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.

Burroughs, one hears now, ‘has recently said of himself that he is interested in extending his vision outward rather than inward.’ He said this before, in a Paris Review interview of 1965, and suggested Beckett as a contrast (‘Beckett wants to go inward’). Cities of the Red Night strikes me as a blander, more literary sort of novel, with patches of urbane narrative in quite an 18th-century vein, and with parodies of other literary styles, which temporarily help the reader to get his bearings: but it’s not clear if that’s what he means by ‘extending his vision outward’. He shows no sign of change, anyway, in the ‘Red Night’ sections of this novel, and draws his imagery as before from Science Fiction and sex and death. Radiation, or perhaps a ‘black hole’ that once hit Siberia, has caused a world-wide virus epidemic that is also – by way of Reichian ‘orgone’ theory – a mutation of ‘what we are pleased to call “love” ’: ‘The virus must have affected the sexual and fear centres in the brain and nervous system so that fear was converted into sexual frenzies which were reconverted into fear, the feedback leading in many cases to a fatal conclusion.’ In the background the Gobi Desert turns into an apocalyptic battlefield – the sense of unendurable tensions in a Burroughs novel being no less typical of the apocalyptic than the vagueness of the issues involved. Not that a reader need believe any of this, to judge by the number of discrediting devices left around – the stage-directions, the Hollywood sets and props, or the drollery of white-furred crocodiles and cyanide shoes. But some of these devices are a bit nervous. ‘The Unconscious Imitated by a Cheesecake’ – chapter heading – was perhaps arrived at by chance, through aleatory techniques (not generally much in evidence in this book), but anyway looks uncertain of its status, like a joke title thought up by W.H. Auden for a poem.

The parodies provide a respite from this nightmare. Even incidentally, there’s a broad, unlikely set of references to literature – to Saki and John Fowles and Gatsby’s ‘old sport’. In more detail, a character called Clem Snide does a Sam Spade impression and spends his days checking into Hiltons on a headless-body murder investigation. The case involves drugs, black magic and an Egyptian sunset rite before it extends to the Virus B-23 symptoms: ‘fever, rash, a characteristic odour, sexual frenzies, obsession with sex and death ... Is this so totally strange and alien?’ Hardly strange and alien at all – for a while it’s quite like reading Dashiel Hammett – until Clem Snide begins to have thoughts ‘somehow not my own’, reveals himself as a visitor from space with other-life memories and turns into another character called Audrey Carsons. There’s more to the episodes of a boys’ adventure story in the style of J.M. Barrie, which has such evocative lines as ‘Feb. 28, 1702: Today we were captured by pirates.’ Some absurdities are probably from William Beckford rather than Barrie: ‘The two youths then stepped on board, the one with his gold-braided coat open at the waist to show his slender brown chest and stomach, a brace of pistols inlaid with silver, and a cutlass at his belt. He was a striking figure: blond hair tied in a knot at the back of his head, aristocratic and well-formed features, possessing a most lordly bearing and grace of manner.’ This lot establish a pirates’ commune with utopian tendencies in South America: ‘We offer refuge to all people everywhere who suffer under the tyranny of governments.’ This echoes Burroughs’s extra-fictional plea in his preface for ‘your right to live where you want, with companions of your choosing, under laws to which you agree.’

In the light of his actual fictions, Burroughs’s claims to enlightened intentions, which include a plea for The Naked Lunch as a tract against capital punishment, do seem exceptionally shaky. But what is more interesting is the way he himself undoes the respectability of the claims. For it’s a serious point about the pirates’ utopia that it very quickly turns nasty. The boy-hero is soon convinced of the need to eliminate ‘trouble-makers’ from the commune: ‘sitting on a balcony overlooking the bay, sipping a rum punch as the sun went down, I reflected that the exercise of power conveys a weird sensation of ease and tranquillity. (I wonder how many of the ten men in the guardhouse will be alive tomorrow. It amuses me to think of them cutting each other’s throats over a bottle of poisoned spirits).’ This is about as far as a serious point is taken in Burroughs, but it’s far enough to reveal the pessimism underlying the liberal claims and the utopian fantasy. It shows, too, in his images, which often have an obverse and a reverse side, so that ‘languid youths stretched naked in the sun’ on one page becomes on the next ‘a gang of naked boys covered with erogenous sores’. But mainly, what drains any meaning out of the banal eldorado is, again, the hanging-orgasm syndrome and the repetitive sex – the ‘idiot mambo’ he now calls it.

