it before shooting up because, “The addict in the street who must have junk to live is the one irreplaceable factor in the junk equation. When there are no more addicts to buy junk there will be no junk traffic. As long as junk need exists, someone will service it” (202).