Excess is exhilarating – until it’s not. This week marks what would be the 100th birthday of William S. Burroughs, controversial cult writer and every artsy outcast’s adopted bohemian grandpa. His work covered all the post-war taboos – homosexuality and drug addiction are the two in which he’s best-known for participating, followed by accidental drunken murder – and was scarily articulate, yet detached, while doing so. Naked Lunch and Queer, Burroughs most famous novels, showcase the themes and tone that made Burroughs so revered, but his writing, his life and their effects on others are best explored from more than that perspective. Celebrate the writer’s centenary by delving deeper.
JUNKIE by BURROUGHS
What’s fascinating about Burroughs is the disconnect between his clearheaded writerly ability and the crazy, often-awful experiences he wrote about. His first novel was relatively straightforward and semi-autobiographical and manages to present Burroughs as a trustworthy guide through the warped reality of heroin addiction. ‘You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction’, he writes, anticipating the emotional distance that will return to his later work. ‘Junk wins by default’.
GO by JOHN CLELLON HOLMES
If Junky is a primer for Burroughs himself, Go is the same for the gang as a whole. Intensely self-referential, yet questioning, Go is considered the first work of the Beat generation and jumps from place to place portraying the figures the more fringe Holmes spent his time observing – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs – as culture transitioned from war to post-war.
LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN by HUBERT SELBY, JR.
Like Burroughs’ notoriously banned Naked Lunch, 1964’s Last Exit to Brooklyn caused legal controversy and gained a cult following for its just-put-it-out-there depiction of violence, drug abuse, homosexuality, etc., earning its own ban in the UK. Ginsberg thought it would, ‘explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America’.
INTERZONE by BURROUGHS
A collection of anecdotes, letters, scraps and diary entries makes up the autobiographical mélange about Burroughs’ time in Tangiers, characterized by shadowy lowlife and, always, the search for heroin. Fans of the genre-fluid work of today’s alt lit writers – often occupying the ‘interzone’ between fact and fiction – as well as more mainstream stuff like Sheila Heti will see similarities in form and style.
THE BEAUTIFUL ROOM IS EMPTY by EDMUND WHITE
Within the ‘big gray country of families on drowsy holiday’ that was America in the 1950s were pockets of intensity and bohemianism, and for many, Burroughs served as a kind of reverse lighthouse in the fog. Here, White writes he found solace in Burroughs and queer writers like him, in whose work he ‘saw his own darkness reflected’.
THE THIRD MIND by BURROUGHS and BRION GYSIN
The writer/artist introduced Burroughs to the ‘cut-up’ technique (self-explanatory – it’s literal) that wound up as the critical formal experiment in Naked Lunch, which Burroughs claimed can be read in any order. However, their relationship would go way beyond that. The Third Mind collects several scraps of it, including more cut-up collaborations that form a picture of an aesthetic.
AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS by BURROUGHS and JACK KEROUAC
Hero worship isn’t healthy, and before you put your favourite writers on a pedestal, remember that they were once young and not-that-good, too. This early joint venture – Burroughs was such a fan of the project – was written nearly ten years before Junkie’s (debated) release, and it shows. Still, the mystery novel details the David Kammerer murder, which played a significant role in Burroughs’ subsequent descent into morphine addiction, and shows the seeds of his style.
MINOR CHARACTERS: A BEAT MEMOIR by JOYCE JOHNSON
Dudes, dudes, so many dudes – anyone hoping to find love in the section of OkCupid filed under ‘Art / Music / Writer’ knows the particular frustration of seeing Kerouac after Kerouac after Bukowski in profiles supposedly 93% compatible. Reading about the Beats paints a similar picture; the only women around are very minor characters. While Johnson’s memoir focuses on her love of Jack Kerouac, it also offers an alternative, still-close perspective on Burroughs and the people who surrounded him.
‘I AM DYING, MEESTER?’ by BURROUGHS
Despite its inherent randomness, the cut-and-paste poem that appears at the end of The Yage Letters recycles themes familiar to both Burroughs’ entire body of work and the particular piece itself. Repetition of rot, junk, death – the poem’s titular question isn’t only being posed by the Panamanian character in this rearranged narrative.
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