I used to know a guy who had a VHS tape full of sex films from the 1920s. And though they were tame by today’s standards, I remember seeing the tape and saying out loud, “what kind of deviant did you have to be to own this stuff back in the 1920s?”
While reading the 50th anniversary edition of William Burroughs’ landmark beat novel “Naked Lunch”, I was struck by a similar thought. Even by today’s standards, the book is ugly, violent, and shocking–so it must have seemed exceptionally perverted in the late 1950’s, when it was written and originally published. Of course, people did consider it perverse and dangerous and it was effectively banned in America and you were probably a total weirdo if you owned it. And so it seems even more amazing that the book not only survived legal exile, but went on to become highly influential and culturally important.
From the first few pages, “Naked Lunch” is gritty and subversive and amazing. The prose practically assaults you–it’s vivid and energetic, packed with drugs and violence, and utterly baffling in terms of plot. Burroughs didn’t want it to be considered a “novel”, and it’s easy to see why. The writing was fueled by his real-life drug binges, and it reads like a particularly horrific fever dream. One with a lot of bugs and blood.
But besides being extremely challenging, the book is also really goddamn funny. There are some obvious similarities to writers like Leonard Cohen and Charles Bukowski, but there are also passages that conjure Douglas Adams, of all people. Those first scenes with Benway are so downright hilarious and unexpected that I almost forgot who I was reading. And in a few places I actually laughed out loud, which I did not picture myself doing when I first cracked the spine.
Kerouac said that he’d suffered terrible nightmares while compiling and editing the thing, and I’m not at all surprised (I had awful dreams nearly every night while reading it). Some of the most terrifying scenes (the ones deemed “pornographic”) are actually rails against capitol punishment–but that doesn’t make them any easier to swallow, or to forget. Which, I guess, is the point.
At any rate, the book has made a real impression on me. And I’m now thoroughly interested in reading Burroughs’ other big books, “Queer” and “Junkie”. Though for the sake of my sanity, I’ll probably move on to something lighter first.