Wednesday, October 22, 2014

William S. Burroughs, "Naked Lunch"


Read from June 28th to July 12th, 2013
My rating

“THIS IS NOT A NOVEL”, capitalized emphatically Burroughs in a letter to his editor, mimicking the horrified denial of any respectable 16th century writer suspected to have embraced such a minor genre. And he's right, Naked Lunch is definitely not a novel – not even in a post-modern, experimentalist or nouveau roman sense – it’s at its most a series of short stories or rather vignettes, kept together by some narrative hooks, which are sometimes a narrator, William Lee, or characters migrating from a story to another and of course, by the main theme, which is addiction. The result? Some deliberately frightening, hilariously incoherent, sarcastically irritating and ultimately carelessly annoying, nonsensical tales depicting a world where in the absence of reason, monsters happily break free, where the mixture between fantastic and reality is not some clever technique to create magic realism but a faithful description of an astute, even if drug-clouded, mind. Similar to that old surrealist technique ("automatic writing" I think it is called), only this time the narrative is not the description of a dream – or not really.

Two main ideas seem to develop in this weird book: firstly, that we are more or less a world of addicts of some sort, and sometimes the drug addicts are not the worst of all, since “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell… Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus.”

Secondly, that the human being can be redeemed even after a complete and apparently irreversible harrowing of hell: “The Human Virus can now be isolated and treated.” But this redemption, watch this, happens only if the Man’s insignificant, ridiculous place in the Universe is duly assumed, since even Art expresses only his decaying flesh:
Gentle reader, we see God through our assholes in the flash bulb of orgasm… Through these orifices transmute your body… The way OUT is the way IN…
Between this two ideas oscillate the unconventional tales of the volume, building a hallucinating world, where absurd discussions pretend to deliver some profound hidden sense, like in Campus of Interzone University, a mixture of Ionesco’s "Lesson" and Orwell’s "Animal Farm" on a (why the hell not?) Romantic subject: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", by Coleridge.

You'll often find some absurd or simply untrue information delivered in a serious, erudite tone, like the description of the simopaths:
A simopath – the technical name for this disorder escapes me – is a citizen convinced he is an ape or other simian. It is a disorder peculiar to the army, and discharge cures it.
Often you’ll come across some deliciously licentious images:
There’s a boy across the river with an ass like a peach; alas I was no swimmer and lost my Clementine”
but sometimes, in the middle of all this sarcasm and cynicism, you can be surprised by a tremendously delicate one:
When he smiled the fear flew away in little pieces of light, lurked enigmatically in the high cool corners of the room.
The most impressive are, in my opinion, his comparisons, from subtle oxymoronic (“The air is cloyed with a sweet evil substance like decayed honey.”) to forceful plastic (“Time jump like a broken typewriter…”) or just discriminating, politically incorrect, but oh-so-funny ones (“This foul crime shrieks like a wounded faggot for justice at least!”)

However, do not expect an easy lecture, not even a pleasant one. David Lodge, I recall, seriously questioned the novel's merit, doubting the writer's talent. As for me, I was sometimes pissed off, sometimes fascinated, sometimes it irritated the hell out of me. It is not easy a lecture to follow, but who cares? Definitely not the author, who declared: “Naked Lunch demands Silence from The Reader. Otherwise he is taking his own pulse…”

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