BY ANDREW MOODY
William Burroughs, although an iconic figure who the Beats referred to as “The priest”, lived one of the most tragic lives of any major American artist. A heroin addict for the majority of his life, by his death in 1997 he still had not conquered his addiction and had lived only half a life. Kurt Cobain, also a brilliant artist and heroin addict, adored the author, and attempted (without success) to get him to appear in one of Nirvana’s music videos. Greatly affected by the young star’s suicide, Burroughs once commented of Cobain “There’s something wrong with that boy, he frowns for no good reason.” I would argue it was because, unlike the author, Cobain saw no glamour in heroin addiction.
Naked Lunch is my favourite book. J. G Ballard wrote of it: “It is said of literary masterpieces that their genius is stamped into every line.”
My favourite line in this coded nightmare appears early on: “Junk is surrounded by magic and taboos, curses and amulets.” (Junk is street slang for heroin). Anybody who has either purchased or taken heroin will understand this better, but I certainly don’t recommend it, as it genuinely will take your spirit and turn you into something less than human – a creature that will have lost its humanity, as the nightmare images of the novel depict as a sort of hopeless warning.
(Whilst a fairly regular user of heroin in my past – I am now clean – I was not quite an addict but felt the pull of the devil one morning when I awoke to find my body was in physical pain from heroin withdrawal. It was the worst day of my life. No line in any other novel has ever been more guardedly true. Magic, both Light and Dark – street slang for crack and heroin – certainly exists.)
Naked Lunch is an Evil against Evil spell.
“America,” Burroughs writes, “is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” Certainly an American masterpiece, this is no easy read, and I would argue that victims of addiction or those with experience of US espionage will have an easier time with it. A bizarre tale of heroin addiction, madness, hustling and demonic forces that underlie the narrative, Norman Mailer once called Burroughs “The only American writer conceivably possessed by genius.”
“The Spanish boys call me El Hombre Invisible,” Burroughs writes early on. “The invisible man.” The majority of the book concerns heroin scoring, extreme sexual acts of carnality (which for any user of heroin, staring at a wall for six hours typically, can really only be seen as dreamlike or hallucinogenic).
Many eccentric and grotesque characters comprise the anti-story (it is written as a drug hallucination in the most part, as well as having often been written in uncontrollable and unrememberable drug fugues). Jack Kerouac (who based a character on Burroughs in On the Road) and Allen Ginsberg both had nightmares as they helped edit the book into a workable form. It is a difficult read, but in today’s dull, anodyne publishing industry, it is about as frightening and exotic as any book ever written, even banned until the legendary Olympic press dared to release it uncut in 1959.
The art rock band REM collaborated with Burroughs on a cover of Star Me Kitten, and his haunting, always-civil voice makes it one of the most interesting tracks the band ever recorded.
A lifelong homosexual who accidentally shot his wife in the head whilst in a drug state, Burrough’s life was one filled with paranoia, evil magic and stark, brutal pain. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and, after being rejected by a male lover, cut off part of his little finger. His masterpiece, Naked Lunch is the addict’s desperate attempt to understand his world, to expose it, and to contain it in the pages of a once forbidden book. He said of his wife Joan’s death: I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” This may go some way to explaining just how disturbing Naked Lunch truly is, for it is, in many ways, a portal to the demonic and a genuinely dangerous book.
Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction