Burroughs: The Ultimate Outsider
William S. Burroughs lived a life of transgression and experimentation, and for this reason is loved and hated in equal measure. Like his ostensible successor, Hunter S. Thompson, the myth of Burroughs overshadows the man, causing many to overlook the work of one of the few true geniuses of 20th Century American letters.
Born in 1914 into a patrician mid-western family, Burroughs’ grandfather, William S. Burroughs I, invented and patented what became a ubiquitous brand of adding machine, and his uncle, Ivy Lee, was the founder of modern public relations and a Madison Avenue grandee.
A misfit and a brilliant student, after graduating from Harvard and pursuing postgraduate studies, he was rejected from active service in the army, leading him to drift from one meaningless job to another.
Eventually Burroughs settled in New York where he met an eclectic group of artists, peddlers and thieves who centred around Times Square and eventually became known as the Beats. Burroughs began using heroin at the age of 30, a habit and lifestyle that would define much of his surprisingly long life.
Now addicted and “working the hole” in the NYC subway, in 1947 Burroughs was arrested for forging prescriptions for morphine, leading him and his common law wife, Joan Vollmer, to flee New York for New Waverly, Texas, a dry county where the couple planned to grow marijuana.
The farm failed, and after being arrested again, this time for public indecency, Burroughs moved to New Orleans where he relapsed on heroin and was eventually arrested for possession.
Looking at a possible two year sentence in the notorious Angola State prison, in 1949 he fled the United States, not returning permanently for 25 years.
His first stop was Mexico City, where he passed his time in the bars and stalking the streets of the Roma district. This period—from NYC to DF via the southern United States—is depicted in his first novel, Junkie.
Burroughs’ debut was published after much rejection as a pulp novel, and only due to the tireless efforts of Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs’ best friend, one-time lover and life long confidant.
In September 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer went back to one of their friend’s apartments after a heavy bout of drinking. A libertarian with a frontier mentality and a penchant for guns, Burroughs told Joan “it's time for our William Tell Act”.
Joan, her own addiction (to Benzedrine) now out of control, obliged, balancing a glass on her head whereupon Burroughs raised his gun and blew her brains out.
This event would change Burroughs’ life and the course of Western literature. It was this event which painted Burroughs into a corner from which writing was his only way out.
After spending less than two weeks in jail, Burroughs’ brother arrived in Mexico, bribed the prosecuting authorities and secured Bill's release. He skipped the country, heading to Colombia in search of the drug Yage, and then set sail for Europe.
After a few months in Rome he travelled to Tangier, then an “international city” and hub for runaways and artists, especially since the publication of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, of whom Burroughs was a great admirer.
In Tangier Burroughs created his own mythology of the city—what he called Interzone—the original title of Naked Lunch. But with only a pulp novel to his name, he was initially ignored by Bowles who was busy receiving visiting luminaries like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. The latter became an arch enemy of Burroughs after his description of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, one of Burroughs’ best friends from New York as “typing, not writing.”
I wanted to meet what there was here to meet. But they seem to have scented my being different and excluded me, just all squares instinctively do. And these people, Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Capote, are just as square as the St. Louis Country Club set I was raised with, and they sensed I was different and never accepted me.
– Burroughs in a letter to Jack Kerouac.
In Tangier Burroughs became known as El Hombre Invisible, rarely leaving his decrepit room at the Hotel Muniria where he spent his days on the nod staring at his shoe, paying local boys for sex and writing the letters and short stories—what Ginsberg called “routines”—which became Naked Lunch.
In this period Burroughs met a young Canadian-English painter named Brion Gysin, a friend of Paul Bowles and the man who would prove Burroughs’ most significant artistic collaborator.
In 1958 the two moved to Paris, taking rooms in what became known as the Beat Hotel. Here Burroughs, who received a small allowance from his family, passed his days consuming mind altering drugs and experimenting with new artistic techniques, the most notable of which was Gysin’s “cut-up” method of rearranging passages of text to create new meanings, an idea borrowed from the Dadaists.
Meanwhile, Ginsberg was busy finding a publisher for the reams of paper he had collected from Burroughs’ blood stained floor in Tangier and converted into a manuscript, the pages finally finding a home at Olympia Press in Paris.
The mis-titled The Naked Lunch sold just 5000 copies in France in its first run, and was banned in many countries including Britain and much of the US. But by 1962 it was being printed in America, the experimental style and crude themes heralding the arrival of a major new artist.
As one judge said to the other: ‘Be just and if you can't be just be arbitrary.'
– William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch.
From Paris, in 1960 Burroughs moved to London to take Dr John Dent’s apomorphine cure for his opiate addiction. Burroughs found he was able to make money by publishing stories in London’s burgeoning underground presses, a large reason for him staying in England for most of the following 14 years.
In 1974 Burroughs expressed his preference for New York over London, having visited the city several times on business. Already underground royalty, he became a legendary figure of the fledgling downtown scene, befriending Basquiat, Warhol, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith, somewhat resembling the Paul Bowles of Tangier in the 1950s.
May I ask the reasons for why you are moving to New York?
Well, I like it better. New York is very much more lively than London, and actually cheaper now. I find it a much more satisfactory place to live. New York has changed; New York is better than it was; London is worse than it was.
– Burroughs in an interview with Philippe Mikriammos, 1974.
But in time he became weary of New York’s concrete and crime and in 1981, now using more heroin than ever, Burroughs decamped to Lawrence, Kansas, just a four-hour drive from his city of birth where he would spend the rest of his life until dying in 1997.
Burroughs had three distinctive phases in his career: realism, experimentalism and his final, mature phase.
His two early novels, Junky and Queer are frank, entertaining and told in a straight narrative style. Queer, written directly after Joan Vollmer’s death, is a crude example of Burroughs’ artistic potential, but it reveals a lot about his worldview.
It seemed to me that everyone in Mexico had mastered the art of minding his own business. If a man wanted to wear a monocle or carry a cane, he did not hesitate to do it, and no one gave him a second glance.
– Burroughs in the introduction to Queer.
Junky is a much more accomplished work, despite being written earlier. It is not a cri du cœur about addiction nor an attempt to glorify drug use but a dispassionate account of a life of crime in 1940s NYC, the stealing, dealing and law evasion, reminiscent of Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, one of Burroughs’ favourite books.
Burroughs’ experimental phase began in Tangier with Naked Lunch, although this, his best-known novel, defies easy categorisation. Most individual sections are conventional in terms of form. The book was sensational because of its substance, from the surreal and depraved characters to the raw depictions of sex and drug use.
The other factor which set it apart was how the book was compiled. Naked Lunch is not a novel in the traditional sense but a scrap book of vignettes and letters from a man living on the periphery in every sense—a fugitive from whole societies and his own conscience seeking escape through drugs and writing—two different but equally potent forms of stupefaction.
In the introduction to the British edition of Naked Lunch, JG Ballard says:
It is said of literary masterpieces that their genius is stamped into every line, and this is nowhere so true as it is of Naked Lunch. From its opening words we are aware that a unique world . . . is being revealed to us. Bizarre and nightmarish scenes flash by, like glimpses of some exotic and decadent city.
After the publication of Naked Lunch, Burroughs began experimenting with cut-ups with Brion Gysin, and in this period produced the Nova trilogy: The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express.
These works proved popular among many, especially musicians (Bowie, Iggy Pop and Ian Curtis). Although he used these techniques to good effect in his final, mature phase, the works produced in this period are too experimental and fragmentary for my taste. Where Naked Lunch is an explosion of characters, The Soft Machine is an explosion of words.
In his last three novels—Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands—Burroughs returned to the character driven surrealism of Naked Lunch, eschewing the postmodern word hoard of his middle period.
These books follow a cast of colourful characters across an imagined American frontier, many inspired and reconstructed from Burroughs’ childhood. The Red Night Trilogy is a full exposition of Burroughs’ talent, his worldview and his influences, the perfect synthesis of imagination, intelligence and experience.
A frequently overlooked aspect of Burroughs' work is is how funny it often is. Below is a passage from Twilight’s Last Gleamings, one of his best known stories featuring the recurrent alter ego Dr. Benway (Burroughs studied medicine briefly in Vienna):
Explosion splits the boat
Dr. Benway, ship's doctor, drunkenly adds two inches to a four inch incision with one stroke of his scalpel
"Perhaps the appendix is already out, doctor?" The nurse says, appearing dubiously over his shoulder. "I saw a little scar."
"The appendix already out?! I'm taking the appendix out! What do you think I'm doing here?!’
"Perhaps the appendix is on the left side doctor. That happens sometimes you know..."
"Stop breathing down my neck, I'm coming to that. Don't you think I know where an appendix is? I studied appendectomy in 1904 at Harvard."
He lifts the abdominal wall and searches along the incision dropping ashes from his cigarette
"Get me a new scalpel - this one's got no edge to it!"
He thrusts a red fist at her. The doctor reels back and flattens against the wall, a bloody scalpel clutched in one hand. The patient slides off the operating table spilling intestines across the floor. Dr. Benway sweeps instruments, cocaine and morphine into his satchel
"Sew her up. I can't be expected to work under such conditions!"
The Ultimate Outsider
Burroughs is often venerated or dismissed for his commitment to experimentation and transgression. But these are the least impressive aspects of his legacy. His best work is a concentration of a vast life experience and his peculiar genius, and is a continuation—rather than a conscious break—from his literary precursors.
Burroughs' best books—Naked Lunch and the Red Night Trilogy—combine the frank, hard boiled prose of Jack Black, the elliptical, colloquial style of Céline and the surrealism and consciousness-expanding motifs of Kafka. Exiles in their own societies, these writers, like Burroughs, sought consolation in art, that permanent asylum in which all patients scream the same radical message: I exist.
Burroughs' influence on popular culture—from Bowie to Basquiat to the postmodernists—is unparalleled. But he is misunderstood if not wholly overlooked by many intelligent people who are too repelled by his justly bad reputation and association with undergraduate sensibilities to experience the genius of his art.