Human Conditions

Following the end of the Second World War, the literary landscape experienced drastic transformations. All over the world, different literary movements have started to flourish. In India, the Hungryalist Poets and the Prakalpana Movement were making waves. The exploration of the social, cultural, political, and economic impact of colonialism and imperialism has also become prevalent primarily in former European colonies. This literary movement is commonly referred to as post-colonial literature. Over in France and Germany, absurdist fiction was blossoming, driven by popular writers such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Its influence continues reverberating in the contemporary, with Japan’s Haruki Murakami one of its most popular students. Another popular postwar literary movement was postmodernism which has produced renowned literary classics such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979).

The landscape of post-war American literature was already being shaped and influenced by different literary movements. In North Carolina, avant-garde poets teaching Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts college, challenged the paradigms of traditional American poetry and establish a group that would eventually be known as the Black Mountain Poets. Among this esteemed group are Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson. In New York City, a different movement literary movement was taking shape: the New York School of Poetry. This literary movement thrived in lower Manhattan from the 1950s to the 1960s and drew influences from Surrealism and Modernism. At the same time, a new literary movement was evolving. It would eventually be referred to as the Beat Generation. This generation of poets explored the postwar influences of American culture and politics.

One of the finest samples of the Beat Generation was William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch. Originally published in 1959 in Paris (and not in the United States), the novel charted the story of William Lee, also known as Lee the Agent. His adventure commenced in the United States where the readers meet him as he was fleeing from the police. The reason for this was not clear, initially but as the story started unfolding, we learn that Lee has other aliases, apart from Lee the Agent. He was a junkie who was looking for his next racket, and, inadvertently, adventure. From the United States, he crossed the border to Mexico before his adventure culminated across the Atlantic in Tangier, Morocco.

“So after a bit the channels wear out like veins, and the addict has to find new ones. A vein will come back in time, and by adroit vein rotation a junky can piece out the odds if he don’t become an oil burner. But brain cells don’t come back once they’re gone, and when the addict runs out of brain cells he is in a terrible fucking position.”

~ William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Born to an affluent family, a career in writing was never what the younger Burroughs had in mind. He was set on a different path when he entered Harvard University. It was while studying at Harvard that his perspective started to shift. He would also meet a group of misfit writers who would irreversibly alter the course of his life. Along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and a couple of their friends, they would form the core group of what would eventually be known as the Beat Generation. For his part, Burroughs was initially averse to the idea of being a writer. He, later on, changed his mind after he was encouraged by Jack Kerouac. The trio not only defined a generation of writers but also produced some of the most influential literary pieces such as Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

A work of postmodernism, Naked Lunch focused on the individual, the novel’s main character. The readers were willing (or perhaps unwilling) participants in a novel that richly and vividly depicted the life of a junkie. The novel chronicled William Lee’s addiction to a variety of narcotics, primarily heroin. Apart from heroin, the novel depicted his addiction to morphine and marijuana. While staying in Tangier, he was seduced by majoun, a strong hashish confection; hashish was smoked openly on the streets. Another drug he was drawn to was a German opioid with the brand name Eukodol (oxycodone). As the story moved forward, the readers would eventually learn, or perhaps realize, that the novel’s main character was the alter ego of the author. The story mirrored Burroughs’ own experiences and struggles with drug addiction.

Interestingly, Naked Lunch was completed after Burroughs was treated for his addiction, which spanned at least fifteen years. The grotesquerie of drug addiction, including its caprices, were the major preoccupations of the story. Apart from the author’s experimentation with various psychedelic drugs, other aspects of Burroughs’ life and lifestyle were woven into the tapestry of his third novel. Homosexuality, for instance, was a prevalent subject; Burroughs was an outspoken homosexual. It was during his university days that he was introduced to the gay subculture on trips to New York City. There were even discourses about the link between homosexuality and drug abuse.

The novel also resonated with different literary elements that would eventually define the Beats Generation. Self-indulgence, reminiscent of the Lost Generation before them, was prevalent among the members of the generation. The sexual liberation of the Beat Generation was overt and it was vividly portrayed in Naked Lunch. They had no qualms about indulging in drugs. The novel also had undertones of politics; political awakening was also a prevalent theme in the works of the Beat Generation. Amongst the fragments that comprised the story is a passage about a totalitarian state named Annexia reminiscent of another literary classic, George Orwell’s 1984. It can easily be dismissed as part of the author’s hallucinations but it was also an indictment of a future where chaos reigned.

