Welcome to Interzone: On William S. Burroughs' Centennial

By Sand Avidar-WalzerJanuary 31, 2014

Welcome to Interzone: On William S. Burroughs' Centennial

Naked Lunch
The Ticket That Exploded
The Red Night Trilogy


Gilt and red plush. Rococo bar backed by pink shell.  The air is cloyed with a sweet evil substance like decayed honey. Men and women in evening dress sip pousse-cafés through alabaster tubes. A Near East Mugwump sit naked on a bar stool covered in pink silk. He licks warm honey from a crystal goblet with a long black tongue. His genitals are perfectly formed — circumcised cock, black shiny pubic hairs. His lips are thin and purple-blue like the lips of a penis, his eyes blank with insect calm. 

— William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch


THE RECENT PASSING of Lou Reed resurrected the old quip by Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground — that hardly anyone bought their records, but everyone who did became a musician.  William S. Burroughs, born 100 years ago today, may well be the Velvet Underground of American literature. A writer of vivid, hallucinatory prose works swimming with drug use, queer sex, and sci-fi viscera, Burroughs has always been an author whose name is dropped more often than his books are picked up. Still, in the second half of the 20th century, few figures had such a pervasive effect in virtually every field of culture from the most rarified avant-garde to the massively popular.

Writers stamped with his influence include J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Alan Moore, Lester Bangs, Dennis Cooper, and William Gibson, but his impact extends far beyond the literary. Burroughs collaborated with the painter Brion Gysin in Paris and London in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the 1980s embarked on his own painting career (the sneers of the art establishment deterred his painting roughly as much as the sneers of the literary establishment had deterred his writing; like the innumerable cultural icons devoted to his work, Burroughs was not the type to be impressed by the fussy incomprehension of the New Yorker set).  With Robert Wilson and Tom Waits, he created the musical The Black Rider.  His writing is a regular touchstone for the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, especially in his collaborations with Felix Guattari. His works include two experimental films co-directed with Antony Blach in the early ‘60s, and it’s hard to imagine the visceral visual language of filmmakers like David Cronenberg without Burroughs’ splattery corporeal imaginary; in 1991 Cronenberg attempted a bold cinematic adaptation of Naked Lunch, with the author’s blessing. Almost as remarkable as his literary influence is his lasting impact on popular and experimental music. During his life, he collaborated with or was referenced by Sonic Youth, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Coil, Joy Division, Laurie Anderson, R.E.M., Blondie’s Chris Stein, and Ministry, as well as, suitably, Lou Reed and John Cale of the Velvet Underground.  Steely Dan are named after a remarkable dildo from Yokohama that features in one of the most explicit sections of Naked Lunch. The term “heavy metal music” is taken from that book, too.  The Soft Machine was a Burroughs novel before it was a British band. The “Johnny” in Patti Smith’s “Land”? That’s a reference to Burroughs’ Wild Boys.  And Burroughs’ last filmed appearance was in the video for U2’s “Last Night on Earth.” 

In the range of his influence no less than in the idiosyncratic uniqueness of his creative production, Burroughs stands less with the Beats or the postmodernists than with the restless, endless production of Andy Warhol.  The bitter irony with which Burroughs’ satiric eye surveyed the emergence of post-WWII consumer and  media culture is the inverted complement to Warhol’s gushingly enthusiastic embrace of the same raw materials. In Burroughs as in Warhol, a distance in time allows us to see the relentless exploratory drift between modes and media as a prototype for contemporary creativity, the artist not as auteur but as signature, as a distinctive style that is its own substance, gaining coherence not in the unity of its form but in the consistency of its attitude. Biographies of Burroughs often speak of his explorations in mixed media during the late 1960s and early 1970s, noting that he “only produced one major novel” in this third phase of his career (The Wild Boys, 1971). Likewise, biographers of Warhol tend to note that during the later 1960s the artist produced hardly any paintings, turning his attention to film “instead.” Though referred to as a novelist, Burroughs left behind a noteworthy archive of audio, video, and visual artistic collaborations, and his influence extends across all of these fields and beyond. “Most serious writers,” he told the Paris Review’s Conrad Knickerbocker in 1965, “refuse to make themselves available to the things that technology is doing. I’ve never been able to understand that sort of fear.”

I often wonder what a Complete Works of William Burroughs would look like; it’s hard to think of a “novelist” prior to Burroughs whose complete works would feel incomplete without both audio and video appendices (consider for example The Revised Boy Scout Manual, a novel in the form of three 60-minute audio cassettes dating to the 1970s). As we edge into the 21st century, Burroughs’ multimedia explorations seem less a digression and more a prescient openness to the aesthetic possibilities of emerging modes of communication and documentation. “I think,” Burroughs told Daniel Odier in the 1960s, “that the novelistic form is probably outmoded and that we may look forward perhaps to a future in which people do not read at all or read only illustrated book and magazines or some abbreviated form of reading matter.”

Canonized alternately between the incantatory honesty of the Beat Generation and the weighty formal innovations of mid-20th-century American postmodernism, Burroughs belongs properly to neither literary moment. Neither association does justice to the formal distinctiveness of his oevure. Burroughs is, rather, an untimely prophet of cultural production as we have come to know it: constant, but inconsistent; intimate but de-personalized; sprawling across media and emerging clearly from a single distinct person without any commitment to the inherent integrity of an authentic personality. 

A consummate icon of writerly solitude, Burroughs retained a persistently Groucho-Marxist resistance to being part of any movement that would embrace him (“I am not punk and I don’t know why anybody would consider me the Godfather of Punk. How do you define punk?”) But his aloofness is not the self-conscious aestheticism of a Pynchon or a Barth, whose postmodernism attempts to stake a place for the author’s voice outside his own writing. Burroughs stands apart from the world, not because he is above it, but because he is Over It. Burroughs may have invented Being Over It: even Sade’s most deliberately vile narrators masturbate while they speak, but Burroughs’ narrative voice sits in the corner and watches skeptically as younger men ejaculate. The real thrill of reading Burroughs comes not from the parade of grotesqueries that he relates but from the wry aloofness with which he relates them; everything is a routine, a cliché avant la lettre.  “Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?”  Look at virtually any picture of the man — decades before McKayla, William S. Burroughs was resolutely Not Impressed. 

The radical weirdness of Burroughs’ works is neither a deliberate provocation nor an artistic statement.  It emerges directly from his irreducibly distinct vision of the world. “There is only one thing a writer can write about,” he states at the end of Naked Lunch, “what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing … I am a recording instrument … I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’ … Insofaras I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic processes I may have a limited function … I am not an entertainer.” His goal was never stylistic.  Burroughs understood his own labor as documentary, not aesthetic, and as with other writers whose writings express an irreducibly unique vision of the world — Sade, Nietzsche, Kafka — part of the mindfuck is a slowly creeping realization, as you keep reading, that you’re no longer sure which one of you is crazy.   

Born in St. Louis in 1914, Burroughs was the grandson and namesake of William S. Burroughs, inventor of the Burroughs Adding Machine and founder of the Burroughs Corporation. By the time the author reached adulthood, the family had sold its interest in the company and the money was mostly gone, but a modest trust fund was Burroughs’ primary source of income for much of his life. His genteel Southern upbringing was evident to the end of his life, in a refined politeness that leavened even his most profane observations no less than in a persistent love of firearms. (Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw has been the definitive biography of Burroughs for years; I have not yet had the opportunity to read Barry Miles’ recent Call Me Burroughs). 

In New York City, in the 1940s, he first encountered the group that would later be known as the Beats  Ginsberg, in a 1976 interview with Victor Bockris, credits Burroughs with planting the first seeds of ideological restlessness in the poet’s young mind: “The thing I remember most that changed my 1940s mind and determined my own attitude was sitting around with Burroughs and his wife, Joan […] It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone presume to criticize the president of the United States on account of his mind; in those days it wasn’t done.” He soon moved on, first to New Orleans, then to Texas, and from there to Mexico City. But by the time he left New York he had acquired his addiction to opiates, which would trail him the rest of his life and take such a central place in his writing. 

His first published work was the semi-autobiographical Junkie, written under the pseudonym William Lee and published as a two-book pulp in 1953; he followed it with a manuscript called Queer that remained unpublished until 1985. These two early texts established the graphic frankness about drug use and homosexuality for which Burroughs would quickly become notorious.  Folded into what became Burroughs’ Word Hoard, entire passages from these texts were recycled for later works. “William Lee,” meanwhile, would serve as the author’s adult stand-in for the rest of his career, appearing in some form in almost all his works, along with a character usually named Kim, who stood for Burroughs’ sex-driven adolescence.      

It was in Mexico City that a drunken accident with one of his numerous guns resulted in Joan’s death; most versions of the story report that the Burroughses were “playing William Tell” when he missed the glass on her head and shot Joan to death, instead. Family connections and judicious bribery kept him out of jail, but Joan’s death initiated two habits that effectively created William S. Burroughs, the author: a restless international exile, from Central and South America, to Tangiers and then to Paris and London, and the relentless, non-linear written production that would eventually encompass thousands of pages of material, sketches and collages and cut-ups and unfinished manuscripts, a suitcase full of raw words that Burroughs called the Word Hoard, which would become the source material for much of Burroughs’ published work.  His books were assembled more than they were composed. Out of the Word Hoard, Allen Ginsberg constructed the non-linear prose machine that would be published as Naked Lunch.

Burroughs’ best-known novel is a wild ride, a disjointed trip that begins in Washington Square but soon shifts to the city of Interzone, a surreal pastiche of mid-century Tangiers in which obscure commercial interests and radical political entities with unclear agendas via for power for no discernable purpose other than to possess it. The ethos is simple – “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”  The text is composed of episodes that can be read in any order.  In a letter to Ginsberg of September 20th, 1957, he writes that “The MS. In present form does not hold together as a novel for the simple reason that it is not a novel.  It is a number of connected — by theme — but separate short pieces.” As Burroughs wrote at the end of the book in an “Atrophied Preface”:

The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement.  This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yipes and slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic […] Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word horde.

The publication of Naked Lunch, and the attempts to censor it, first brought Burroughs national attention.  In the winter of 1958–59, five of the Chicago Review’s editors left the magazine when their attempts to publish excerpts from novel met serious resistance. The complete novel was first published in Paris by the Olympia Press, in 1959, but it was the American publication by Grove Press in 1962 that led to a second, more significant wave of attention. The novel found vocal defenders in luminaries like Henry Miller and Mary McCarthy, the latter of whom published a staunch defense of the book in The New York Review while admitting that it wasn’t always entirely clear what Burroughs was up to. 

An injunction against the novel issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on grounds of obscenity, though, drew more attention than the book’s reviews.  Several times deferred, the trial of “A book by the name of Naked Lunch” was finally held in 1965; among those testifying in court as to the work’s literary merit were Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. Mailer’s testimony especially maps both the aesthetic and the emotional force of Burroughs’ prose, and, like McCarthy, he locates the text’s power in the dry affective power of its satire:

What gives this vision a machine-gun-edged clarity is an utter lack of sentimentality […] it is the sort of humor which flourishes in prisons, in the Army, among junkies, race tracks and pool halls, a graffiti of cool, even livid wit, based on bodily functions and the frailties of the body, the slights, humiliations and tortures a body can undergo. It is a wild and deadly humor, as even and implacable as a sales tax […] Bitter as alkali, it pickles every serious subject in the caustic of the harshest experience; what is left untouched is as dry and silver as a bone. It is this sort of fine dry residue which is the emotional substance of Burroughs’ work for me.

This jaded constancy is the most remarkable aspect of Burroughs’ prose. His authorial voice emerges astoundingly complete in Naked Lunch, as do the central concerns that would dominate his work until his death.  In an enthusiastic review in 1962, E.S. Seldon stated that Burroughs “is one contemporary writer who can drop dead tomorrow, confident not in promise, but in fulfillment.” The tone is not flat, but its crescendos correspond to the texture of the words, not to any element of plot or content. There is no passion, but there is genuine relish; once you’ve listened to Burroughs speak, it’s impossible to read his work without hearing an echo of his droll, drawling satisfaction. The paragraphs have a staccato rhythm that piles on clause after clause with relentless insistence, at once taut with energy and droningly detached:

In the City Market is the Meet Café.  Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up Hermaline, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit. 

The diction is an unlikely pastiche, the low-life lexicon of the addict and the criminal (“’Grassed on me he did,’ I say morosely”) filtered through the Harvard-educated sensibility of a reader of Eliot, rinsed through with a gleeful profanity. There is a wry, spare rhythm to Burroughs’ prose, consistent from his earliest letters to his very last diaries.  Its closest reference point is Raymond Chandler, if Philip Marlowe were hired to investigate a cartel of protoplasmic, shapeshifting facists and was diverted by the orgiastic ministrations of perpetually ejaculating boys. Everything is draped in thick folds of drugs and sex.  Heroin, cocaine, LSD, yage, mescaline — everything swims in a disjointed narcotic plasma. It’s hard to go more than a couple of pages without an erect cock impaling, spurting, glistening, or thrusting; like their creator, these wild boys love their guns.  What makes the text so disturbing, though, is less the persistence of sexuality than the instability of the bodies that engage in it: “Some would be made of penis-like erectile tissue, others viscera barely covered over with skin, clusters of three and four eyes together, crisscross of mouth and assholes, human parts shaken around and poured out any way they fell.” A phallus becomes a tentacle mid-ejaculation; leafy vines spring from unpredictable orifices; the symbolic line between orgasm and death is impossibly thin. The fluid, visceral corporeality of Burroughs’ graphic imagery is a preemptive formulation of the anxious biological obsessions that would come to fruition in the work of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker: infection, virality, interpenetration, admixture.

This fervently graphic obscenity, the obsessive reiteration of the same gristly themes, has been the source of much criticism. In a harsh review of Cities of the Red Night (1981), Anthony Burgess, formerly a Burroughs drinking buddy, wrote:

I have read all of William Burroughs’s work with interest and, not infrequently, profound admiration.  He is original […] Unfortunately, Burroughs’s cupboard of symbols is not well-stocked, and he becomes rather monotonous.

But the brilliance of this symbolic universe is precisely its endlessly permutating polyvalence. To say that he’s monotonous is, quite literally, to suggest that once you’ve experience your first orgasm you’ve experienced them all. 

Repetition is not an accident here; recombination, not originality, is the motor of change. How many different chemicals can be synthesized, how many different orifices penetrated, many different bodies and materials combined in an endlessly proliferating Rube-Goldberg machine of techno-bio-matter? The essence of Burroughs’ works is iteration, the recognition that like consumer culture itself, sex and drugs are less about individual events than about organization of bodies and the flow of time between them, the emotional and psychic rhythm of buildup and discharge. The addict measures time in fixes and buys; hours are replaced by the space between shots and days are replaced by the gaps between twitching, itchy meetings with dealers: “A junky […] runs on junk Time and when he makes his importunate irruption into the Time of others, like all petitioners, he must wait. (How many coffees in an hour?).” A decade before the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For My Man” Burroughs noted that “Delay is a rule in the junk business.  The Man is never on time.  This is no accident.” In Burroughs, addiction is less a metaphor than an algorithm, relentlessly spinning out variations on the same operation with slightly varying inputs and outputs: “The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below […] right up to the top or tops since there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on basic principles of monopoly.” 

Burroughs’ output predicted the affective temporalities that social networks would make ubiquitous half a century after Naked Lunch appeared:  a continuous stream of emissions less concerned with the definitiveness of any individual utterance than with the continued elaboration of a familiar presence. Either you want his ideas in your stream of consciousness, or you unfollow and hide his observations from your newsfeed. “Nothing here is more important than anything else,” stated Alfred Kazin about The Wild Boys (1971), but that is precisely the point. 

This is not to say that Burroughs’ corpus lacks internal development or variety.  In the early ‘60s, after he left Tangiers for Paris, Burroughs began his most resolutely experimental period, dominated by his concern with mechanisms of control, his interest in media and communication, and his increasingly developed theories of language. His most deliberate formal experiments, the Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, 1961; The Ticket That Exploded, 1962; and Nova Express, 1964), were created using two randomizing techniques, the Cut-Up and the Fold-In, developed with his frequent collaborator the painter Brion Gysin. 

Naked Lunch is non-linear in form, but largely as an accident of the source material from which it was constructed:  the sections of the book can be read in an arbitrary order, but retain, each within itself, a basic coherence that makes them more like vignettes or vaudeville sketches (“routines” was the word Burroughs himself most frequently used). In the experimental novels of his second phase, Burroughs strains not only against the integrity of the novelistic form but against the very coherence of words, against the enforced linearity not just of plot but of meaning itself.  Signification and representation give way to intensity and texture: “Streets of idiot pleasure — obsidian palaces of the fish city, bubbles twisting slow linen to the floor, traced fossils of orgasm […] Smile of idiot death spasms — slow vegetable decay filmed his amber flesh — always there when the egg cracks and the white juice spurts from ruptured spines — From his mouth floated coal gas and violets.”

The restless experimentation of Burroughs’ prose, in this second period especially, is not a willful opaqueness but a relentless effort to explode the docile contempt bred by familiarity, the endlessly looping film that clouds our awareness of just how terrible things already are, the mechanisms of control that makes us feverish consumers seeking satiation rather than satisfaction. The “chief value” of Burroughs’ work, wrote the critic Ihab Hassan, “lies not in atomizing language but rather in disclosing the connections between the separate facts of outrage in our time.” The multiple functions performed by every key symbol in his arsenal reveals the density of connections:  “shots” as fixes, as ejaculations, and as bullets; “works” as spoons and ties but also as publications; “junk” as heroin but also as the indiscriminate merchandise of Madison Avenue pushers.  

  Mary McCarthy called Naked Lunch the “first serious piece of science fiction,” and there’s a heavy shot of space opera in the cocktail of Burroughs’ mythology, but to Burroughs himself there was nothing fictional about the techno-logical apparatus he described. There’s an uncanny accuracy to the dystopian surreality that his works predict, from the dominance of the visual to the ubiquitous intermingingling of the corporeal and the electronic; from the overwhelming immediacy of information superhighway to the mass hysteria and mob thinking that it tends to produce. A quasi-manifesto titled “the invisible generation” appended to The Ticket That Exploded (1962) describes with eerie prescience the relentless echo chamber of a 24-hour news cycle: 

look around you  look at a control machine programmed to select the ugliest stupidest most vulgar and degraded sounds for recording and playback which provokes uglier stupider more vulgar and degraded sounds to be recorded and play back inexorable degradation […] what are newspapers doing but selecting the ugliest sounds for playback by and large if its ugly its news […] let’s bomb china now and let’s stay armed to the teeth for centuries this ugly vulgar bray put out for mass playback you want to spread hysteria record and play back the most stupid and hysterical reactions. 

Burroughs’ work in the 1960s reveals a deep investment in the radical potential of the spoken word and the projected image, both to subvert and dominate. His theories of language and communication were developed in a series of interviews and non-fiction works from the same period, most strikingly in a long essay titled The Electronic Revolution (1970). Though much more directly stated and intuitive, these theories are astoundingly similar to those being developed at the same time by the poststructuralist strand of French philosophy.  During his years in London, Burroughs’ output was largely focused on various forms of newer media, and many of his experiments in film and audio date to this period. Having exhausted the range of the narcotic spectrum several times over, Burroughs increasingly sought altered states of mind in technology, instead, and in what he saw as technology’s ability to break the cognitive stasis produced by the condition of language.

From London he returned to New York, where he lived in a converted YMCA gymnasium on the Bowery he called The Bunker. His years there are detailed by Victor Bockris in With William S. Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker. Living down the street from CBGBs, Burroughs is bemused to discover that he has become the hero of a new cultural movement. Bockris transcribes encounters with Warhol, Mick Jagger, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Susan Sontag, Tennessee Williams, and others. In 1978, the counter-cultural canonization was set in high gear by the Nova Convention, a multi-day celebration of Burroughs in various parts of New York City. Towards the end of his time in New York, and with extensive help from his friend and editor James Grauerholz, Burroughs finally completed a text he had begun years earlier in London, which became Cities of the Red Night. But the same period also saw the return of Burroughs’ opiate addiction, for which he would spend the rest of his life on a methadone maintenance program. In 1981 William Burroughs relocated one last time, from New York to Lawrence, Kansas, where he would spend his remaining years. 

With the move to Kansas began the final phase of his life, a less tumultuous period during which Burroughs embarked on a new career as a painter. The house in Lawrence became a minor pilgrimage site as Burroughs settled into his role as cult hero for the resurgent American counterculture of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. His indie cred continued to grow even as critical attention to his work faltered with the decline of literary postmodernism. He recorded with Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain, and appeared in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy.  This last period produced the Red Night trilogy (Cities of the Red Night, 1981; The Place of Dead Roads, 1983; The Western Lands, 1987) as well as a number of shorter, gentler works like My Education: A Book of Dreams (essentially a published version of Burroughs’ dream journal) and The Cat Inside, a book about the colony of felines that Burroughs adopted in his final years and which was, as Grauerholz later wrote, “the catalyst for the late-life opening of William’s tender emotions.” 

These later texts are only marginally more linear or plot-driven than the cut-ups of the Nova Trilogy; it would be hard to call them a return to convention. But something has shifted, nonetheless. The words are less weaponized.  Language reclaims its communicating function; the omnipresent urge to escape is joined by a more subtle one — to express. What makes Burroughs final novels different from his earlier works is the surprising and surprisingly powerful appearance of a previously unknown elegiac mode, still wry and perhaps no less cynical, but for the first time inclined to come to terms with the fragile, transient nature of the human experience rather than to mock and dismiss it. “The road to the Western Lands is the most dangerous of all roads and, in consequence, the most rewarding. To know the road exists violates the human covenant:  you are not allowed to confront fear, pain and death, or to find out that the sacred human covenant was signed under pressure of fear, pain and death.” The stylistic reference points have shifted: the pulps of the 1930s and 1940s which provide the earlier novels their hardboiled stock are replaced by the dime novels of the late 19th and early 20th century; street hustlers and private investigators are replaced by cowboys, pirates, and highway robbers. The urban density of Interzone gives way to a vast and lawless wilderness: “It was as though a heavy weight were pressing down on us with a persistent malevolence.  Several times the guide lost his way, and we had to retrace our steps.”

Control, the fundamental trope of Burroughs’ earlier work, is replaced by a different master symbol — Death. The fragmentary characters of Naked Lunch yearn to be free; the itinerant assemblages that populate the later novels yearn to make sense of their attempts at freedom. The Western Lands, a profoundly beautiful meditation on immortality and death, begins and ends with a solitary old writer. “Forty years ago the writer had published a novel which had made a stir, and a few short stories and some poems.” And on the last page: “The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words.” Burroughs’ earliest works describe a surreal present; those of his second phase a disjointed technocratic future. The raw material of the final novels is the past. Naked Lunch is populated by hallucinations, the Nova Trilogy by anxieties; the final novels are populated by ghosts. 

Burroughs’ last diary entry is dated 3 days prior to his passing on August 2, 1997, of a heart attack sustained the day before. Ultimately, Burroughs couldn’t escape words any more than he could escape narcotics, any more than the protagonists of his later novels could escape or master Death. “There is no final enough,” he wrote in that last entry, “of wisdom, experience – any fucking thing.  No Holy Grail, No Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict.”  One hundred years after Burroughs was born and 17 years after his death, the idea of a Master Narrative or Ultimate Truth remains just as ludicrous, but the control society he warned of is more real than ever.  The techniques he embraced and promoted — non-linearity, machine composition, fragmentary production, creative recycling — have become not only accepted but standardized, themselves folded into the ugly, looping bray he warned against. Burroughs’ undeniably crucial place in our literary and cultural history is not yet adequately attended to. What remains is a literary legend: a dry, sardonic grin and the Word Hoard in its infinite variations.  


LARB Contributor

Sand Avidar-Walzer lives in New York, where he is completing a dissertation on sexuality and ethics. His Twitter handle is @SandAvidar.


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