Among the parodies are some reels of a Burroughs Western: ‘a naked 15-year-old sticks his head in the bar. “The Clantons and the Earps is shooting it out at the OK Corral.” ’ But by now it’s clear that the main object of these parodies is to provide an excuse for Burroughs to parody himself. ‘The winner bends down and ties his arms with a noose scarf. Next thing, the kid is hanged and his semen spatters the bar. The bartender wipes it off with his bar rag.’ Self-parody, of course, counts among those games-playing activities of modern fiction which stress its self-sufficiency and its incapacity for saying anything about life. No good Burroughs ‘extending his vision outward’ that way. But it’s better than what happens in the really soft spots in his new novel, when he’s not playing games but believes himself to be speaking about life, and to have something to say – and what he does say is as glib as: ‘In that moment, he knew its purpose, knew the reason for suffering, fear, sex, and death. It was all intended to keep human slaves imprisoned in physical bodies while a monstrous matador waved his cloth in the sky, sword ready for the kill.’

Readers of Trout Fishing in America know Richard Brautigan as a writer who doesn’t tell a story, or parody anyone telling a story, but is simply a way of being and seeing, interested in other people who are like that too, such as a man staring at meat about whom the only point is that ‘there simply are no clues as to why he is staring at meat.’ Or people who seem more than usually provisional, or have to be specially careful: ‘I always dial her number very carefully as if I am an accountant for a glass factory.’ If there’s an explanation of anything, it’s for the sake of an appealing illogicality: ‘they were Italians because I fed them some spaghetti.’ I don’t know why The Tokyo-Montana Express – a collection of observations of the self and others, or ‘puzzling diversions and reflective stopovers’ – should count as fiction, except that Trout Fishing does, and they have the same kind of internal fictive organs – style, fantasy, an imagination appropriating everything it encounters – that make them structurally different from anything in the world outside them. Trout Fishing in America was the title and subject of a novel, but also turned up as a character in it (this has been much admired as a blow for freedom in the novel). Similarly, the stops along the tracks of the Tokyo-Montana Express are both places and voices. They personify, for instance, the lost innocence of America, sometimes with the shock effect of contrast, in a meditation on the weekly menu of Condemned Row prisoners in San Quentin, but more often by converting real life into the pure innocence of fantasy. ‘What Are You Going to Do with 390 Photographs of Christmas Trees?’ is not about a problem or irony thrown up by life, but is simply and innocently about photographing things on the ‘because they are there’ principle. It goes beyond the whimsical: there’s something dauntless or shameless about trying to preserve the only two snowflakes that fell in ‘the smallest snowstorm on record’ – ‘Have you ever tried to find two snowflakes on a winter landscape that’s been covered with snow for months?’ These two flakes aren’t in fact found and preserved in the freezer – ‘where they would be comfortable’ – but they’re preserved in Brautigan’s art. Perhaps this miniature art has Japanese origins, like haikus and bonsai trees: the book is as much about an innocent Japan as an innocent America. It’s an art, at any rate, that stresses its distance from what he calls ‘the strange energies of the Twentieth Century’: a distance that pretty well takes us back to ‘art for art’s sake’. Brautigan does mention – about buying the New York Times – ‘the responsibility for being a thinking and aware person’: but he takes the precaution of sounding like a parody of Woody Allen sounding like someone who ... etc.