Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (1959)
By: Julian on September 26, 2008  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Credits
Author: William S Burroughs
Editors: ames Grauerholz and Barry Miles
Publisher: Paladin
Pages: 304 pages
Naked Lunch was the first William S Burroughs, and Beat, work I had read. First published by Olympia Press in 1959, the Parisian group who audaciously accepted, among others, Nabokov's Lolita and Miller's Tropic books, Naked Lunch was at once reviled by the general public – slammed with an obscenity trial (not least because of its fairly in-depth descriptions of homosexuality and drug use) and earned Burroughs a sort of notoriety he couldn't shake until his death in 1997.

A plot? That'll be difficult for this reviewer. Strictly speaking, this is a work of fiction, though Burroughs drew heavily from his own experiences. The novel is essentially a series of vignettes, which the author said can be read in any order. They tell the story of William Lee (a pseudonym Burroughs wrote under for Junky), a heroin addict who takes his misanthropic travels from the US, to Mexico and finally to Tangier.

Naked Lunch explores a number of very confronting themes, particularly for the era in which it was published. Foremost are those concerned with homosexuality and drug addition, which Burroughs describes in graphic detail, and, perhaps most alarmingly for the sixties nanny-state, there is no sort of moral payoff. Lee is bisexual, and a degenerate junky, and no attempt is made to demonise him. Sex acts were also described at great length – many of these homosexual, some necrophilic and paedophiliac, and it was all very shock! horror! for the time, dragging Naked Lunch through an obscenity trial in Boston. The 1962 trial, where the testimony of literary figures Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and John Ciardi was heard, is considered to be the last of its kind in the United States. The book was banned for four years. Naked Lunch also saw its day in a Los Angeles courtroom, but they were slightly more liberal than their Massachusetts compatriots, allowing the novel safe passage. What's striking, though, more so than the thematic elements, is the style in which it is written. There are times when Burroughs makes absolutely no sense – and I mean no sense whatsoever. But then there are times – for example, in the chapters AJ's Annual Party and Hauser and O'Brien, when Burroughs is lucid as hell. When Naked Lunch is at its high points – and these occur many times throughout the novel, including those mentioned above – it's invincible, and pre-empts the best of contemporaries like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. And pretty damn subversive for fifty years ago at that.

Despite first writing the manuscript And The Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks with Jack Kerouac in 1945 (which is being published for the first time in November this year) and writing a great deal of material while living in Mexico in 1950, Burroughs' published debut came with Junky (or Junkie) in 1953. This landmark publication saw the light of day essentially as an anti-drug propaganda piece, published as a pulp novel with the subtitle 'Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict'. Ginsberg was considered instrumental in getting Junky published – not only that, but encouraging Burroughs to put pen to paper. However, Junky's publication succeeded a tragedy – Burroughs' killing (presumed accidental while he was playing a drunken variation of William Tell, or cleaning his gun, or dropping it, depending on which accounts you read or which you choose to believe) of his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951. Burroughs later said, 'I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan's death... it manoeuvred me into a life long struggle in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.' It was a tragic conclusion, but one that ultimately birthed Naked Lunch in 1959. Burroughs commenced writing the novel after Vollmer's death and was working on it in earnest after moving to Tangier two years later.

Even though Ginsberg and Kerouac gave considerable input during the editing process (the former two conceived the title, with Burroughs crediting Kerouac for it), Burroughs couldn't seem to nut out a final work with the fragmented vignettes he had written, until he was forced to when Olympia issued an ultimatum to produce something in two weeks or else. This edition, published on the Harper Perennial Modern Classics imprint, is an excellent book. Prefaced with an introduction by JG Ballard, it contains the restored text, 'original introductions and additions by the author' and 'outtakes', previously unpublished excerpts overseen by editors James Grauerholz and Barry Miles. A great deal of this material is fairly disturbing, glossing over themes of paedophilia and rape. Finally, some twenty pages about Burroughs and the book itself. All in all, over a hundred pages of additional material can be read here.

These 'outtakes', which expand upon, among other plotlines, the depravity of AJ's party and a few more of Dr Benway's corruptions are in the most part disposable. If you thought the book was a hard slog, this is twice as bad (though some would describe it as 'good', it really depends on your tolerance for Burroughs – mine was wearing thin by the time the book itself finished). What really glows, though, are Burroughs' letters, exchanged to his doctors, publishers and advisors (including Ginsberg and Kerouac). Among the most interesting is one dated July 20 1960 to Irving Rosenthal, a Professor in Journalism and publisher of Big Table, a magazine where the banned Naked Lunch first appeared, where Burroughs clarifies what were seen as errors in the text. Interestingly, and presumably why the additions found in this book were not 'restored' to the text, Burroughs says in the letter, 'Definitely I feel that no material should be added', and outlines his idea for a sequel titled Mr Bradly Mr Martin where he will use some of that content. It is undisclosed which sections Burroughs is referring to (and if they are all, or at all, reproduced here), but it does make for interesting reading.

Also of note are the author's introductions and postscripts to various editions of the novel (among these, 1962 and 1991 publications), and Grauerholz and Miles' terrific introduction to their edits.

It's can also be noted that, while this book can be considered the definitive cut of Naked Lunch, the title was published under a number of different versions – notably the Olympia Press first publication in Paris in 1959, and the vastly different Grove Press US edition in 1962. The differences between the two can be put down to this: Naked Lunch may have only come to fruition because of Olympia leaning on Burroughs and saying they needed something to publish in two weeks – Grove's manuscript, however, was based on an earlier edit circa 1958 that was in Ginsberg's possession. My understanding, though I've read neither text, is that Grauerholz and Miles have been through all existing versions and made the most accurate reproduction of Burroughs' original novel, fixing typographic and spelling errors along the way. It would have been a monumental task, and one that Naked Lunch fans should embrace wholeheartedly – a lot of work has been put into this revision, and it seems to be a very good job.

Time coined, or popularised, a very cool nomer for the Beatniks – the 'Young American Disaffiliates', and crowned Burroughs King of the YADs with Naked Lunch. I certainly haven't read enough Beat work to make a judgement like that – but this novel is broadly seen as an instrumental work of that generation. Naked Lunch certainly isn't made to be read as a novel, a sentiment Burroughs echoes in one of the book's final chapters: 'I am a recording instrument… I do not presume to impose 'story' 'plot' 'continuity'… I am not an entertainer.' A huge number of interpretations can be taken from Naked Lunch; mine, in the most part, was that it was comprised of the insane ramblings of a drug fiend, a reading I'm sure many would argue is overly simplistic.

Some chapters are far more readable than others, making Naked Lunch a patently uneven work. It sold over a million worldwide, and shot William Burroughs into superstardom, perhaps most of all in the free love and drug circles – the Beatles stuck him on the front of Sgt Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, but it could be argued that Burroughs was too violently cynical for this scene. It's anarchistic, there's no doubt about that – it criticises capital punishment by eroticising it in the most vulgar possible way. Lee's a murderer by the end of the book, and a shameless drug addict, offering the police that storm into his abode information if only they'd let him shoot the rest of his stash. Naked Lunch could arguably be seen as anti-drugs in its jarring description of the narcotic fall out, but the pay-off is still too ambiguous to determine that.

Naked Lunch certainly isn't brilliant but it's definitely significant in its censorship troubles, its establishment of Burroughs as an important literary figure and the distillation of the Beat sensibility alongside Ginsberg's Howl and Kerouac's On the Road. All these aspects qualify Naked Lunch as required reading.
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