February marks the centennial of one of America’s most problematic and celebrated cultural icons: William Burroughs. Flamboyant, eccentric and incorrigible, he led a life of excess and adventure, largely funded by a family wealth that allowed him to get in and out of trouble at a staggering pace. So far, this could be the tag line of a million different people, but Burroughs had the taste to make something out of all his debauchery and he had the good fortune to meet the right people at the right time, such that his legacy is not only intact to this day, it is rather magnified by the colossal size of his legend.
Burroughs attended “a progressive school” in St. Louis, before moving to “a private suburban high school,” which he hated, in Taylor, Missouri, where he formed his first romantic attachment with another boy. He completed an English degree at Harvard, which he also hated, and met “some rich homosexuals” with whom he was initially fascinated, before realizing they were, in his own words, “jerks.” In 1936 he traveled for a year to Vienna, where he showed more than just an anthropological interest in the remains of its notoriously decadent society while he pursued, somewhat less enthusiastically, a career in medicine. The arrival of the Nazis saw him return to the States, where Burroughs showed signs of mental instability before enlisting for the war and then backtracking out of it. Ultimately, he found himself in New York in 1943, sharing a flat with his future wife, Joan Vollmer, a 21-year-old named Jack Kerouac, and Kerouac’s future wife, Edie Parker. At the time, the Beat Generation was an uncoined, meaningless term but the history of American literature was, quite literally, in the making. From that early period, however, all that remained was Burroughs’s addiction to morphine, Vollmer’s to amphetamines and an unpublished collaborative novel between Burroughs and Kerouac called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which fictionalizes a grim episode between their mutual friends, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, that saw the former kill the latter.
Burroughs’s first published work came in 1953 in the form of Junky, a semi-autobiographical account of his heroin habit in the mid to late ’40s, from which all quotes above have been taken. Like much of Burroughs’s work, Junky is crude, at times hilarious, uniformly sardonic and sometimes, just sometimes, simply beautiful. His account of life in addiction is almost addictive itself, and the level of illumination it provides in relation to the social stereotypes that still today surround drug use (and abuse) is sadly often overshadowed by the fact that this is a work of fiction. “You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict,” he states in the prologue to the novel, “it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict … You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default.”
Unfortunately for Burroughs, junk’s victory spelled his tragedy: after running into trouble with the law a couple of times in the US, Burroughs and his now wife Vollmer headed for Mexico, where he could lay low for some time. But in some doomed night of drunken stupor in 1951 Burroughs famously engaged in a game of “William Tell” with his wife. And a loaded gun. The tumbler he had aimed at, sitting on her head, smashed to the ground when she collapsed. He had put a bullet through his wife’s head. Their son, William Jr., was four years old, and Julie, Joan’s daughter by her first husband, was seven. A long, complicated and heavily manipulated case followed, while the children were sent back to their respective families in the USA. Billy Jr. remained in contact with his father, grew up to become a writer and died of liver cirrhosis at the age of 33 in 1981. Julie’s father, Paul Adams, reputedly warned Burroughs never to visit Julie again or risk being shot on sight. At the time, however, Burroughs was too busy trying to stay out of jail, and eventually realized he’d have to flee again, leaving his fabled Mexico behind.
But in life there’s seldom a tit without a tat and for Burroughs’s deadly Ying he found the Yang in writing, to which he turned seriously, professionally, for the first time. Retrospection, perhaps even some introspection, or at least the need for closure led to the production of Junky, a work that to this day counts among the list of seminal drug-use novels in any language. But Burroughs’s reputation would not have transcended that of a sympathetic chronicler had he hit his high point with Junky. As it is, his standing as a literary genius hinges on his second published novel, Naked Lunch, which first appeared in France by the hand of Olympia Press in 1959. By the time it made it to the US, published by Grove Press in 1962, it was already a hugely controversial piece, and official bans and trials for obscenity in the US only enhanced its reputation. Today Naked Lunch is not only cult, it is included in practically every list of the best books of fiction in the last 50 years.
In some sense Naked Lunch is the quintessential road novel, as made evident by the very first three words of the book: “and start west.” Except, of course, this work is as much a novel as it is a cup of tea or a day at the beach. Using an arbitrary technique of early-day copy-paste, Burroughs followed his friend Brion Gysin’s advice and organized his manuscript in random sequences. Consequently, the journey in Naked Lunch is unlike anything any of us might have ever experienced, and the hallowed “west” corresponds no more with California than it does with anywhere else.
Burroughs’s imagination was as active as his own life, and fed ad nauseum with a list of stimulants that would make Walter White blush. This turns his most famous work into an emotional roller coaster that leaves readers clueless as often as it sends them into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Making sense of Naked Lunch is not only useless, it’s also against the spirit of Burroughs’s creation: this is a book like no other, in which profoundly pessimistic and misanthropic visions of the future combine with paranoid hallucinations, erudite explanations, vivid descriptions and first-hand knowledge of the world of drugs to prompt us into thought. We needn’t understand Naked Lunch, we just have to think about it.
After Burroughs’s adventures in Mexico he spent four years in Tangier, where he wrote Naked Lunch, before moving to Paris in 1959. His literary exploits in years to come would further look into the seeds Burroughs had sowed with his big hit: the cut-up technique he had devised with Gysin served him to develop “the Nova trilogy,” which consisted of The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). Burroughs, like Vonnegut after him, found in science fiction the genre that best suited his chaotic aesthetics and his dystopian vision of the world. In 1966 Burroughs moved to London, and his writing took a more political tone before returning to sci-fi with the Red Night trilogy in the 1980s.
If Burroughs’ most dramatic contribution to literature was complete by the end of the 1950s, though, his persona kept developing throughout the years, reaching out to the world of music, film and ultimately pervading every aspect of our popular culture. Burroughs featured in Kerouac’s On the Road, of course, as Old Bull Lee, and as Naked Lunch gained notoriety he slowly earned the status of guru. Back in the States, he befriended Andy Warhol (a guru, if there ever was one), influenced the likes of Patti Smith and Lou Reed, and collaborated with David Cronenberg. Toward the end of the 1980s Burroughs recorded spoken word albums and this, again, became fiercely influential. He worked with Nick Cave and Tom Waits, the aristocracy of alternative music, in the album Smack My Crack and went on to make appearances with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and REM.
In short, Burroughs transcended the world of literature and entered the lore of popular culture by virtue of his dynamism, of his alternative (and pessimistic) vision of reality and by his sheer determination not to stand still. The fact that he lived to the age of 83 not only substantiates his early claims that junk had made him a healthier person, it also explains how he could have left such an important footprint in so many disciplines. That he did, however, is entirely to our gain!
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday February 22, 2014.