Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

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.

I shall have my lunch clothed, Sir!

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.

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Tinkers by Paul Harding

Why did I buy this book knowing nothing about it? Was it the expansive whiteout of the jacket design that seemed to enfold me? The mysterious gold foil of the Pulitzer seal (mysterious because who the hell is Paul Harding?) Or my former manager who said this book is brilliant? Granted, he says that about 60% of the novels he reads, but since I’m not often disappointed by his recommendations I’ll say he simply chooses his books well.

Oh, shit. I'm lost.

 

Tinkers is a dying man’s retrospective that also encompasses the life of his enigmatic father. Time is completely unstuck in this novel as it meanders to and from Howard, the elder, and George the younger. Howard was a tinker who drove a donkey cart full of knick-knacks to sell to all the unhappy farmers scraping by in rural New England. His family situation was eventually complicated by his frequent epileptic fits, and one night instead of coming home, he drove his cart on. His son George (who creates an imbalance in this book by being not nearly as interesting) grew up to fix clocks.  It’s hard to say what Tinkers is about, unless I say there is this scrim running alongside Howard’s and George’s lives with the Sublime existing just on the other side of it.

They both get tantalizing glimpses of the unknown, whether it’s during a brush with death or a meditative sojourn to a snow-covered field. It’s in describing these moments where Harding shows how damn talented he is.

“I am not very many years old, but I am a century wide.”

Everyone wants to escape, everyone wants to break out of this encapsulated existence. Everyone feels small. Not important enough, in Howard’s case, to deserve such special suffering as the cosmically-described seizures that wrack him. And why shouldn’t they feel small? They just eke out their drab existence in frostbitten mornings and meager meals in a Podunk province of the Northeastern US.

This is probably why I had little interest in George and Howard, at least up until their relentless grappling for the unknown finally gripped my sympathy. I initially found the book preoccupied with death, as it seemed to lack any other subject in these characters’ lives to merit contemplation.

Surprisingly, the most tragic fate belongs to Howard’s own father, a priest who, eerily, doesn’t die so much as fade away. Gradually losing the reverence of his congregation and family, he vanishes like an imaginary figure whose inventors cease to believe in him.

Allusory Fun Fact: Harding apparently fills this thing with nods to Faulkner, which I would probably recognize had I read more than one Faulkner. For now all I got is “Addie Budden.”

Some of the lyricism is too elevated, too determined to bring earth-shaking profundity to what happens in this book: “The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after…” (although maybe having an epileptic fit is like “tasting the raw stuff of the cosmos,” I don’t know.) When it’s legitimate, though, it’s… well, Wow.

He lifted his nose from a crate of limes, refreshed and eager to get home to a wife who spoke words out loud as she thought them up and held nothing to whirl and eddy and collect in brackish silences, silences that broke like thin ice beneath you to announce your drowning.

I may well remember Tinkers as a series of awe-striking moments interrupted by stretches of I Don’t Care (e.g. apocryphal descriptions of clockmaking). Still, it was more or less what expected: a small book that looms large, and stretches farther than you can see.


Room by Emma Donaghue

Room is billed as a maternal, non-walking, and much less depressing version of The Road. If there’s any similarity, it lies in the symbiotic parent/son bond placed in a strange, horrendous condition. The twist here is that the horror ends halfway through the book, and what ensues is a scenario of out of the pan and into… the media.

The crayon colors are as follows: Terra Cotta, Ruby, Pine Green, and Hypothermia Blue.

Because everybody wants a piece of the amazing mother and son who survived five years together imprisoned in a work shed. That’s what makes Jack, the proclaimed “Bonsai Boy” and this book’s narrator, so special. He’s been born in a single room, and until shortly after his fifth birthday he’s only known the real world to consist of him and his mother. And Rug, and Wardrobe, and Bed, among other inhabitants of Room.

We quickly see the truth behind his circumstances: his mother was snatched off the street by a creep known only as “Old Nick” when she was nineteen and was placed in his inescapable chamber. Two years later she has Jack by him, and finally has a reason to make the best of things.

But Year Five is the one where Ma comes unglued, because now Jack’s asking questions that chip away at her resolve to uphold the existential lie of their life. Conditions in Room take an even nastier turn, and Ma gambles on a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired escape from their prison that pays off.

