Welcome to Useless Genius, a series on the Update devoted to things you will never get tested on! This post is about the 1959 novel Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
Oh boy, here we go.
See, Naked Lunch isn’t your regular novel. It doesn’t have a structured narrative, nor heroic characters. It is meant – in the most grotesque of ways – to hold up a mirror to society and detail the various events the author – William S. Burroughs – lived through.
Naked Lunch was published by William S. Burroughs in 1959 in Paris, and is somewhat autobiographical – which might just be the most disturbing point of the novel. Burroughs was a member of the Beat writers, a group of American writers in the 50s who began a large cultural shift in American literature. Characterized by writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the Beat writers were frequently homeless, or high, or both. They rubbed shoulders with the lowest caste of society, and oft detailed their plight, rebelling against the image of the optimistic American middle class nuclear family propagated and retrospectively associated with the 1950s.
Naked Lunch is, quite possibly, the darkest work of art to emerge from the Beat generation (and that’s saying something – read: Howl). A lot of the novel was based off of real-life experiences had by Burroughs, a Harvard educated man born into affluence who cast it all aside when confronted with the realities of underground life in America. Early on, he became addicted to numerous drugs, most notably heroin, and cheated on his wife with various men – an act punishable by law at the time. He eventually ended up losing custody of his son when he killed his wife by shooting her in the head (a pretty reasonable reaction, in all fairness) – an event which would change his life and spurred him to write, in a way, to rid himself of his inner demons. About fourteen years later, Naked Lunch was published.
How do I explain this?
Naked Lunch doesn’t make sense.
It’s not supposed to, in all fairness. It follows the life of William Lee (a pen-name often used by Burroughs), a drug addict who flees the US and escapes to Tangiers, wherein he visits numerous unsavory clubs and is transported to the lands of Freeland, Annexia and most notably, the Interzone, the latter of which is where the really weird stuff happens. During his various adventures(?), Lee gets all kinds of high on all kinds of drugs, which seem to distort reality and call into question the veracity of what the hell is going on.
That is the most accurate description I can give of the events. Believe me, it’s pretty complicated.
Why won’t you be tested on this?
Short answer: because its disturbing.
Long answer: Naked Lunch takes place from the perspective of a heroin addict, and a lot of the novel is distorted due to the various effects of the drug. Additionally, people who take heroin tend to get themselves in with bad people and bad situations, and this novel is no exception. Everything from killing and eating newborn calves to raping and murdering children, and all in a semi-hallucinatory state turning everyone and everything into abstract, grotesque Cronenberg fetishes.
The fact that the novel was made in a ‘cut-up’ style – a confusing but coherent writing technique – also turns off many teachers, as students may simply just get confused by the work.
William S. Burroughs wasn’t trying to create a coherent narrative. He deliberately designed the novel so that one could rearrange the chapters in any order and the novel would still make as much sense – which is to say, none. This style confounds the reader, as they are left wondering what the hell is going on, which both places the reader in the mindset of a heroin addict who is losing their grasp on reality and in a state paranoia. Because the reader won’t know what the hell is coming up next, they’re made to be more fearful, which in turn helps the reader identify with a character who’s opening paragraph includes homophobic slurs and talk about something called a ‘narcotics dick’.
The novel itself is actually intended to offend as many people as possible. By using oft confusing yet somehow disturbing language, Burroughs makes the reader both discombobulated and afraid, feelings often felt by heroin addicts. In fact, the title itself, Naked Lunch, is meant to be an offensive yet necessary message. Burroughs meant ‘naked’ as in unobstructed, a clear view at lunch, or as he put it, what’s at the end of your fork. A clear look at society, and what’s really there underneath all the optimism and lies of everyday life (especially everyday life in the 1950s).
Why should you read it?
Despite the many changes shared by the world since 1959 (that whole Soviet Union thing comes to mind) there’s still a lot about life we don’t talk about because we don’t want. We could talk about the obvious unaddressed problems like racism and injustices and all that, but there is a lot more we really don’t pay attention to because the subject is just too sensitive – namely, the lives of drug addicts. The fact that Naked Lunch can still disturb us today means we still haven’t reconciled with our ignorance of the underbelly of our so-called enlightened world.
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