I have an extraordinary power of dissociation. Not only can I eat at a steakhouse that has an actual steer’s head mounted on the wall, but I can point my fork at the blankly staring animal between bites of sirloin and say, “You, sir, are delicious.”
For this same reason, no matter how disgusting the book is that I’m reading, I can continue slurping my spaghetti in spite of whatever nauseating imagery is meanwhile filling my head. Not so with Naked Lunch. I guess that qualifies as a distinction. Apparently there is a limit to the number of reeking, dripping orifaces I can encounter on a page before my digestive system jerks the emergency brake.
Now, this book is more than just an amorphous series of nightmarish vignettes of sex and death… I kept telling myself.
Understanding something isn’t prerequisite for me to enjoy it, but it needs to make sense in some way. Most people have a separate nervous system where things register beyond a literal level, and if I feel even the brush of a ghostly finger reaching out from cryptic, impenetrable prose, I’m apt to say there’s some truth to what an artist is conveying.
Not so with Burroughs. For me, the experience of reading him is like analyzing Nirvana lyrics. Not only am I at a loss of what to do with a phrase like “aqua seafoam shame,” but the song “All Apologies” doesn’t even hold any visceral value for me: it’s senseless even by my weirdo postmodernist standards of bullshit acceptance. But to this day Kurt Cobain has plenty of fans who vouch for the deep resonance— even genius— of his lyrics. I wonder if what they’re calling genius is merely an absolute lack of inhibition. For me those things are not one and the same. I’m not doubting the legitimacy of his angst, only his ability to convey it. Fortunately for Kurt Cobain, there was at least some good music to distract me.
When people praise Naked Lunch, more often than not, they mention its legendary lack of self-censorship. Well, that’s inarguable. I remember my favorite English teacher telling me that when she was young, the “bad book” her parents would vilify was The Catcher in the Rye. Naked Lunch makes The Catcher in the Rye seem like a Peanuts comic. This shit was published in 1959? The novel seems to exist outside of time (copious Beat slang notwithstanding). Works by the other Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg “describe worlds that no longer quite exist. Much of Naked Lunch, however, reads like it could have been written yesterday.”
Plot and character aren’t prerequisite for me to enjoy a book, either. Instead of a plot, this is a fever dream-like slide into a pit of filth, fear, and violence as the locales shift from New York to Tangiers to the invented hedon-haven of Interzone.
Is it a bad sign for a book when I can’t wait for it to leave off all the boy-buggering and get back to talking about heroin? This is the middle section, a vaudevillian Mad Magazine cartoon with jissom flying this way and that, when I start thinking that whoever likes Naked Lunch would probably like watching a donkey show so long as the emcee employed words like arabesque and liquefactionist. It’s a smart donkey show, Doug.
I become less and less impressed by Burroughs’ lauded vocabulary and poetic chops when he employs the same idiosyncratic word or phrase for the eighteenth time, and not because it’s applicable for the eighteenth time in the book, but because he likes it so much. And his prose has intense muscle behind it but no meaning, like when a reacharound is described to be done “in hieroglyphics of mockery.”
One of the book’s aims is “to exterminate all rational thought,” so to criticize it for meaninglessness is probably silly. But I’m the guy who says that succeeding in that goal creates meaning, and something I’d likely be onboard with. When you fail to see the message behind a controversial book, the thing comes off as merely an exercise in provocation. Now, the provocation that was Naked Lunch did bear quite a bit of significance in the end: its victory over attempted censorship paved the way for future works of literature to be as honest about their experience as they wanted.
Burroughs emerged from Naked Lunch as a recognized war-vet of life-consuming narcotics, and the novel partially serves as his literary warning to those who would spiral into the junkie abyss.
If drug addiction means I’ll produce a book like this, then sure, consider the warning well heeded.