13 June 2007

Have you eaten your Naked Lunch?

In my neverending spate of William S. Burroughs-related projects, I'm preparing an piece for a 50th-anniversary collection of essays on Naked Lunch to be released by Southern Illinois University Press. The anniversary, btw, will be in 2009.

I've taught the novel a number of times, and, always always forget that what I now gloss over in the text from my repeated readings...well...many readers still find shocking, patently offensive, disturbing, etc.

In fact, I've started to classify NL as one of those books, like Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, that many people own, but few actually read.

So, I wonder if any of you could share your thoughts on this--has NL been important to you? Have you read it? Do you own it?

My supposition is that the book's major legacy has been in non-print media: the adoption of Burroughsian editing/identity-mixing techniques in everything from YouTube to Second Life to MTV to the cult of popular celebrity. Conversely, I'm not sure that the text has been succesfuly co-opted, or "made safe" in the last five decades for the literary establishment. Thus, the literary legacy of the text may stand with the small presses such as Chiasmus or Spuyten Duyvil, willing to publish literature for concerns which exist to some extent outside the marketplace and the reversed economy of traditional academia (although, yes, I know, not completely).

Perspectives welcomed--and I'll integrate responses into the article. Reply here or directly to me at dschneiderman AT lakeforest DOT edu.




Lance Olsen said...

For me, Davis, Naked Lunch is one of those novels I wish I liked more than I do.

I've taught it a number of times, respect and admire its investigation into presenting the unpresentable, find it a useful pedagogical tool, remember how wowed I was when I first came across it.

Obviously, it embraces an aesthetics of the rupture and ugliness, partakes in what I think of (along with texts like Delany's Hogg and Acker's Blood & Guts) as The Literature of Bodily Fluids, but I find it thinner, less illuminating, less stylistically or intellectually or emotionally resonant each time I return to it.

That initial wow I experienced feels more like a what's-the-fuss these days.

I'm certain that has a good deal to do with how the books we read change as we change, how I'm simply concerned with different aesthetic investigations myself of late.

That said, I can't imagine the literary landscape without Naked Lunch in it, can't imagine my own SF anti-trilogy or the pieces in Sewing Shut My Eyes being quite what they are without Burroughs having gone first, having carried on (by way of the surrealists and dadaists) Sade's project, who carried on Rabelais', who carried on the carnival's; having revealed our culture of addictions to me in ways I couldn't imagine before reading it.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Thanks Lance;

I'm not finding it thinner, per se, but thicker with things I never noticed in my first youthful passes. Yet, I'm also coming up against the impenetrability of certain sections--and find that my students often skip over much of the non-narrative or "porn" moments, in search of the "more readable" literary passages.

Really, much of the book is perfectly linear--the Benway material (specifically Carl's interrogation), the Hauser and O'Brien closer, the Talking Asshole, et al.

Do you think, like the bad high school English teacher's advice for reading Moby Dick--skip the whale stuff!--that readers end up connecting even more with the linear matter in a novel like this, as a way of avoiding the excremental, the excess?


Do you think that the unpresentable

Lance Olsen said...

I don't know about "even more," Davis, but I'm guessing readers raised on conventional narrative have a very difficult time indeed with, not so much the excremental-as-theme in a book like NK, but the excremental-as-(anti-)structure.

What written precedents will they have had under their belts when entering NK?

Not, I bet, many.

It's weird, isn't it, that these are often the same readers that have no problem whatsoever with the rapidfire, jumpcut, all-over-the-place structures of, say, the web or video games.

On the other hand, you're probably one of the first teachers they've had to present such unpresentable written material to them . . . which is precisely why you should be doing it, what we all should be.

If they don't get it from us, where do they get it from?

If we don't teach them how to engage with such disruptive texts, who will?

(Spoken like a man who just re-entered academia after a long absence, eh?)

On a perhaps related matter, in light of my comment above about books changing as we change, I'm itching to ask: how, if at all, has your new identity as a parent affected either your reading of a transgressive, excremental text like NK or your writing of them?

mark wallace said...

Once upon a time, in a land very far from here, I wrote a dissertation on Burroughs and Paul Bowles. Although Naked Lunch was the book that had the larger reputation then, I came to feel that it was a testing ground for the things that happened in Burroughs two trilogies: the cut-up elements coming to the fore in the Soft Machine et al, and the more conversational narrative elements in the Cities of Night trilogy. Naked Lunch sometimes gets treated like On the Road or Howl, the high point, after which the rest was lesser or follow through. But I don't think that's right. By no means do I dismiss it entirely, but I feel like it's best understood as a key text in the trajectory of Burroughs work, rather than as its culmination.

Davis Schneiderman said...

Well, Lance, the first change is that I am typing this response while my daughter Athena hands me hangers and happily defaces a "chick lit" book that somehow wondered into the house years ago. So, she's already the transgressive one.

I've been itchin', by way of answering your question, to write a non-fiction text about her adoption, and two other, for me, interelated life-changes that I won't go into here.

Yet, since my forte--as you know--is more along the Burroughsian-line, with my latest ms, Scatologically Yours, in part about inhabiting other bodies through sex acts in the dried-up wasteland of Lake Michican--I want the new project, well, to take a form that is more commensurate with anti-form.

I'm not sure if the transgressive material will filter through differently, because, really, I'm not sure any lit operating today is remotely transgressive--especially in the small press world in which we travel.

Burroughs's focus in NL, of course, is the way that everything, including transgression, has been co-opted, so that what remains on the end of our long newspaper spoon is precisely more, and less, that what we think we have been ingesting.