She is almost as happy as I am for them to get out of the damn place.

Because–and this comes as no surprise–the book’s repetitive until they do. The first half is mostly Jack’s daily account of we play games, I watch TV, she breastfeeds me (which he calls “having some”), and I hide in Wardrobe at night while Old Nick comes in and bitches about everything and goes to “creak the bed” with Ma. Tomorrow we do it all again.

And about Old Nick (you Machiavelli scholars out there catch the reference to Satan). You don’t have to watch Law and Order SVU to know that a sex criminal sees his victims as discardable objects, and so if he likes to imprison them, he imprisons many. So I was waiting on an explanation for Old Nick going to the trouble of engineering a soundproof, state-of-the-art impenetrable bunker in order to house just one young woman (and her rugrat, no less) for seven years plus.

And there isn’t one, except that Emma Donaghue apparently wanted to write a kidnapper-rapist with a strong sense of commitment. Ah, family values alive and well.

Actually, the real explanation is this: Old Nick is a slave to the premise, believability be damned. Much like how Jack’s precociousness either makes him the ultimate posterboy for homeschooling or it also strains credulity in order to fulfill Donaghue’s purpose of having a cute, odd, five-year-old narrator.

Which is an angle that makes Room feel much like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. You alternate between interpreting the reality that exists outside his understanding and enjoying the idiosyncratic observations within it. Many of these point either at ironies we casually accept or his naked terror with life– like when his mom has just told him that people he sees on TV sometimes actually exist: “Firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they’re all really in Outside. I’m not there, though me and Ma are the only ones not there. Are we still real?”

(His complete inability to understand figures of speech or third-person pronouns is bullshit, though; TV would have helped him there.)

And I Used to Wonder If I Was a Kind of a Momma’s Boy

You’ll watch Jack’s mom in stupefaction of her near tirelessness in engaging her son. The woman is a walking subscription to Highlights For Children. What’s more, she has her work cut out for her in preserving his innocence amidst their abuse at the hands of Old Nick: “‘You know how you like to play with cars and balloons and stuff? Well, he likes to play with my head.’ She taps it.” I started out having enormous sympathy for her, but I’m with Jack–I liked her much better in Room than Outside.

To my pleasant surprise, I rarely found the sentimentality overpowering; I actually quite like the moments when Jack says something matter-of-factly to Ma and is completely unaware that he’s just renewed her will to live for at least a few more days.

Then we watch their separation, both socially enforced (Ma needs serious couch trip time, as you’d imagine) and emotional. The latter because Jack is interestingly, yet understandably, lukewarm on leaving Womb, I mean Room, which alienates him from Ma, who herself remains alienated from even her family. The rest of the book is Jack’s coming to terms with the outside world with the help of his eager grandparents.

Eventually the book decides to end, and with as much of a plot catalyst behind it as a trip to Del Taco.

It’s cuter than it is deep, but it’s frequently clever; getting past the implausibilities, there are certainly worse books for those who want to splash around near the shallow end of the book club pool. I heard it’s been shortlisted for the Booker. I’d personally longlist it.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

It’s invigorating to see a new author you like overcome the sophomore slump. Even better is when they make you forget that the sophomore slump is even a convention.

I was a fan of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, which read like a dark, somewhat existential novelization of The Office. It felt like I was in the hands of a very capable writer, but it only hinted at the guy’s potential. He needed to tackle something huge, and The Unnamed, with its premise and possibility, is something huge.

I like to think Ferris originally called it "Untitled" to the confusion of his editor.

Tim is a partner in a high-powered law firm, and he suffers from a condition where, at any given moment, he begins walking and cannot stop until he passes out from exhaustion. His wife keeps him packed and suited up for the elements outside, and she must pick him up from the strange places he ends up, like a KFC or a hair salon in the ghetto. As you’d imagine, she’s suffering a nasty case of caretaker burnout.

Nothing works–he must continue walking. They’ve tried handcuffing him to the bed, which for Tim is an ordeal of both physical and psychic torture.

You’re inevitably drawn into the mystery of what’s behind Tim’s illness. “A country full of experts,” as he bitterly complains, fail at every turn to diagnose him. But you! You,the adept literary theorist, will have an answer, you’re certain. This is one way the story draws you in.

