Decoding Naked Lunch
I made a promise to myself during the pandemic to finally read all those books I had been buying and placing on my shelf. Online, brick and mortar, used bookstores, thrift shops, garage sales, trash bins. Stacks and stacks of them that I shift around on shelves and rearrange in boxes. I’d always meant to get to them at some point and being trapped inside my house for months without much else to do seemed like one of those points. I had played all the video games I could stand for a while. I had binged on all sorts of television. I had cleared my Netflix queue. And so, like the junkie I was, like I vowed I would never become again, I turned back to reading, making lists of all the authors I enjoyed and began running down their bibliographies in chronological order.
One of those authors is William S. Burroughs, the outlaw beat writer with a checkered past, author of the notorious Naked Lunch, the postmodern classic written during his time in Tangier attempting to kick his opiate habit. A real junkie, not the kind we kid around about today. Naked Lunch is a loosely collected series of vignettes ranging from the obscure to the obscene, based in part on his life in Tangier, repackaged as a frenetic stream of consciousness vomited onto the page. The novel has had mixed reactions over the years, with many readers finding it too grotesque and/or obscene, and many critics divided on its postmodern format. But Naked Lunch did have the full support of many writers when it required defense in obscenity cases after its publication. It would be influential to the rest of Burroughs’ thematic output and cut-up style and the larger subcultures of the 1960s. Naked Lunch would continue to influence people today, including yours truly.
I come back to the novel every now and again in my life, as a sort of litmus test to see if my exposure over the years has revealed any new insights. My most recent reading got me thinking about my relationship to this work, from my first exposure with David Cronenberg’s film adaptation, followed by one of his spoken word albums, my first formal reading after college, all the way to today. So, come with me down memory lane while I explore what it is about Burroughs that has captivated me all these years.
Naked Lunch (A Film by David Cronenberg)
My generation grew up around the television. My earliest memories revolve around that glowing screen in its many forms, watching an adaptation of Frankenstein on a black and white countertop set in our kitchen while slurping shrimp flavored ramen noodles, the endless hours of morning and afternoon cartoons, and the many evenings we would gather around the set to watch whatever the media gods had to offer us. Our family didn’t have a lot of money, but we did have a television and found plenty of reasons to sit before it. It was my first addiction, if you don’t count the second-hand cigarette smoke which permeated the air, or the sugar and preservatives being force fed in all the packaged and canned food. Why do you think they call it junk food?
We had basic cable installed at some point, first pirated from our landlords, then installed professionally by the media pushers in our new home. Basic cable brought a sea change to our media habits. We didn’t watch things together anymore but started watching programs on our own, diving into separate content as it became more tailored, designer drugs manufactured for that specific media kick. I started mainlining music videos, eager to define my musical taste in whatever ways MTV found acceptable, moving on to buying cassettes and CDs to feed a second addiction with what little money I could scrounge up.
Once I figured out that game, I turned to movies of all sorts. The higher production values meant higher costs but also bigger kicks. My uncle hooked me on those, taking me to theaters, then eventually everyone started making their own collections at home or renting the latest movies from the local certified dealer. I spent entire weekends watching late night films and rentals with friends, an almost permanent background noise for our weekend nights.
But what I really yearned for was that premium fix, which only came a few times per year. Premium cable was a luxury we couldn’t afford, but I loved taking advantage of every free week we got, because these films didn’t have commercials and weren’t edited and had violence and swear words and softcore pornography. Everything a teenage boy was looking for before they had a driver’s license. I’d comb through the TV Guide looking for films to watch, especially those films playing late at night with suggestive descriptions. So, when I saw a film called Naked Lunch, somewhere between 1992 and 1993, I waited patiently for everyone else to go to bed upstairs so that I could head downstairs to watch the film. And boy, I was in for a surprise, almost a full shock to the system.
Cronenberg’s film isn’t really an adaptation of Naked Lunch so much as a film about the making of the novel itself. Peter Weller plays William Lee, a fictional version of Burroughs, who meets with fictional versions of Jack Kerouac (Nicholas Campbell as Hank) and Allen Ginsberg (Michael Zelniker as Martin) in New York. Lee is an exterminator, who gets high on the poison used to kill bugs, causing him to kill his wife Joan (Judy Davis) in an ill-advised William Tell re-enactment, a tragic part of Burroughs’ real life. Lee flees to Interzone as a writer or an agent of some kind, to manage the loss of his wife and to kick his junk sickness. Imagine my surprise seeing the actor who played Robocop starring as William Lee. Famous characters like Kiki and Dr. Benway appear, and the whole story drifts from one surrealist scene to another, with incredible practical effects of the various grotesque creatures described by Burroughs in the novel.
