Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (1959)

When I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road a few years ago, I found it to be one of the most tedious, uninteresting, overlong pieces of boring that I have ever read (or at least finished). So it was with some trepidation that I approach Burrough's Naked Lunch, considered to be the other seminal novel of the Beat Generation. But my fears where largely unfounded - whereas Kerouac can spend twenty fucking pages talking about him sitting in the back of a truck eating a watermelon, or can devote huge tracts to the description of what music was played at a party he went to (and how he spent most of the party walking around like Groucho Marx) Naked Lunch never spends even the tiniest amount of time on that kind of tedious detail. This is because Naked Lunch reads like an anti-On the Road. On the Road spends its whole time trying to convince the reader of its complete adherence to reality - Naked Lunch spends its whole time refusing to even allow the reader to contemplate the idea of taking the book as anything that could even remotely happen. On the Road reads like a teenager who's just gone on his first road trip and is determined to tell you about it in agonisingly boring detail - Naked Lunch reads like the ravings of a mad man. I'll take the loony over the teen, please.

I'm not entirely sure if I appreciated the book properly, though. I mean, I'm not sure that I got what Burroughs intended me to get from it. Burroughs writes in the Atrophied Preface for Naked Lunch (which takes place at the end of the book): "I am not an entertainer." What I think Burroughs wants us to take from the book is the whole: "oh this is what human nature is we are so vile and horrible we are all terrible people parasites we feed off each other and kill kill kill until we are nothing but empty shells" thing, but taking the book on that level, it just sort of becomes obvious and a little bit stupid. And pointless - if taken on this level, the novel implies that all people feed off each other, and that this is evil. It also implies that all art (including literature) is a form of feeding off each other. Therefore Naked Lunch itself is, in fact, a work of evil. I mean, yes, there is the whole "the good guys use the exact same techniques as the evil guys, but they use them for good" theme running all through the book, so I suppose Burroughs would answer that the ends justify the means - but what ends? What is the point of informing everyone that every possible thing they could do is inherently evil, and the only possible way you can do good is to continue doing the exact same evil things you were always doing, but with good intentions? That is a meaningless and pointless message.

The other point to the book, the fact that the book is a depiction of what it is like to suffer withdrawal from heroin, is much more interesting to me. The problem is that he keeps trying to claim that the world and everyone in it is constantly in withdrawal from something, and that his heroin withdrawals are just symptomatic of the problems of the world. No, dude. Your heroin withdrawals are symptomatic of the fact that you took heroin pretty much constantly for fifteen years.

But what I really liked about the book, what made it all worth it, was just the insane fun playing with language. Burroughs may claim that he isn't an entertainer, but I was legitimately entertained by this book. Maybe I wasn't supposed to be, but when you have passages like: "Robert's brother Paul emerges from retirement in a local nut house and takes over the restaurant to dispense something he calls the "Transcendental Cuisine"... Imperceptibly the quality of the food declines until he is serving literal garbage, the clients being too intimidated by the reputation of Chez Robert to protest," well, that is just really entertaining writing. It's just really, really funny. And yes, I suppose you could argue that much of the power of this sort of writing comes from its obvious satirical nature, but it seems more entertaining to me to just take it as a series of bizarre and insane jokes. And that really wasn't what Burroughs intended.

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