Is it the body, or the brain, or the mind? The soul? Is he unconsciously fleeing his life, or is he seeking something? Or is his need to simply stay in motion? Ferris doesn’t give you the answer, but you’ll probably feel that you’re given enough clues to form a confident diagnosis if you try.

Feet Don’t Fail Me Now

The first half of the book feels simple, even underwritten. Its focus is the disintegration of Tim’s family, career, and life of privilege–essentially the consequences of such a strange affliction. Interesting, sure, but not yet delivering.

In the second half the story explodes. It’s spellbinding. Tim’s sickness reaches critical mass and has him shambling cross country, a deranged derelict. He is Lear in the storm, spouting constitutional statutes of civil liberties while wearing a “Happy Thanksgiving” sweater he’d bought from a convenience store and deteriorating like a leper from the unchecked frostbite.

Yeah, Forrest Gump this ain’t. Tim is brought to the edge of death again and again, and he begins thinking of his body as an adversary, “the other”:

Without God, the body won, and that couldn’t be possible. He was one thing, his body a different thing altogether, and he was willing a separation, in which he went off to eternal repair while it suffered its due fate of rough handling, dirt, and rot.

There’s still humor here, albeit blacker than oil. One of Tim’s hands, which has lost every finger except his thumb and pinkie, is described to be “fixed in a permanent expression of hang loose, dude.”

The immediate power of the book, though, lies in its tragedy. A reunion scene in a Waffle House is so pathetically heart wrenching–partly because it’s at a Waffle House, for God’s sake–that I shook the hardcover in my hands, “Stop it, Book, stop it! You’re hurting me.”

Not everyone will get The Unnamed, but if you ask something like “wouldn’t multiple sclerosis or ALS have done the trick?” you’ve outed yourself as a real thick. Here’s a novel that touts references to the likes of Samuel Beckett and Emily Dickinson and itself lives up to a high literary standard. It’s challenging and harrowing to the nth, and, as Dickinson said about good poetry, takes the top of your head off.

This Ferris guy, he is the real deal.

Bite Me by Christopher Moore

Two and a half years of getting advance reader copies, and it still feels kind of cool.

The more influential lit-bloggers get them, but I’m certainly not one of these. Instead, I get them at my job. Publishers send galleys to bookstores so that the staff might read them ahead of time and hopefully be able to praise them to customers when the book is released.

Of course, this works both ways; I have warned customers away from some of these novels. “Look ye upon my wretchedness!” I say, seizing them by the lapels and twitching uncontrollably. “Do not become like me! I have suffered unspeakable hours with this textual bilge, and you would pay to read it? Remember this book no more, it brings only pain.”

Don't worry, the jokes don't usually get any worse than the title.

Bite Me is definitely one of the more anticipated ones I’ve gotten my hands on lately.

This series, the first being Bloodsucking Fiends and the second being You Suck, isn’t reputed to be Christopher Moore’s best books, (in fact, a friend of mine insists they’re his very worst) but you can’t blame him for writing another vampire novel in this market–we all gots bills ta pay.

If you’re an initiate like me, then you’ll reap the benefit of the first chapter, which gives a hyperactive rundown of the supernatural shitstorm that was the first two books. But if you’re anything else like me, you despise Abby Normal, and you’ll wonder what you’ve done to deserve her as a narrator.

She’s the main character this time out, and many of the chapters are her blog entries detailing what’s just occurred. I must give credit to Christopher for synthesizing the Hot Topic teeny-bopper voice so convincingly in these passages (he’s admitted to creeping around MySpace for research into this particular dialect), but I’ve known many Abby Normals and I do not enjoy their company.

I can’t really set up the plot for you coherently. I’m just going to list a bunch of characters.

Abby; her tech-whiz boyfriend, Foo; her BFF (and worthless character) Jared; vampire lovers Tommy and Jody (who are encased in bronze); resident hobo and self-proclaimed protector of the city known as the Emperor; a Safeway stock crew of stoners who moonlight as vampire hunters; detectives Rivera and Cavuto; a mysterious old Japanese swordsman.

They all band together to face San Francisco’s new threat of Chet, the giant hairless cat-turned-vampire, and his army of vampire felines.