Definitely not the story and content I was looking for, aside from one scene where Hank is screwing Judy on the couch while Martin recites poetry. I sat transfixed for the nearly two-hour running time not sure what to make about what seemed to me like a bunch of tantalizing content thrown together purely to excite the male adolescent senses. No pause or rewind buttons on live cable in those days and I hadn’t thought to stick a tape in the player to record it. I had questions that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be answered by school or city librarians afterwards. Bookstore owners didn’t have the novel in stock and weren’t exactly eager to order the book for a teenage boy. I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask my mother for a copy to see what I was missing. And I didn’t have the Internet to track down the answers myself.
I saw this film once almost by accident and thought I would never see it again, and in fact didn’t until watching it to prepare for this piece. But like all things at that age, I quickly forgot about the film and moved along to the next film. After all, I had an addiction to maintain.
Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (An Album with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy)
My next encounter would happen a few months later. I can’t place the actual date or time, nor is it important. By this point I had three media fixes to maintain: television, music, and movies. A part-time job allowed me to really feed the habit, subscribing to BMG, Columbia House, and the Anime of the Month club. I even started getting unsolicited movies in the mail from producers, dubbed copies of martial arts films being considered for distribution. I had always thought they had just mistaken me for my father, who had moved out by this time, but now I’m not so sure.
Looking back, my new theory is that they found out I saw the film adaptation. Maybe one of my friends had ratted me out to their parents. Maybe the rural librarians and bookstore owners passed word back to their control agents, sending word to open the hoses on new garbage media repeating the same stories with different characters. That’s why the worldwide underground media resistance dispatched a Scandinavian agent in the form of a Norwegian exchange student to our backwater farm town. Small rural towns in the early 1990s were starved for culture. Whenever a new person moved in or an exchange student came to live, everyone gravitated to the novelty. This student (or agent) lived conveniently with someone within or at least adjacent to my friend group. We hung out quite a bit for a while.
At one gathering everyone had brought together music we had gotten from illicit sources. My father was passing me cassette mixtapes from Chicago DJs, including bands like Lords of Acid and 2 Live Crew. Others had hip-hop albums and bass mixtapes, testing the lower registers of stereo systems. The exchange student sticks a CD in the player and these hip-hop beats and an old guy reading stories from a book called Naked Lunch start pouring out the speakers. I went nuts, because like Steve Rogers, I understood the reference! We went back and forth about insect typewriters and six-foot aquatic centipedes to the alienation of everyone else. He lent me the CD so I could make a cassette copy, but I ended up keeping the CD right up until the day he left to head back to Norway.
Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales is a spoken word album featuring William S. Burroughs reading segments of his work from throughout his career, laid over soundscapes and beats by a little-known hip-hop duo called the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, comprised of Rono Tse (producer and drums) and Michael Franti (vocals and instruments). Yes, the same Michael Franti currently making feel-good rhythm rock with Spearhead. The Disposable Heroes would break up shortly after putting together this album with Burroughs. I ran down their first album, Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, which had one major single called “Television, the Drug of the Nation”, which became its own sort of wake-up call for my television habits.
I think I listened to Spare Ass Annie once a day for two months straight. When I had to give it back, I went to the college record store where they were happy to order me a copy. Every track was helping me understand what I had seen and heard in the film. The beats and sound engineering were secondary, but they did help with digesting the words, you dig, like sugar and medicine. Everything from “Spare Ass Annie” (a descriptive collection of grotesque human-animal hybrids) to “The Junkie’s Christmas” (which I named a story after) to “Did I Ever Tell You About the Man That Taught His Asshole to Talk?”, which Peter Weller recites in the film during a car ride. No one else I knew cared for the album, many found it offensive or laughable. But between the incredible engineering, dope beats, crazy spoken word, and Burroughs’ hypnotic voice, it would define a great deal of my musical taste while further establishing my love for some guy named William S. Burroughs.
Naked Lunch (A Book by William S. Burroughs)
It occurred to me very briefly when I turned eighteen that I could just run out and buy a copy of Naked Lunch if I wanted to, but in our part of the country, it felt as socially awkward as buying a box of condoms. I had a lot going on my senior year of high school, preparing to escape the small-town hell I had suffered and been bullied through my entire life. Between graduation, finding summer employment, and moving to another state, not to mention seeing friends and family, I didn’t have much time for myself, even if all those events were about me.
University life came with its own demands and vices. I was working hard in my classes, busy exploring and discovering the new ideas and worlds opening before my eyes in every course. I was also picking up a couple new addictions: cigarettes and binge drinking. I still remember my first college party, an all-you-could-drink basement party where I began losing every gain I had made attempting to get away from home. Halfway through college I began working 30–40 hours a week on top of a full credit load, to pay for college and living expenses, which cut way into my personal time. The smoking and binge drinking got worse. It wasn’t hard to see I was turning into what I had tried to run away from.
Five years at college passed swiftly, and a lot of things happened to me in 2001. I graduated college which freed up an enormous amount of my time, despite still working full-time for the university. I was following some leads for consulting gigs, and had a wedding planned for midsummer, which I was looking forward to very much. We were moving out to Denver after that. But for about two months I had nothing to do but wrap up things at work, while graciously staying at a friend’s apartment without a television while they were back home in Lebanon visiting family. I had the radio (where I discovered a love for audio dramas) and whatever else I could find to entertain myself. Since all my possessions had been moved back home temporarily for the final move to Denver, I had very little to do, and with some vices like television and movies gone, that made other vices like smoking or drinking more tantalizing. I was trying to be done with all that.
So, I caught a ride with a friend over to the nearest commercial bookstore and went book shopping. I had decided that I would read all those books I had always wanted to read or felt I should read or have read in college. The final list included a lot of authors a young, white, college-educated man would read: Umberto Eco, Jack Kerouac, H.P. Lovecraft, and finally, a copy of Naked Lunch. I had a steady routine those almost two months. Work for eight hours. Come home. Make food. Read while listening to classical or jazz music on the radio. I went through the Lovecraft reader quickly, enjoying the selections and finally understanding the value of a reader. I read On the Road with all the awe and wonder Kerouac’s word jazz has to offer. And then I read Naked Lunch which told me that I didn’t understand the novel or maybe even William S. Burroughs at all.
Naked Lunch starts out accessible enough, focused mostly on junk addiction and withdrawal at the beginning before sliding into a more scientific, bureaucratic critique with the famous Dr. Benway. After watching Trainspotting and a few other drug-related films, I was enjoying it while learning how to read postmodern beat literature. Then came some of the grotesque parts featured in the film and on the album, which had all the fascination of a circus side-show, and exactly what I had signed up for, especially after being frustrated with Lovecraft’s “unexplainable explanations”.
But then Kiki shows up on the page, with the amorphous protagonist getting involved in many lurid and sensual straight and gay affairs, and a tense sequence where one variant, Carl Peterson, is being interrogated about his homosexual feelings. Neither the film nor the LP really delved into Burroughs’ personal life as an outspoken gay man. Cronenberg’s film does feature Kiki but stops at the level of insinuation about his relationship with Burroughs/Lee. Peter Weller fails to even remotely capture a real feeling of love between Lee and Kiki in the brief scenes they share. Not a single mention of gay culture in the album I had. Apparently intravenous drug use, homicide, genocide, and murder were okay for the censors in 1991, but not any of Burroughs’ struggle with homosexuality in an unforgiving world.
Queer studies were just going mainstream at universities, so I didn’t really have a way of understanding whether Burroughs was mocking gay culture or being subversive about how society reacts to gay culture. I grew up in an openly homophobic town, the kind where everyone calls things gay when they don’t like them or when things don’t go their way. Or plays “Smear the Queer” at recess, shoving the ball into the hands of whomever they wanted to teach a lesson. The kind of town where I was called an “Amish Faggot” by players and coaches after trying to grow out a beard with long hair. Reading Naked Lunch was my first real exposure to gay culture at all, and as you might imagine, I didn’t have many good impressions at all.
The novel also deals graphically and pejoratively with race relations, but his output made more sense upon reading the introduction included with my 1990 edition of the novel, featuring commentary from the obscenity trial regarding Naked Lunch and testimony from Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. One of Burroughs’ techniques is to take social concepts down the slippery slope into absurdity to point out the ugliness of American society. I was able to see where he was going with the concepts, especially after watching my hometown struggle with the arrival of our first black family and the presumption of gang activity for the few Chicano/Latino families. I understood the point, even if in retrospect after a lot of anti-racist education, I can see it has a lot of classic problems with white privilege and perspective.
