Reading: A Blast of Burroughs | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: A Blast of Burroughs 

In the tradition of his most notorious works, this compilation is repulsive, hilarious, astonishing--an obscene carnival of bloody syringes, ruined cities and bursting trajectories of sperm.

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Busting out like a berserk convention of drunken novelty salesmen here's Interzone, the latest offering from the bizarre fiction chest of William Burroughs. In the tradition of Burroughs's most notorious works, this compilation is repulsive, hilarious, astonishing. Like Naked Lunch it's sure to make the rounds among friends, to be read behind locked doors or on the sly in public with careful, periodic glances over the shoulder. (It's always fun to read Burroughs on the subway, snickering mysteriously among the crowd.)

Comprising early short stories, journals, and a significant section that was deleted from the Naked Lunch text, Interzone is stuffed with Burroughs's best-loved themes: drug addiction, homosexuailty, crime, poverty, disease, totalitarianism, and big gobs of scatology. In his trademark style continuity is disposed of as frantic, disjointed fragments spill and scatter like marbles across a floor--an uncontrollable mess of nightmare images and drug hallucinations. Burroughs's demented Americana buzzes amid an incessant carnival of bloody heroin syringes, rusted, ruined cities, and bursting trajectories of sperm.

The inclusion of the Naked Lunch outtake qualifies Interzone as vintage Burroughs. In its final section this book provides a sparkling example of the author's best writing, that of the late 1950s, when he was already in his 40s and his imagination was as strong and wild as a running cheetah. His work from this period is his most honest, penned with the assumption that it was unpublishably obscene, written through the agencies of obsession and catharsis.

William Burroughs's career draws an odd chart: his development was fast, his best work came in a flash, then, in spite of a conspicuously declining talent, he managed to kick out a steady trail of books for the next 30 years--right up to the present. If Naked Lunch was the moment of explosion, later books like Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads are its scattered embers.

Interzone is divided into three sections that take us from the beginning of Burroughs's career to its zenith: "Stories," which begins with some early, lesser pieces written before his style began to click; "Lee's Journals," written primarily in North Africa during the mid- to late 50s--the dateline of Naked Lunch; and "Word," the section that was cut from the original Naked Lunch text.

The first of the "Stories" is "Twilight's Last Gleamings," the familiar short sketch Burroughs wrote in collaboration with chum Kells Elvins at Harvard in 1938. This Burroughs standard also appears in Nova Express and has been a standby at his public readings. It's the comic sketch about a sinking ocean liner whose captain kills a society lady and puts on her dress, forcing his way into a packed lifeboat. The story also introduces Doctor Benway ("ship's doctor, drunkenly added two inches to a four inch incision with one stroke of his scalpel"), the mad coke-addicted surgeon who would later appear in Naked Lunch. (The operating room of the Joker's plastic surgeon in Batman seems lifted right out of Benway.)

The pieces in "Stories" appear out of a miscellaneous haze surrounding the early 50s--roughly the Junky years--and betray a stumbling self-consciousness that would vanish after Burroughs's move to Morocco. Here's a line from "The Junky's Christmas," for example: "For Christ's sake, Danny thought. I must have scored for the immaculate fix!" Compared to the confident, audacious tone of what would follow, this line has an insecure tremble announced by its need to spell things out for the reader.

But by the last of the "Stories," called "International Zone," Burroughs's unique style stands up and blares. "International Zone" is an entertaining account of the author's time living in the international zone of Tangier, a converging place for drifters, petty thieves, and losers of all nationalities. Burroughs landed there in 1954, three years after accidentally putting a bullet through his wife's forehead in Mexico City and losing custody of his son and stepdaughter as a result.

The zone was at the time a sort of cafe society for tenacious losers, and Burroughs saw himself as an unfortunate member of the pack. Though his adventures in poverty and squalor always smacked of the anthropological (he was a Harvard grad and a member of the adding-machine Burroughs family, and monthly checks from Mom ensured that he'd never slide all the way down), he considered himself a failure when he lived in Tangier; his esteem for his writing was shaky and cracked. Nonetheless he did write, and with an expatriate's perspective on America--and a daily dose of hash--he roared forth with a firestorm of material.

Burroughs had intended "International Zone" for a magazine sale. In his introduction to this volume, James Grauerholz quotes the author running the piece down as "so flatly an article like anybody could have written." Of course the piece is all Burroughs's own and far too outside for any decently paying magazine: "Antonio the Portuguese is mooch to the bone. He won't work. In a sense, he can't work. He is a mutilated fragment of the human potential, specialized to the point where he cannot exist without a host. His mere presence is an irritation. Phantom tendrils reach out from him, feeling for a point of weakness on which to fasten."

This section is an excellent example of what came to be called New Journalism, blurring the distinction between reporting and creative writing. Both aspects thrive in Burroughs's books; his style is too tasty and colorful for straight reportage, yet his work relies heavily on observations of external factors.

The second section of Interzone is "Lee's Journals," comprising pieces that read, as advertised, like diary entries. Though they sometimes become mired in self-pity, they are occasionally incandescent as well, and they offer some interesting insights into the writer's thoughts and habits during the time he composed Naked Lunch. (And anyone who's read that book probably wonders what the hell was going on with the guy.) In descriptions of his dreams and waking activities we see the fragile, bruised side of the man who has spit out such cruel, violent ideas: "At the present time, writing appears to me as an absolute necessity, and at the same time I have a feeling that my talent is lost and I can accomplish nothing, a feeling like the body's knowledge of disease, which the mind tries to evade and deny."