“My replicas don’t have their dazzling beauty marred by plastic surgery and barbarous dye and bleach processes. They stand forth naked in the sun for all to see, in their incadescent loveliness of body, face and soul. I have made them in my image and enjoined them to increase and multiply geometric for they shll inherit the earth.”

~ William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Beyond its portrayal of addiction, the book was a sharp commentary, to the point of being a satire, of the late 50s American political climate. It underlined important political themes such as the exploitation of social sentiments, the CIA going out of control, and police corruption. Other forms of power dynamics were portrayed as we read of police brutality and of a deranged scientist playing with his patient’s body and mind. Tangier, meanwhile, was embroiled in its own political divisions. Following the end of the Second World War, Tangier has been turned into an International Zone, hence, inspiring the novel’s Interzone. It was a political vacuum where eight different nations exercised political control and influence. It was this Tangier, including its vibrant drug trade and prostitution scene, that Burroughs came to witness during his sojourn.

While the novel had outstanding qualities, the novel requires much more than the readers’ attention. The novel commands the readers’ focus and patience as Naked Lunch was no easy read. There was very little logic. But while the story requires rationality to be suspended, it still requires a critical mind. Further adding a layer of difficulty were the graphic details of violence, sadism, and orgies that captured the filth and the nightmares lurking on the fringes of society. The novel also dealt with other discomfiting but still prominent subjects such as pedophilia. In his study of the ugly side of humanity, Burroughs was relentless. This exploration of the human condition was another prominent characteristic of the writings of the Beat Generation.

In what many literary pundits referred to as his magnum opus, Burroughs, in his own way, refused to conform to the paradigms of storytelling. Rather than a straightforward narrative, he built his novel using vignettes he referred to as routines. The central narrative revolved around William Lee’s adventures but the storytelling lacked a general direction. Time and space in the story were relative as they constantly shifted from one point to another, from one time period to another. There were portions of the story that had dreamlike qualities. It can also be seen as hallucinatory as one keeps on questioning the direction Burroughs was steering the story.

Inspiring literary anarchy with its unconventional structure, the book is a literary purists’ reading nightmare. Ever the eccentric, Burroughs did not compromise on his literary freedom. The novel’s structure was deliberate as Burroughs’ intention was to have to readers read the book using no specific order. But these loosely connected vignettes go beyond the author’s original intentions, perhaps unintentionally. The scattered and plotless story, driven by its chaotic structure, vividly mirrored the chaotic interiors and disordered life of a junkie.

“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, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle…

~ William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

With the confluence of all of these elements, it was not surprising that Naked Lunch eventually turned into one of the literary works that defined the Beat generation. The influences of the Beat Generation flowed all throughout the story. From the themes and subjects it tacked to its unconventional structure, Naked Lunch is a towering achievement of Beat generation literature. It is also because the book was the result of the collaboration between Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. Together, they critiqued, edited, and brainstormed on the sections that comprised the story. The book’s title was credited to Kerouac. Had it not been for Burroughs’ friends’ prodding, the book would have not even materialized.

The book’s influence went beyond its contents. Naked Lunch, and the works of the Beat generation in general, challenged the obscenity and censorship laws that prevailed in the United States. It was this lack of literary freedom that made several writers of the Lost Generation migrate to Paris in the 1920s. Because of these laws, the book was first published in Paris in 1959 before it was published in the United States in 1962. The American version, however, was substantially different from the original text. But with the contentious works of the Beat Generation, these laws were contested. Naked Lunch was the subject of several bans across the United States and Europe. It would play a critical role in the abolition of literary censorship in the United States after it won a landmark obscenity case. In 1966, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed Boston’s ban on the book.

Naked Lunch, without a doubt, will make several readers’ eyes roll. It is an experimental work of postmodern fiction that explored sexuality, drug addiction, and the dark side of the human soul. It also had shades of politics. It was relentless and uncompromising. Like its author, the book refused to be defined by norms; it was definitely one of its finest facets. It also makes the reader challenge his or her perspective of reading and literature. Burroughs’ third novel is his most seminal, not only because of the subjects it grappled with but also because of the role it played in restoring the essence of literary freedom in his homeland. Naked Lunch, for all its flaws, is an enduring classic that defined a movement that changed the American literary landscape.

”I was young myself once and heard the siren call of easy money and women and tight boy-ass and land’s sake don’t get my blood up I am subject to tell a tale make your cock stand up and yip the pink pearly way of young cunt or the lovely brown mucus-covered palpitating tune of the young boy-ass play your cock like a recorder…and when you hit the prostate pearl sharp diamonds gather in the golden lad balls inexorable as a kidney stone.”

~ William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Rating

74%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

It was through must-read lists that I first encountered William S. Burroughs and his works. I can say the same with Jack Kerouac. Imagine my surprise when I learned that not only were they contemporaries but they were also good friends! I’ve read On The Road back in 2018, the same time I obtained a copy of Naked Lunch. It did take time but I was finally able to read Naked Lunch as part of my venture into American literature in late 2021. I admit that I struggled with the book’s unusual structure which kind of reminded me of other works of postmodern literature, e.g. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night. After I was able to find my footing, the story started to unfold. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the book; hard to say one enjoys a book that was relentless in its grappling with a bevy of dark and heavy subjects. Nevertheless, I was riveted by its vivid depiction of the dark side of the human spirit. In many ways, it was an unusual experience but one that leaves a deep impression. However, it is not a book that will suit everyone’s taste as it requires a lot from the reader.

Book Specs

Author: William S. Burroughs
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publishing Date: May 3, 2005
Number of Pages: 289
Genre: Postmodern

Synopsis

WELCOME TO INTERZONE! Say hello to Bradley the Buyer, the best narcotics agent in the business. Check yourself into the hospital where Dr. Benway works – but don’t expect adrenalin if you need it (the night porter shot it up for kicks). Meet Dr ‘Fingers’ Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, and his greatest creation, ‘The Complete American De-anxietized Man’, a marvel of invasive psychiatry who has been reduced to nothing but a spinal cord. Told by an Ivy League-educated narcotics addict, Naked Lunch juxtaposes two journeys: the narrator’s physical progress from America to North Africa, via Mexico, and a terrifying descent into his own altered consciousness. In this “Interzone”, loosely based on Burroughs’ temporary home Tangier, sex, drugs, and murder are the most basic of commodities, and the basest desires have become completely banal.

Provocative, influential, morbidly fascinating, and mordantly funny, Naked Lunch takes us on an exhilarating ride through the darkest recesses of the human psyche – a ride which stunned the literary world when first published in the repressed 1950s and is still guaranteed to epater more than a few bourgeois. Over forty years after its first publication, Burroughs scholar Barry Miles and Burroughs’ longtime editor James Grauerholz have compiled this definitive restored text, correcting numerous errors that have accumulated over the years, and incorporating all of Burroughs’ notes and accompanying essays. Most exciting of all, this edition includes an appendix of newly discovered, never before seen material – including alternate drafts from the original manuscript and letters from Burrough’s private correspondence. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

William S. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri, the younger of two sons of Mortimer Perry Burroughs and Laura Hammon Lee. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. He attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis and Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico before completing high school at Taylor School in Clayton, Missouri. In 1932, he left home to pursue a degree in English literature at Harvard University. He graduated in 1936 but pursued studies in archeology and ethnology only to drop out later on and hold a variety of jobs.

In 1943, Burroughs moved to New York City where he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The trio would eventually form the core group of what would be called the Beat Generation of writers. About a year later, Burroughs took his first morphine which soon developed into an addiction to heroin. In 1949, he moved again, now to Mexico and with his second wife, Joan Vollmer. In a botched attempt of the William Tell stunt, he accidentally shot and killed his wife in 1951. What ensued was a life of a criminal on the loose, traveling to various parts of the world such as the Amazon region, London, and Paris before moving back to the United States.

For years, Burroughs established an influence among his fellow Beat writers. However, it would take years before he would publish his works. In 1953, he finally published his first novel, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. However, it was his third novel, Naked Lunch (1959) that would earn Burroughs global recognition. His other important works include And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel inspired by Lucien Carr’s killing of David Kammerer. Burroughs and Kerouac got into trouble with the law for their failure to report the incident. The book, however, was rejected by publishers and would only be published in 2008.

Among Burroughs’ other works include The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), Nova Express (1964), Cities of the Red Night (1981), and The Place of Dead Roads (1984). He has also published collections of short stories and essays. He also wrote works of nonfiction. In 1983, he was elected a Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He passed away on August 2, 1997, in Lawrence, Kansas where he lived since 1981.