If I'm any less interested in books like NL, and, I don't think that is the case, it has as much to do with being a tenured prof with a home in the burbs, and thus, despite my freedom to write whatever the heck I want, a not-insignifcant investment, if even an ironic one, in the world of NL's "deanxietized man"--who, of course, turns into a giant black centipede to terrorize the assembled.

My neighbors best look out.

As for Mark's points on this--I'll have more to say later. (Hey, can I read that diss...?)

[Athena just typed 23 on the keyboard, an important number of Burroughs....]

Lance Olsen said...

That's what I'm honestly and perhaps naively interested in, Davis: how does one--if, that is, one can--find a balance between a nice home in the burbs and a good mainstream job and a plesant family, on the one hand, and the embrace of truly transgressive texts (which transgressions, you bet, may well be in the eye of the beholder, but, even so--NL not remotely a transgressive text? I can just see you arguing that one with a Republican Southern Baptist), on the other?

I suspect this may be a middle-aged question for middle-aged readers and writers, and one in which, it goes without saying, I'm deeply implicated myself.

All of which reminds me of the breathtakingly highly paid Marxist theorist I once visited in his upper-class house in his upper-class neighborhood, to whom I couldn't help suggesting over a glass of expensive red wine and plate of baby shrimp on crackers: "Nice view of the proletariat you've got from here, huh?"

How, that is to say, do we deal with the apparent disconnect between, the cognitive dissonance resulting from, what we do and what we say we do?

(P.S. For some reason I kept typing NK in place of NL in my previous post. What a dummy.)

mark wallace said...

Hi Davis:

I wish my dissertation on Bowles and Burroughs was interesting enough for it to be worth your reading, but I have to say, sadly enough, that I doubt it. I published the few best bits of it in a couple places some years ago. Mainly it was just an academic exercise I was trying to get over with so I could go back to doing the writing that really mattered to me. That fact probably speaks to Lance's question about how we attempt to fit ourselves to the opposing tendencies for surviving in the world where we find ourselves and finding ways to resist it. I was 21 when I began working as a professional journalist, and my freelance work helped support me through graduate school and years after. Writing things I don't much care about because I need the money while simultaneously trying to write things I do care about is more than tricky. It's sometimes downright weird--like the Philip Dick character in A Scanner Darkly who's a cop tracking down a criminal junkie, only he's also the junkie he's tracking down. I imagine I'm not the only one who that image resonates with.

Trevor Dodge said...

I'd agree with Mark's assessment of NAKED LUNCH as but one text in the larger "trajectory" of Burroughs' path through narrative theory and experiment. If compared to QUEER or JUNKY before it and the cut-up trilogy that begins immediately after, it's quite apparent that NL inhabits that interzone between the more linear/narrative works before it and the highly conceptual works that follow.

For my own understanding and appreciation for Burroughs' experiments, I think it's important to trace the full path of this trajectory. At the end of his life, Burroughs had mostly pushed past writing, into the realm of pure image. In the savvy hands of James Grauerholz, it seems Burroughs was able to evaporate into an image of himself that, ironically, was perfectly at ease selling Nike running shoes at $120 a pair.

I guess what I'm driving at is how important context is to Burroughs, and how places, processes and people were all crucial to bringing his work into the world. Let us not forget that NAKED LUNCH was largely slushpiled together by Kerouac and Ginsberg from what they scraped off the floor of that ratnest apartment in Tangiers.

Burroughs wrote: "To speak is to lie. To live is to collaborate." Thus to understand NAKED LUNCH---or any of Burroughs' work for that matter---requires an appreciation for context and collaboration that privileges the give and take between artist and audience.

Davis Schneiderman said...


I like how you are "deeply implicated" in middle age. :)

I'm in my early 30s, and so, just old enough to be not quite as hip as I once was with my students (the Smurfs references now drawing blank stares...), and still young enough to feel the creeping suburban malaise lurking just over the next neatly mowed lawn.

Nevertheless, the solution for me has never been (well, at least not past 22 or so) the hipster lifestyle of a Burroughs, who I think, despite the content of his work, was a rather proper gentlemen, infected, even to some samll degree, by the legacy of the old-money--of Ugly America--from which his family came.

Sure, he was the guy who would skewer the conventions of this elite, and he did not lead a traditional life by any means, yet, he lived in relative contact with society--and, as his work became more accepted, and the myth of his persona engorged itself to finally hit places like U2, SNL, and Kurt Cobain, and, of course Nike, well, things became "safe" even for the likes of this hipster-be-bop junkie.

As Mark and Trevor note, his writing also became more or less "narrative" in comparison to NL, but still, held next to John Updike, something quite removed from the mainstream. In the Red Night Trilogy of the 1980s, the cut-up material may be at a minimum, but there are enough door dogs, Egyptian afterlife motifs, and black magic photography to make most of my North Shore neighbors, well, how shall we put this, uninterested in his unappetizing letters/person.

All of this is to say that the nature of transgressive writing, I think, changes along with the changing state of the author's economic position. I by no means suggest a sort of biographical approach to criticism--where we learn what the author made in the year that he wrote such and such--it's just that values, and thus, anti-values, are fickle. Stein puts it best in A Novel of Thank You: Our changed friends changed friends.

No one every claimed that any of it, though, would work out the contradictions of living.

The saddest writers are those who pen the same thing at 20 as at 60.

I'm writing this while the baby sitter puts my daughter to sleep, while I stare out the window of my little sun porch and listen to the incessant buzz of the 17-year cicadas--and what I write next may or may not be enough to blot out the noise.

Probably not.

Some guy once wrote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.