But not all here is thick and gloomy; sometimes when Burroughs is in a good mood his twisted sense of humor shines. One of the better offerings in this section is "Displaced Fuzz"--a huge crew of unemployed policemen desperately searching for new ways to hassle the innocent. In another journal entry, Burroughs observes, "Interzone is crawling with pedophiles, citizens hung up on prepuberty kicks. I don't dig it. I say anyone can't wait till thirteen is no better than a degenerate."

Finally comes "Word," a refreshing blast of Naked Lunchian material, a welcome gust after the disappointments of Burroughs's recent work. Like Naked Lunch it contains passages that are darkly hilarious. Burroughs's tone is that of a degenerate vaudevillian, an obscene carny barker: "Step right up ladies and gents to see this character at the risk of all his appendages and extremities and appurtenances will positively shoot himself out of a monster asshole. . . ."

Bits like this come in fast-paced, unrelated fragments, a direct reflection of the way Burroughs's mind was working in the late 50s--a hurricane of imagination that was never matched in the decades to follow.

What has always struck me about Burroughs's Tangier-period books is the language he employs: The caustic American hipster rhythms and stripped-down, almost abbreviated vernaculars that echo with a sarcastic objectivity the flatulence of bureaucratic doubletalk. "So I am prepared to state that the above is true and accurate to the best of my knowledge, so help me God or any other outfit when my dignity and sovereignty be threatened by brutal short-arm aggression." Or the intentional defiance of grammar--the skewing of subject-verb agreement and the omission of certain pronouns and articles, for example--which lends a colloquial street cadence to the writing: "The plague break out in the lobby of the U.N. Victims are spirited away in black Cadillacs, flushed down a garbage disposal unit in a special kitchen of the Arab delegates where a man knew what to do with his fat old dog offend with the halitosis." The prose is alternately disturbing, hilarious, and poetically nostalgic. The syntax is explosively fresh, like an orange torn open spraying mist, and completely 20th-century American.

While the tone sometimes shifts to a wistful murmur--"Motel loneliness moans across the continent like foghorns over still oily waters of tidal rivers"--most of "Word" twists in a maelstrom of Burroughs "routines": insane, perverse little sketches celebrating sheer filth and humor. The routines are like vulgar nickelodeon episodes--or like W.C. Fields on acid--almost seeming to end in flickering fades to black. But the disgusting parts are also the most hilarious, both in their audacity and timing. They're usually just blatant statements, written with a wisecracking delivery, of everyday possibilities ordinarily never mentioned. They're funny because they're true, and because they make fun of horrible, painful, repressed experiences and ideas. As the author has often reiterated, you can't tell anyone anything they don't already know on some level. Of course Burroughs's warped mind produces some scenarios most people would never dream of, but that's why he's the writer and we're the readers.

After the festival of craziness that is Naked Lunch, a deeper level of depravity didn't seem possible, but amazingly in "Word" Burroughs manages to surpass his masterpiece in outrageousness. (This may explain why it was left out in the first place.) Specifically he directs some slightly abusive remarks toward the reader--"Eso, que es? ('What's that?' to you nameless assholes don't know Spanish)"--and he runs wilder with his scatological tendencies. He reveals his penis size and unleashes a horde of obscenities too graphic to repeat here.

And as usual there is the misogyny. But like so much of his material the woman-bashing is almost too off-the-wall to be taken seriously; reading it is like watching a slasher movie and not minding that a teenager is getting her pancreas chopped out because you know it's happening in a distantly removed fantasyland. Moreover Burroughs plays no favorites; anyone is a potential target for his verbal bucket of acid.

In later books like Port of Saints and The Place of Dead Roads the sodomy scenes get out of hand and tiresome. That's because they're taken too seriously--besides being written in a dull, perfunctory way--and are clearly the drooling fantasies of a corrupt old man. But in Interzone, as in Naked Lunch, they're mostly played for laughs, like the one-liners of a blue comedian in a burlesque show. And it's the outrageous invention and ingenuity--not only of situation but of telling--that makes them so fascinating.

Many of the routines may seem familiar, as Burroughs has a tendency to repeat or slightly alter his sketches, both from book to book and from page to page. This can be annoying but is ultimately forgivable; the bits take on the quality of tradition in their recurrence.

Interzone has a posthumous feel to it, and is probably the first in a long line of such miscellaneous collections. But at 75 Burroughs is alive and active. At the sprightly age of 66 he suddenly took up painting ("I had always taken it for granted that I couldn't draw or paint)" he said in a recent Time article), and he has been producing artworks ever since. That's one of his pieces--Space Door--on the cover of Interzone. In fact an exhibit of his works showed last fall at the Klein Gallery, one of the galleries lost to last spring's disastrous River North fire. Burroughs attended a party in Chicago the night before the opening, and didn't pass up a joint when it came his way. As a matter of fact the old boy bogarted that doobie.

Interzone by William S. Burroughs, Viking, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Plansker.

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