After finishing Naked Lunch I realized that Burroughs had suddenly become more of an enigma to me than ever before. I was shaken to my core because I had expected drugs and the grotesque, then suddenly had several social and sexual issues dropped into my life, most of which I wasn’t ready to even consider, let alone deal with coming right out of college and heading into a new career, marriage, and home. But I also had enjoyed the reading the work, despite it being challenging and uncomfortable, and was intrigued enough to seek out more, the latest in a series of media addictions.
The next dozen or so years are a blur when it comes to Burroughs. To be honest, I was doing more collecting than reading, picking up copies of his work wherever I could find it. Internet shopping wasn’t as extensive quite yet for rare books and stores were only interested in moving product currently in print and available from distributors. Nevertheless, between visits to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and a few used bookstores around Denver Metro, I was able to build up a substantial collection of Burroughs works I would read every now and again on my flights to and from Los Angeles.
Burroughs’ acerbic style was exactly how I was coming to view the world expanding in the Bush/Cheney decade. While the masses of people around me were spiraling into a fervent nationalism over 9/11, I was listening to Democracy Now and questioning the role of the United States as the sole superpower left in the world. I saw much of what I was reading in Burroughs work reflected back once again in contemporary society, and my hunger for his insight grew. Burroughs found patriotism to be disgusting, especially in the United States after its history of genocide and violence. I found myself coming to the realization that patriotism and nationalism were just two sides of the same coin.
I spent time in Los Angeles running down copies of his other material, particularly more of his spoken word albums and used copies of his rarer written works. Reading Burroughs after listening to his voice helps to pick up the intonation and cadence of his work. It’s not something you speed read to get the best effect, but more like relaying a story to someone sitting next to you, told slower and with subtle emphasis. Finding these DVDs, CDs, and albums in record stores helped to teach me just how influential Burroughs had been in the larger culture, and specifically which aspects the larger culture liked about him. Lots of his commentary on governments, religions, and drug addiction get a spotlight, appealing to the usual underground scenes and figures. Generally, very little about his thoughts on race relations and sexuality.
Burroughs was also into witchcraft and chaos magic, perhaps halfheartedly, perhaps seriously. I had dabbled with Wiccan and Neo-Pagan beliefs in college as part of my exploration, so I always found these references particularly interesting. One of the weirdest things I had ever watched was an early 1900s Swedish documentary on witchcraft called Häxan, which was later recut in the 1960s with Burroughs as narrator and Jean-Luc Ponty playing instrumental jazz as background. Burroughs also had a long-time love for science fiction, especially towards the end of his life. He wrote a treatment of Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner, which was going to be adapted as a movie, but ultimately turned into a novella by Burroughs called Blade Runner (a movie). The book was optioned by Ridley Scott to use as the title for his famous film based in Dick’s work that has spawned a franchise. Burroughs even read recordings of Poe’s work for a game called The Dark Eye.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to learn about William S. Burroughs was his experiments with the cut-up method of media production. Burroughs and Brion Gysin would take recordings of various people or places, then run them back at random to cut in other audio sounds between and on top of those audio tracks. This method was used for both audio recordings and for written works, cutting up sentences and paragraphs to smash them together elsewhere. His Nova Trilogy is actually three separate stories cut and re-cut together, then recombined over three separate books. This technique, especially with audio files, effectively becomes a prototype for sampling and looping within hip-hop and electronic music production. I wouldn’t say Burroughs helped invent the remix, but he did influence a lot of people who might be said to have done just that.
Letters to Allen Ginsberg 1953–1957 (A Book by William S. Burroughs)
The pandemic brought renewed interest to reading Burroughs. I have been tracking down the more obscure, but still relatively available works via book arbitrage for the past few years, reading them in chronological order by publication date as part of my personal journey to read everything Burroughs has published. In the past year, I’ve read works such as Roosevelt After Inauguration and Other Atrocities, So Who Owns Death TV? (with Claude Pélieu and Carl Weissner), and The Retreat Diaries. All three have been eye-opening to the experimental and collaborative work during the 1960s, between the Naked Lunch/Nova Trilogy novels in the early 1960s and the London Trilogy in the early 1970s, largely fueled by the commercial success and censorship controversy of Naked Lunch. It has been eye opening to see how his style and method have evolved since his landmark work.
