Novel (I guess?) * William S. Burroughs * Just Say No * 1959
Let’s talk about the Beat Generation for a moment, because when it comes the (perceived!) decline and decay of a society, it’s important to look at all aspects of its culture. This includes its counter-culture, which is where the Beats come in. They essentially created the modern notion of living and working apart from mainstream American society. Their appeal had as much to do with their lifestyle as it did their actual works of art, arguably more so. Now, as a group of artists I would first argue that the word “generation” is being a little generous. Like, there were three main dudes involved with this movement (Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs) and assorted friends and hangers-on (like Neal Cassady, who shows up in On the Road). None of these guys – and the Beats were absolutely a boy’s club – were particularly prolific, so the amount of actual literature produced by this movement is pretty thin.
As a literary movement, as artists, the Beats can’t help but compare poorly to those who preceded them. Part of this has to do with the problem facing all art in the late 20th century: people have already pushed form pretty much as far as it can go. Once Duchamp slapped his signature on a toilet and called it art, what the hell is left to do? James Joyce had already deconstructed the form of the written word to the point of incomprehensibility, so anything a guy like Burroughs could do with form post-Finnegan’s Wake only serves to reinforce the notion that the Moderns already somehow won “art.” There’s also the fact that the Moderns were flat out better writers (and it’s not even close, I like “Howl” but it’s not even in the same solar system as “The Waste Land”). Considering these two insurmountable issues, what makes the Beats worthy of literary discussion at all? Well, basically they had the wherewithal to record their fucked-up lifestyle in an era of harsh social conservatism, which went on to influence entire generations of American youths.
For all of their talent and the subversive nature of their art, the Moderns were still largely a class apart from the rest of society. If you’ve come up in the American school system you’ve likely read The Great Gatsby, and that’s the kind of people we’re talking about. They were obviously critical of their own lifestyle and all that, but when it came down to it their art was apart from their lifestyle. Not so the Beats. Their lifestyle was their art. Now, some of this has been exaggerated over the years – Kerouac revised the shit out of On the Road, and don’t let any first-year know-it-all T.A. tell you otherwise – but for the most part what they wrote reflected what they lived. And what they lived was in stark contrast to what most popular culture in 1950’s America would have you believe. After the war, The United States was in cultural lockdown. Smile, be super white, and above all conform. The Beats rejected all of that in the most emphatic way possible, by living in a world apart from the rest of American society. And because they wrote it all down, that rebellious, non-conformist spirit grew and spread. The attitudes and lifestyle of the Beats merged directly into the hippies of the 60s to the punks of the 70s and 80s and the alterno-kids of the 90s (which is, incidentally, how I learned about Burroughs in the first place; he did a weird spoken word piece with Kurt Cobain playing atonal guitar-noise in the background).
I’m providing all of this context, because otherwise I fear that Naked Lunch is just meaningless noise. You kind of get the point after the first few pages. It’s one, long, fractured junky delirium, and as such is a tough read. It’s repetitive, there’s no narrative to speak of, and it’s super gross. And that’s coming from the year 2016 when the Internet has ruined everything forever. Back when this was published, in the black-and-white year of 1959, the things Naked Lunch depicts were (pretty much literally) unspeakable, and damn near unthinkable. It was immediately deemed obscene and banned (which led, thankfully, to a victory in court that pretty much ended official literary censorship in this country), because holy shit you can’t write these things and show them to people. It’s in this sense that what Naked Lunch represented was more important than the work itself. That’s also where the title comes into play: this book is a raw, naked look at life from the point of view of a long-time addict. Sex and violence and a shattered mind and perspective are at the core of the novel; proceed accordingly.
Naked Lunch doesn’t really speak to me, which is okay because if it did I would likely be strung out on heroin and drowning in a sea of seminal fluid. Like I said, this book is grooooooss, and that’s not coming from a position of moral authority. I mean it’s just icky. This makes sense, as one of the refrains of the book is that junkies don’t care about anything other than junk. Like, anything. So you get scenes of abject body horror involving (broken) glass droppers and needles and whatnot, and as such I have to wonder why the D.A.R.E. program didn’t just use excerpts from this thing to keep kids off drugs. Gah! Naked Lunch is an ocean of horrific images, just an extended nightmare of death and filth. It’s also completely disorientating, in that there’s no specific point of view, no narrative to speak of, and nothing really seems to have any substance. Again, this all fits when you understand that for the addict, life is completely disconnected from the world. It sounds like a real bad time.
That said, there is something important at work here. Occasionally, a clear, lucid sentence appears in the chaos like a friendly island in a hostile sea filled with used needles and human waste (I’m really working the nautical imagery). Sometimes they’re just absurdly funny: “My asshole confounds the Louvre! I fart ambrosia and shit pure gold turds!” Ha, what? Or “De-active that pelvis, Mom, you disgust me already.” Ha-ha, what am I reading? Well, the short answer is satire. Naked Lunch is trying to be funny sometimes. It goes alongside the horror because this nonsense is so utterly over the top you can’t really help but laugh at it sometimes. Make no mistake, this ain’t a comedy. At best, any laughter here is either just whistling past the graveyard, or towards the end trying to find something to hold the boredom at bay. Like anything else, the sheer repetition of the imagery renders even the most unpleasant aspects of the novel dull. Okay, wieners and needles and a dead guy, yawn. That said, there is another kind of sentence that appears from time to time, and this gets to what Naked Lunch is rather better than one-off silly sentences.
The Beats had no time for American exceptionalism, which is to say that they understood that The United States is like any other country, and comprised of all kinds of people. The surface of the 1950’s was that of serene competency. America was the pinnacle of world power, and its people were the ideal citizens of a victorious, virtuous society. Obviously the image that our media and leaders projected onto the world stage was rooted in truth, America was the pinnacle of world power, but the rest of it was so much creative image-management. It was a fat fucking lie, in other words. Or, as Burroughs puts it, “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” America may be sold as a land of glittering opportunity, but the evil that corrupts all societies is here too, always has been, always will be.
This evil, this corruption, which Naked Lunch both describes and is a part of, in inherent to human society. All of them. The stronger and more powerful the civilization, the further underground this decaying force is hidden, but it is always there. That said, strength and power bring its own form of corruption to bear on the foundations of a society. “Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised.” So says Burroughs, who through his drug-addled delirium manages to encapsulate this problem of decay from both ends. On the top, The State, corrupting daily civic life with its own pervasive intrusions. From bottom, the underclass of junkies and hustlers, rotting away social structures with their own selfish drive to self-destruct. And while that’s incredibly bleak, I’m not sure what else to expect from a work like this.