Analysis of William S. Burroughs’s Novels

William S. Burroughs (1914 – 1997) did not begin writing seriously until 1950, although he had unsuccessfully submitted a story titled “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” to Esquire in 1938. His first novelistic effort, Queer, which deals with homosexuality, was not published until 1985. Allen Ginsberg finally persuaded Ace Books to publish Burroughs’s first novel, Junkie, which originally appeared with the pseudonym William Lee, as half of an Ace double paperback. It was bound with Maurice Helbront’s Narcotic Agent. Although strictly conventional in style, Junkie is a luridly hyperbolic, quasi-autobiographical first-person account of the horrors of drug addiction. Of little literary merit in itself, this first novel is interesting in that it introduces not only the main character, Lee, but also several of the major motifs that appear in Burroughs’s subsequent works: the central metaphor of drug addiction, the related image of man reduced to a subhuman (usually an insectlike creature) by his drug and other lusts, and the suggestion of concomitant and pervasive sexual aberration.

william-s-burroughsIn Naked Lunch and its three less celebrated sequels, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, and The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs weaves an intricate and horrible allegory of human greed, corruption, and debasement. Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), these four works seize on the evils or tendencies toward a certain type of evil—which the author sees as particularly malignant in the contemporary world—and project them into a dystopian future, where, magnified, they grow monstrous and take on an exaggerated and fantastic shape. Although progressively clarifying and developing Burroughs’s thought, these novels share themes, metaphorical images, characters, and stylistic mannerisms. In them, Burroughs utilizes the “cut-up, fold-in” technique that has its closest analog in the cinematic technique of montage. He juxtaposes one scene with another without regard to plot, character, or, in the short view, theme, to promote an association of the reader’s negative emotional reaction to the content of certain scenes (sexual perversion, drug abuse, senseless violence) with the implied allegorical content of others (examples of “addictions” to drugs, money, sex, power). The theory is that if such juxtapositions recur often enough, the feeling of revulsion strategically created by the first set of images will formthe reader’s negative attitude toward the second set of examples.

In these novels, Burroughs develops a science-fiction-like, paranoid fantasy wherein, on a literal level, Earth and its human inhabitants have been taken over by the Nova Mob, an assortment of extraterrestrial, non-three-dimensional entities who live parasitically on the reality of other organisms. Exploitation of Earth has reached such proportions that the intergalactic Nova Police have been alerted. The Nova Police are attempting to thwart the Nova Mob without so alarming them that they will detonate the planet in an attempt to destroy the evidence (and thus escape prosecution in the biologic courts) while trying to make what escape they can. The most direct form of Nova control, control that enables the Nova Mob to carry on its viruslike metaphysical vampirism with impunity, is thought control of the human population through control of the mass communication media. Nova Mob concepts and perspectives attach themselves to and are replicated by the terrestrial host media much as a virus invades and reproduces through a host organism, a thought-control process analogous to the “cut-up, fold-in” technique itself. By the middle of Nova Express, the reader is caught up in a war of images in which the weapons are cameras and tape recorders. The Nova Police and the inhabitants of Earth have discovered how to combat the Nova Mob with their own techniques (of which these novels are examples) and are engaged in a guerrilla war with the Nova Criminals, who are desperately trying to cut and run. The ending of The Ticket That Exploded is optimistic for Earth but inconclusive, leaving the reader to wonder if Earth will be rid of the Nova Mob or destroyed by it.

Naked Lunch

A vividly and relentlessly tasteless fantasy-satire that portrays humankind’s innate greed and lack of compassion in general and contemporary American institutions and values in particular, Naked Lunch immerses the reader in the impressions and sensations of William Lee (Burroughs’s pseudonym in Junkie). Lee is an agent of the Nova Police who has assumed the cover of a homosexual heroin addict because with such a cover he is most likely to encounter Nova Criminals, who are all addicts of one sort or another and thus prefer to operate through human addict collaborators. Nothing of importance seems to occur in the novel, and little of what does happen is explained. Only toward the conclusion does the reader even suspect that Lee is some sort of agent “clawing at a not-yet of Telepathic Bureaucracies, Time Monopolies, Control Drugs, Heavy Fluid Addicts.” The “naked lunch” of the title is that reality seen by Lee, that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” The random scenes of mutilation and depravity, bleak homosexual encounters, and desperate scrambles for drug connections into which the book plunges yield its two key concepts: the idea of addiction, the central conceit that men become hooked on power, pleasure, illusions, and so on much as a junkie does on heroin, and that of “the algebra of need,” which states simply that when an addict is faced with absolute need (as a junkie is) he will do anything to satisfy it.

