Monday, March 11, 2013

Naked Lunch

Along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs has come to define the Beat generation, the last great literary era in America (at least as has been celebrated).  It's not as iconic to anyone outside of the direct circle of Beat adherents, but Lunch remains iconic, and it still resonates through our culture.

Like Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test seen from the inside, Lunch is all about the emerging culture that gave rise to the popular counterculture that exploded ten years after its release and has still yet to work its way entirely out of our system (in a lot of ways it went completely mainstream).  It's a fever dream of imagery and perversion that Burroughs described as his attempt to update the Swiftian message depicted in A Modest Proposal, trafficking in drugs and sexuality with equal glee.

All that would be well and good if it weren't so episodic (although in all fairness it was never meant to be a traditional novel) and random.  It's exactly what you find in a typical Jerome Charyn novel, but without the structure the latter borrows from every conceivable genre, or Salman Rushdie completely unfiltered, or Thomas Pynchon with more restraint (and thus, apparently, less to say).  It's also like reading the secret origin of comic book writer Grant Morrison, who like Charyn and the others has taken the essence of Burroughs and exploded into onto deeper canvases (most evident on his Invisibles saga, which he contends was stolen by the Wachowskis to create The Matrix).  It's also worth noting that Philip K. Dick made a career out of writing material fans of Lunch would recognize, both in conception and execution.

There are moments where Burroughs is so scattershot that you wonder if he's simply being sensational for the sake of shocking the reader, or if he's accurately depicting the scene he was a part of.  What's most disappointing is that he's never interested in explaining how anyone falls into the circumstances he describes, even though with very little knowledge you can eventually hazard out that he and the other Beats were all from fairly privileged families.  A more introspective work might have produced more interesting results, although something that's equally scattershot, Tristram Shandy, may suggest otherwise.  Sometimes it's just the style of the writer, and from the first page Naked Lunch is clearly representative of the Beats, without or without the context.

Going forward Lunch may be the member of the Beat trinity that has the hardest time being remembered, for exactly the reasons that frustrated me while reading it.  Burroughs does a thorough job of providing period color, but his lack of insight will prevent it from becoming the Beat version of The Jungle, because all while condemning it Burroughs is also celebrating it, perhaps perfectly subconsciously, which is perhaps why he has to confess to several relapses from detox efforts.  Even while appearing to be above it all, a dispassionate observer on the road to recovery (and the hazy idea of the interzone), he justifies addiction by trying to qualify it, perhaps completely unaware that as bad as it seemed at the time it would only get worse.

This is why there's a futile war on drugs, because no one who's involved understands what a folly it really is, on either side.  Naked Lunch is not bound to be A Modest Proposal for exactly that reason.  And that's where the drummer of this Beat marks the punchline.

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