The most recent book I’ve read by William S. Burroughs triggered this whole reflection. Letters to Allen Ginsberg, published by Full Court Press, collects letters from Burroughs to Ginsberg, Kerouac, and others during his time in Tangier attempting to kick his junk sickness, including writing samples that would later be included into Naked Lunch. The letters provide perhaps the best way to unlock and understand Naked Lunch as a book about a man coming to terms with twenty years of junk sickness, struggling again and again to kick the habit, and taking out his frustrations on whomever or whatever might be around.
Reading this work really affected me. I’ve been off alcohol and cigarettes for close to seven years, dropping them after watching what their long-term use was doing to my family and friends. I went cold turkey when I did it, during a period in my life when I was experiencing harassment at work and struggling with my family relations. I remember having a nasty temper, snapping at people, and having difficulty making sense of my life. I don’t pretend my addictions are even remotely the same as Burroughs, nor came with the same intensity for withdrawal, but having similar experiences helped me find new meanings within Naked Lunch and the rest of his work.
You can hear Burroughs quietly crying for help in every letter after every relapse, but you can also better understand some of the references in Naked Lunch to real events happening around him. Burroughs talking about his living situation with Kiki gives real depth to his struggle with his homosexual feelings in a world that largely hates him, a feeling Kiki knows well in the growing Arab nationalism of Tangier. Burroughs lives through a couple nationalist riots, barricading himself in for a couple armed with a pistol or shotgun, lamenting the loss of freedom that nationalism would bring while understanding the struggles and perils of at least some aspects of colonization. It leads to a disjointed admiration/disgust for Islam as a religion and culture, which he sees perverted by the people and parodies by creating the mysterious Islam Inc. in Naked Lunch, another portion of the novel that I had no basis for understanding the first time I read the book. It has also become one of the less desirable portions of the novel on this most current re-read.
Events and news in his letters become the basis for some of the more famous characters and routines in Naked Lunch, which also bleed into his later works, most especially the Nova Trilogy which is a sort of sequel to Naked Lunch if such a thing is possible. Some letters include writing samples that Burroughs famously said he didn’t remember writing and later less famously said he didn’t remember feeling because of the junk sickness, including the original version of “Did I Ever Tell You About The Man That Taught His Asshole To Talk?” In Cronenberg’s film, fictional Kerouac and Ginsberg show up to help Burroughs put together the novel from the letters he had been sending, which is very much like how Letters to Allen Ginsberg ends. I suspect Cronenberg used these letters as source material for his film’s story.
Naked Lunch Decoded
Once I finished Letters to Allen Ginsberg, I decided to dip back into Naked Lunch as a novel and as a film. The film had to be purchased from The Criterion Collection, which includes some nice bonus features, but I learned in the process that the film tanked on release and is not available for streaming anywhere. The book I had on my shelf. Reading the book this time was an amazing experience, now that I had the letters to serve as a decoder ring. Many vignettes and routines I could relate back to specific letters, and the whole novel felt laced with the latent anger and frustration of junk sickness. It’s a powerful, reactionary work of genius, in the most classic senses of every one of those words. It is also a work that can only exist in its own time, despite its influence echoing through the decades.
After reading both works, and rewatching the film, I think Cronenberg had it right to make the film as a surrealistic writing of Naked Lunch. Thematically the film was already on the edge of acceptability for 1991, so it is no wonder many portions of the novel were left out of filming. However, I want to see the film re-written as a limited series, as an historical adaptation of his real-life events cut through with hallucinogenic scenes as imagined in the novel. A version that leans into his sexuality and re-creates the absurdist vignettes in graphic detail. Absolutely nothing in Naked Lunch would be considered out of bounds in modern film, television, or the weird streaming spaces in-between.
In some ways, my life has been one big quest to decode Naked Lunch as a work and in coming to do so, I had to learn a lot about William S. Burroughs as a person. Without that all-important context, the real value and meaning of his most personal work is completely lost to most, easily dismissed as pulp fiction or other literary undercuts. For me, it had remained a foggy, indistinct notion of identity and social critique, which only came alive with subsequent readings. If anything, I’ve learned that one doesn’t have to like a work in order to appreciate it, and as time goes on, there’s a lot to appreciate about Naked Lunch, once you know how to interpret it. It has been one of the best fixes of my life.