The Nova Criminals are nonhuman personifications of various addictions. The Uranians, addicted to Heavy Metal Fluid, are types of drug addicts. Dr. Benway, Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin (a single character), and the insect people of Minraud—all control addicts—are types of the human addiction to power. The green boy-girls of Venus, addicted to Venusian sexual practices, are types of the human addiction to sensual pleasure. The Death Dwarf, addicted to concentrated words and images, is the analog of the human addiction to various cultural myths and beliefs; he is perhaps the most pathetic of these depraved creatures. Burroughs explains that “Junk yields a basic formula of ‘evil’ virus: the face of evil is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control.” As poet and literary critic John Ciardi noted,

Only after the first shock does one realize that what Burroughs is writing about is not only the destruction of depraved men by their drug lust, but the destruction of all men by their consuming addictions, whether the addiction be drugs or overrighteous propriety or sixteen-year-old girls.

The Soft Machine 

Burroughs sees The Soft Machine as “a sequel to Naked Lunch, a mathematical extension of the Algebra of Need beyond the Junk virus.” Here, the consuming addiction, displayed again in juxtaposition with scenes of drug abuse and sexual perversion, and through a number of shifting narrators, is the addiction to power over others. The central episode is the destruction by a time-traveling agent of the control apparatus of the ancient Mayan theocracy (Burroughs’s primary archaeological interest), which exercises its control through the manipulation of myths; this is a clear analog of the present-day struggle between the Nova Police and the Nova Mob that breaks into the open in the subsequent two novels.

The time traveler uses the same technique to prepare himself for time travel as Burroughs does in writing his novels, a type of “cut-up, fold-in” montage: “I started my trip in the morgue with old newspapers, folding in today with yesterday and typing out composites.” Because words tie men to time, the time traveler character is given apomorphine (used to cure Burroughs of his heroin addiction) to break this connection.

The “soft machine” is both the “wounded galaxy,” the Milky Way seen as a biological organism diseased by the viruslike Nova Mob, and the human body, riddled with parasites and addictions and programmed with the “ticket,” obsolete myths and dreams, written on the “soft typewriter” of culture and civilization. Burroughs contends that any addiction dehumanizes its victims. The Mayan priests, for example, tend to become half-men, half-crab creatures who eventually metamorphosize into giant centipedes and exude an erogenous green slime. Such hideous transformations also strike Lee, a heroin addict, and other homosexuals. Bradley the Buyer, who reappears as Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin, Mr. and Mrs. D., and the Ugly Spirit, has a farcical habit of turning into a bloblike creature who is addicted to and absorbs drug addicts.

Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded 

Instances of metamorphosis are almost innumerable in Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded. These novels most clearly reveal the quartet’s plot and explore the Nova Mob’s exploitation of media. Here addiction to language is investigated. As Stephen Koch argues,

Burroughs’s ideology . . . is based on an image of consciousness in bondage to the organism: better, of consciousness as an organism, gripped by the tropisms of need. Consciousness is addicted—it is here the drug metaphor enters—to what sustains it and gives it definition: in particular, it is addicted to the word, the structures of language that define meaning and thus reality itself.

Thus, while in The Soft Machine the time traveler is sent to Trak News Agency (whose motto is “We don’t report the news—we write it”) to learn how to defeat the Mayan theocracy by first learning “how this writing the news before it happens is done,” in The Ticket That Exploded it is axiomatic that “you can run a government without police if your conditioning program is tight enough but you can’t run a government without [nonsense and deception].”

