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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Naked Lunch (1958) by William S. Burroughs

Author William S. Burroughs
Book Review
Naked Lunch (1958)
 by William S. Burroughs

   All you need to know about me as an adolescent is that I told people William Burroughs was my favorite writer for about 2-3 years in high school/college.  I read Naked Lunch for the first time mid-way through high school.  I'm sure I read it once more in either college or law school.  I've seen the movie version at least three times.  Naked Lunch remains relevant today both on it's own merit as a canonical text of the Beat Generation, and as a key early text for later movements like "cyber-punk" and retro-futurism.  

  I read Burroughs originally with some knowledge of his Beat contemporaries, On the Road by Jack Kerouac,  Howl by Allen Ginsburg.  I had read a decent amount of 50s science fiction and fantasy, a key reference point for Naked Lunch.  I hadn't read any golden age detective fiction, another key reference point.   I certainly hadn't read anything written by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and other high modernist whose prose experiments made a plot-less novel about Mugwumps and the interzone something that readers could treat seriously.

  Revisiting Naked Lunch having had the benefit of reading the books that Burroughs read,  I am most struck by the similarity between his junk-sick apparitions and the nameless non-protagonists of Beckett's trilogy.  His pulp fiction reference points, mostly detective fiction and science fiction also seem to anticipate the dystopian sub-genre of speculative fiction.
Burroughs and a Mugwump from the David Cronenberg directed movie version.
  For all his iconic status, only Naked Lunch and Junky rise to the level of must-reads.   Soon after Naked Lunch was published he would begin his decades long obsession with the literary "technique" of cut ups, where words were combined in purposefully nonsensical fashion in a dadaist-surrealist experiment.  In retrospect, he seems perilously close to being a one-hit wonder, with Naked Lunch as the hit.  Even Junky would likely not be notable were not an early work by the author who wrote Naked Lunch.   If anything, Naked Lunch seemed fresher to me reading it yesterday than it did when I read it twenty years ago.  It has the timeless quality of all great works of art.

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