Predatory Sex Aliens
- Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles
Twelve, 718 pp, £17.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 1 4555 1195 2
Depending where you look, the William Burroughs centenary has either occasioned an outpouring of variously celebratory and carping prose, or a trickle of grudging acknowledgment in outlets thought to speak for the literary establishment. Writing on anything of passing public interest triggers an online avalanche of ad hominem posturing which quickly renders the original topic, whatever it was, numbingly opaque. The more exclusive realm in which people are paid for their opinions produces a similar effect, but with more concentrated ruthlessness and usually greater economy. Burroughs has been streaking across this ghastly spectrum since early February.
By now, anyone at all curious about Burroughs has absorbed a few interchangeable synopses of Barry Miles’s Call Me Burroughs – an exhaustive biography in every sense of ‘exhaust’ – along with boilerplate exegeses of the ‘cut-up’ and ‘fold-in’ methods; gleaned the current value of his stock in the literary market; and glazed over at the inexorable profusion of hip proper names attached like barnacles to the author of Naked Lunch. The cultic encrustations around Burroughs have done him the favour of keeping him current as a celebrity figure, but the disservice of implying that a home visit in old age from Kurt Cobain or a graveside serenade from Patti Smith has the same cultural importance as the writing of Nova Express and The Wild Boys. Burroughs’s actual achievement seems incidental to the glitzy mythologising of his remaining intimates, though still a bone of contention gnawed by literati.
Hardly anything worth reading twice about Burroughs’s writing, as distinct from his wildly chequered life and surprisingly genial personality, has appeared since Mary McCarthy’s New York Review essay on Naked Lunch in 1963. Negative reviews throughout his career consistently missed the point. Partisans continue to generate reams of ephemera about ‘language virus’ and other notions he gave apocalyptic weight to, but seem as prone to dubious traffic with the spirit world and magical thinking as Burroughs was himself; their prefaces, afterwords, blurbs and liner notes tend to evaporate in befuddling imitation of his oracular mode, without ever making clear what they’re talking about.
It doesn’t take a full-length biography to see that Burroughs found reality so intolerable that he spent much of his life escaping it, not only via drugs, but by serially immersing himself in otherworldly beliefs and pataphysical disciplines: black magic, Scientology auditing, orgone boxes, Whitley Strieber’s predatory sex aliens, sweat lodges and so forth. All these arcana yielded grains of incidental wisdom, along with a farrago of occult nonsense. They became storytelling gold, disposable platforms from which Burroughs issued torrents of Swiftian misanthropy in vignettes of atomic doom, mass extinction and the forcible mutation of tumescent teens into centipedes, machine parts or some kind of awful goo.
To a surprising extent, Burroughs relied on friends to structure his novels; they tidied up scattered riffs and routines lying around in piles of typewritten manuscript, assembled books from material discovered in long forgotten archives, moved sections from one book-in-progress to another. Allen Ginsberg selected the correspondence that became The Yage Letters. Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac put Naked Lunch together from drastic-looking clumps of torn, coffee-stained fragments; the book’s final sequence was determined by the order in which proof pages arrived back from the printer. Outtakes and overflow from Naked Lunch, supplemented by some of the cut-up experiments Burroughs adapted from Brion Gysin, became The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express.
Burroughs’s use of chance and fortuitous accidents violated cherished notions of authorship, just as the horrifically explicit sexual metamorphoses in Naked Lunch and subsequent novels violated the codes of seemliness observed in literary fiction as well as the lubricious conventions of pornography. Widely overlooked in the shocked reception of Naked Lunch was its subversion of Anglo-American syntax, an excision of connective tissue that mimicked the scanning pattern induced by advertising. The trilogy that followed Naked Lunch went much further in anticipating the staccato, associative patterns produced by the internet, TV channel flipping and ‘screen reality’; considered unreadable when they were published, the trilogy books can be followed today almost as effortlessly as a novel by Hemingway.