Contemporary existence is seen ultimately as a film that is rerun again and again, trapping the human soul like an insect imprisoned in amber, negating any possibility of choice or freedom. In these last two novels, Burroughs issues a call for revolt against humanity’s imprisoning addiction to language. In Nova Express, he notes that “their garden of delights is a terminal sewer” and demands that everyone heed the last words of Hassan I Sabbah (cribbed out of context from Fyodor Dostoevski’s Ivan Karamazov): “Nothing is True—Everything is Permitted.” In The Ticket That Exploded, he rages, “Better than the ‘real thing’?—There is no real thing—Maya—Maya—It’s all show business.”

The Wild Boys

Burroughs’s other notably science-fiction-like novel, The Wild Boys, is also composed of scenes linked more by associated images than by any clearly linear narrative framework. Here, the author posits a bizarre alternative to the problematical apocalypse-in-progress depicted in his earlier quartet. In a world wrecked by famine and controlled by police, the wild boys, a homosexual tribe of hashish smokers, have withdrawn themselves from space and time through indifference and have developed into a counterculture complete with its own language, rituals, and economy. The existence of this counterculture poses a threat to those who create the false images upon which the larger, repressive, external society is based; but the wild boys cannot be tamed because their cold indifference to the mass culture entails a savagery that refuses to submit to control. Although Burroughs’s thinking clearly becomes more political in TheWild Boys and in the book that followed it, Exterminator!, a collection of short stories and poems that revolve around the common theme of death through sinister forces, his primary concern for freedom from the controllers and manipulators—chemical, political, sexual, or cultural—has remained constant from the beginning of his literary career.

Cities of the Red Night

Continuing the utopian vision of The Wild Boys, but encompassing it into a larger, more anthropological context, Burroughs’s next three works form a trilogy to expand his vision of society and its place in the natural order. The first book in the series, Cities of the Red Night, continues the twin themes of freedom from control and the power of mythmaking, but does so on a much larger scale. One of Burroughs’s longest works, Cities of the Red Night is unique in that in it he sustains a rather conventional narrative voice, utilizing conventional popular genre, to achieve a re-creation of history through fantasy and myth.

The novel begins with three distinct plots, which seem at first to be only tenuously related. One plot concerns a retroactive utopia founded by eighteenth century pirates, which Burroughs uses as a foundation for social criticism. A second plot, from which the title comes, depicts mythical “cities of the red night,” which existed in prehistoric time and function as a dystopia through which the reader views present culture. A third plot involves a present-day investigator who traces the mystery of a deadly virus known as B-23 to its historical origins in the “cities of the red night.” Each plot employs conventions from one popular genre or another: The story of the utopian pirates’ colony reads very much like a boys’ adventure story, the story of the advanced prehistoric cities takes its structure from science fiction, and the story of the investigation of the virus lends itself to the conventions of the hard-boiled detective story.

The Place of Dead Roads

In the second book of the trilogy, The Place of Dead Roads, Burroughs continues the process of mythmaking. His protagonist is Kim Carsons, a late nineteenth century gunslinger who utilizes a sort of “hole in time,” a phenomenon introduced in Cities of the Red Night. Through this hole, Carsons becomes a timetraveler, moving precariously across time and space, encountering different cultures and time periods in an effort to forge some sense of the whole, some sense of control over his own destiny.He seeks fulfillment in disparate, almost lonely, homosexual encounters, in drugs, and in the sense of power he feels by manipulating others.

The story begins with a clipping from a Boulder, Colorado, newspaper that tells the reader that William Seward Hall, who writes Western novels under the pen name Kim Carsons, was shot in a gunfight during the year 1899. The story then introduces the character Carsons and, after a disjointed series of adventures and misadventures, returns the reader to that same date when Carsons loses his life, as if to say that destiny will not be averted in the end. The similarity of Carsons’s true name to Burroughs’s is striking here because, like Hall, Burroughs tends to fictionalize himself as author, as though an author can reach his true potential only through the life of his character—perhaps another way of understanding Burroughs’s fascination with somehow circumventing destiny through manipulation.

The Western Lands

In the third book of the trilogy, The Western Lands, the reader learns that Carsons was not shot by his opponent, Mike Chase, but by a killer from the Land of the Dead named Joe, described as a NO (Natural Outlaw), whose job it is to break natural laws. The Western land itself is a mythical place, a utopian vision of a place beyond one’s images of earth and heaven—a land where natural law, religious law, and human law have no meaning. It is a paradise, but a paradise difficult to reach.