For what it’s worth, you can’t call it clichéd–an extraordinary feat in this genre, to be sure. The only other Moore novel I’d read before was Fool, and while I hesitate to say that Bite Me’s a better book, I did find it more entertaining. If you’ve been following this saga, let me tell you that a couple major changes occur in the characters, but this book will feel like just another episode; expect another sequel. Also, I have a feeling you’ve been seeing a lot of these jokes in the first two books already…

One of the things I immediately took to were the descriptions of San Francisco, where you find nuggets like this: “The Tenderloin was, in fact, also, the theater district, which was convenient if you wanted to see a first-rate show in addition to drinking a bottle of Thunderbird and being stabbed repeatedly.” It’s also a setting where a lot more crazy shit can happen ( but with this many characters who all must run into each other repeatedly, The City feels oddly like a quaint village). Moore’s having more fun here than he did in Fool, where the plot of King Lear seemed to really confine him.

Let’s Justify a Christopher Moore Joke

Moore’s primary talent as a comic writer is the ability to conjure a chaotically funny sentence. It can leap out from anywhere, at any time, and blow an airhorn:

Foo could hear the death-metal soundtrack [from a video game] coming from Jared’s headphones, tinny screeching and chainsaw rhythms, like angry chipmunks humping a kazoo inside a sealed mayonnaise jar.

Okay. Your first response may be to accuse Moore of just writing a random simile that sounds funny, but there is method to it. Angry chipmunks=tinny screeching, kazoo humping=chainsaw rhythms, and the sealed mayonnaise jar=the muffling of the noise as heard outside Jared’s headphones. It works. Sometimes, to get a laugh like one of these, all Moore has to do is summarize what’s been happening in the last three pages.

I remember reading a reviewer from Kirkus saying that “less may be more, but it isn’t Moore,” and wishing I’d thought of that line. It’s a truth spoken, and for that reason I don’t immediately take to his style while others do. That oddly sweet and endearing nature of Moore’s books, though, tend to save them for me.

But at the end of the day, I think what this poor planet needs is for some vampire series’ to end. Even this one.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

So I said, All right, book, I’ll play your game. I saved House of Leaves for when I was alone in my apartment between the hours of 10pm and 3am. I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I say that’s the ideal context for reading this book. And you know what? That made it pretty fun.

"Spiral staircase goin' down... Paint yer body red and brown..."

But is it scary? Disturbing is more the word; it’s not visceral. But if you find the image of “the long dark hallway after midnight” to be evocative of dread, this book should affect you.

I could sum it up like this: sometimes to hear a snarling monster is at your door isn’t as unnerving as when you go to discover there’s nothing there.

The other thing that House of Leaves is known for is for its completely off-the-wall postmodernist approach to storytelling. What you’re reading is a dead character’s lengthy dissertation on a mysterious Blair-Witch-like set of tapes (“The Navidson Record”) that constitutes the central horror story. But the writer (Zampano) is clearly losing his mind as the book progresses, and so is Johnny Truant, a twenty-something drifter who found Zampano’s text and has also added on his own personal footnotes… and who is also spiraling into a Lovecraftian madness.

This all adds up to something fellow blogger Nate at TheNinthDragonKing calls, “the biggest structural temper tantrum ever written.”

I’ve read po-mo structurefuck novels (yep, that’s what I call them) before and what’s common among them, good and bad, is that the author can be distractingly present throughout the novel, to a sort of “look-what-I-can-do” effect. But House of Leaves is different. It contains such cacophony of voices barking in from everywhere, the author doesn’t seem to show up in the din. I don’t know who Mark Z. Danielewski is. I don’t know where to find him in this book.

Nate also describes the book as “a big, bold F.U.C.K.Y.O.U.” to Danielewski’s professors. I can kind of see that. To me, House of Leaves is reactive in another way: it’s an academic parody.

Here you have what could have been a plain ol’ horror story (and a pretty good one, still), but by riddling it with character analysis, archetypal references, and all sorts of other philosophical wankery from critics both real and imagined, you show what happens to a text when it falls into the hands of “experts.”

