Idiot Mambo

Robert Taubman

  • Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs
    Calder, 332 pp, £9.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 7145 3784 5
  • The Tokyo-Montana Express by Richard Brautigan
    Cape, 258 pp, £6.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 224 01907 4

It’s hard to imagine what once seemed so liberating about The Naked Lunch, a famous cult novel of the Beat generation. A not unsympathetic critic, Leslie Fiedler, found much of it ‘dull protest literature, manifestoes against cops and in favour of junkies and homosexuals’ – which is not sympathetic, but not right either. I can’t call to mind anything less ‘in favour of’ drugs or homosexuals. Burroughs was being honest about his own opium addiction, which he saw as dependence and subjection, and thus as one of the representative horrors of civilisation. But neither was it an effective ‘protest’ novel. The mayhem he depicted, whether caused by cops or other ‘control systems’ in society or in the mind or body or in outer space, was such as to rob protest of any meaning. This is particularly true of a favourite image, the hanged man’s orgasm, which occurred so obsessively and to such numbing effect that it removed the horror from hanging just as surely as it removed anything erotic from the orgasm. The furious energy of destruction in the orgies of The Naked Lunch was about as liberating as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

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