The intent of Burroughs’s trilogy is first to create a science-fiction myth that explains all of human history; then to reveal the power of fantasy and myth to offer alternative histories; and finally, by realizing these alternative histories, to explore alternative anthropological patterns by which to organize society. The three separate plots interrelate and merge at various points throughout the trilogy, but eventually each is abandoned before completion—a technique that, Burroughs claims, allows the reader to create his or her own stories, to engage his or her own sense of mythmaking. The reader is encouraged to play a kind of “what if” game along with Burroughs: What if the Spanish had not defeated the New World into submission? What if the true foundations of liberty and individual freedom had taken hold in the Third World? What if all of our assumptions, whether religious, historical, or psychological, are wrong? This process of mythmaking in Burroughs is not a means to an end but rather the object of the struggle—the great creative process of defining and redefining ourselves, which is our ultimate defense against those who would manipulate us.

Although Burroughs’s innovative, highly unconventional fictive style and often abrasive thematic preoccupations were not without their detractors, by the end of his career Burroughs had firmly established his place as one of late twentieth century fiction’s most significant innovators. In fact, his “cut-up” technique has reached beyond the bounds of obscure cult fiction to influence both mainstream cinema and popular music. Burroughs played a semiautobiographical role as Tom the Priest in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 film about drug addiction, Drugstore Cowboy; in 1991, acclaimed director David Cronenberg adapted Naked Lunch to the screen. In her introduction to his unprecedented reading on the popular American television show Saturday Night Live in 1981, actor Lauren Hutton lauded Burroughs as “America’s greatest living writer,” while rock music icons Lou Reed and David Bowie have both recognized Burroughs’s disjointed and surreal but surprisingly moralistic approach to writing as enormously influential on their own work. “Heavy metal,” a genre of rock-and-roll music prominent during the 1980’s, borrows its name from a phrase in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

Upon his death in 1997 at the age of eighty-three, Burroughs was eulogized as everything from the “most dangerous” of Beat writers to the undisputed patriarch of this important movement in twentieth century American writing. Although Burroughs’s lifelong penchant for the cutting edge of fiction continues to intimidate some scholars and critics, none can dispute his role as a significant innovator and catalyst for change in twentieth century fiction and popular culture.


Major works

Fiction: Junkie, 1953; The Naked Lunch, 1959 (republished as Naked Lunch, 1962); The Soft Machine, 1961; The Ticket That Exploded, 1962; Dead Fingers Talk, 1963; Nova Express, 1964; The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead, 1971; Port of Saints, 1973; Cities of the Red Night, 1981; The Place of Dead Roads, 1983; The Burroughs File, 1984; Queer, 1985; The Western Lands, 1987; Ghost of Chance, 1995; My Education: A Book of Dreams, 1995.

Nonfiction: The Yage Letters, 1963 (with Allen Ginsberg); APO-33 Bulletin: A Metabolic Regulator, 1966; The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs, 1970 (with Daniel Odier); Electronic Revolution, 1970-71, 1971; Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957, 1983; The Adding Machine: Collected Essays, 1985; The Cat Inside, 1992; The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959, 1993 (Oliver Harris, editor); Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, 1998 (James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg, editors); Conversations with William S. Burroughs, 1999 (Allen Hibbard, editor); Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, 2000.

Miscellaneous: Minutes to Go, 1960 (with Sinclair Beiles, Gregory Corso, andvBrion Gysin); The Exterminator, 1960 (with Brion Gysin); Time, 1965 (drawings by Gysin); White Subway, 1965; Apomorphine, 1969; The Dead Star, 1969; The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, 1970; Exterminator!, 1973; The Book of Breeething, 1974; OEeuvre Croisée, 1976 (with Brion Gysin; also known as The Third Man, 1978); Blade Runner: A Movie, 1979; Interzone, 1989; Word Virus: the William S. Burroughs Reader, 1998 (James Grauerholz, and Ira Silverberg, editors).

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: Literary Theory

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