Film critics comment on Will Navidson’s camerawork. Psychologists poke and prod the characters’ very facial expressions to infer their mental states. One literature professor presents the cavernous house as a vaginal symbol to explain why the men are suicidally compelled to explore it.

As you might imagine, some of the commentary is genuinely illuminating, some of it is goofy bullshit, and the rest of it lies somewhere in between. But the fact that there’s just so much of it crowding the story seems, in the big picture, to be a kind of research satire.

Ironic Fact: The book is so thoroughly self-analyzed that you can’t analyze it yourself without feeling very self-conscious and maybe a little silly.

Is House of Leaves the real deal? Yes and no. It’s uneven. It gets unnecessarily tiresome in places and some of its type-tricks are very “so what?” But I’m still convinced that there’s a crazy genius behind it all. Definitely worth a look for something completely different.

House of Leaves works so long as you feel like the obsessor at the end of a chain of obsessors.

The Humbling by Philip Roth

Philip Roth rests so heavily on his laurels you couldn’t lift him with a crane. When I consider how enthralled I was of Portnoy’s Complaint, the Zuckerman novels, and especially his head-spinningly brilliant output in the 90’s, it’s hard for me not to be dismayed by his recent stuff. Granted, I hope I can write like he can when I’m pushing seventy-five, but I also hope I’m not writing the same kind of story for the thirtieth time.

..........

Perceptual Exercise: A spotlight shining through the stage, or a giant glacial spike crashing from beneath it?

Roth’s newest work, The Humbling differs from most of his other novels in the following ways:
1.    The protagonist isn’t Jewish
2.    The protagonist isn’t a writer
3.    The protagonist isn’t from New Jersey

Simon Axler, a gentile stage actor from Michigan, discovers at age sixty-five that he’s lost his magic. He can’t remember lines, he can’t speak them convincingly, he can’t embody a character, and as a result he breaks down and commits himself to a mental institution. Months later, he returns home and is resigned to languish in his unemployed depression until Pegeen, the daughter of his friends, shows up at his house.

What is a Roth novel without the man having an affair with a woman at least twenty-five years his junior? (Hint: Not this one.) The same tension from The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, etc. plays out in The Humbling with the Rothian man once again thinking, This is going to ultimately destroy me if I don’t stop but sweet Jesus what a piece of ass.

Thank God it at least explores some new territory. The zinger is that Pegeen is a lesbian, or has at least lived as one for the past seventeen years before she meets up with Simon. This goes all sorts of interesting places. Simon recovers his pride, thinking he’s mastering the shift in Pegeen’s sexual preference and thereby reasserting himself as a man. He also plays the Pygmalion, spending piles of money to get her out of her androgenous campwear and into jewelry and heels. Her feminization is so thorough she becomes unrecognizable to her own mother. While it seems that Simon is subjugating Pegeen, though, we later learn he was never necessarily in control. This creepy struggle for gender identity comes to a head one night when, at Pegeen’s suggestion, they bring home a female stranger from the bar.

Personal Fact: 10+ Roth novels later and I’m still not quite comfortable reading the sexual escapades of a geriatric.

This isn’t the sort of story that will make new Roth fans, but the familiar build to disaster does keep the pages turning for the established ones.

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Roth doesn’t quite pull off writing as a stage actor, at least for me. I’m no pro by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve done a lot of theater and wonder where Simon’s mentions are of the tedious rehearsals, the energies of different audiences, and various other details that would authenticate him as a stage performer.

Because as it turns out, almost nothing Roth says about Simon’s craft of acting can’t also be applied to the craft of writing fiction. People have always had trouble separating Roth from his protagonists, and this doesn’t help. It’s as if he’s inviting us to assume that many of Axler’s anxieties about losing “the touch” in his art are his own.

So the author enters the novel to a distracting effect. If you like Roth, though, you should be used to this, and I at least found the ideas on this sort of artistic impotence to be disturbing and engaging nonetheless. It also saddens me a bit because I see it happening right there on the page, Exhibit A, in a novel that does familiar gesturing but lacks punch.

This book would have been far worse if it weren’t over so quickly; as it is, it has more than enough substance to fill its 160 pages. I think fans ought to give The Humbling a read as long as they don’t come into it expecting a return to form. There probably won’t ever be one—if we’re to take Simon as an example.