I have just finished reading Naked Lunch by William Burroughs.
As you know, I am meandering slowly through the highways and byways of various ‘Books to Read Before You Die’ lists, and perambulating through the classics in a reasonably aimless way. I am still stalled on volume four of Proust for example, and am likely to be there for some time given the fact that there are a million other more enticing books available, including the Idiot’s Guide to Home Plumbing. I picked up Naked Lunch in the library the other week and thought that surely it must be less boring than Proust?
I have read Junky by Burroughs already and thoroughly disliked it, but I was told by those in the know that in order to fully appreciate Burroughs, Naked Lunch was a must.
It seems that my role as amateur reader of weighty tomes is being doomed to be the lady who always has to look apologetic and say: ‘I’ll get my coat.’ It is rare indeed that I can like what is considered to be a ‘good’ book by people who have beards and look knowing.
This is my very roundabout way of saying that I have failed with Burroughs, utterly and absolutely failed. I am not a hipster. I am not a beatnik. I am a slightly confused middle aged lady and I just cannot get excited about this book at all.
The book, I now realise, from reading all the appendices, is not meant to be a novel, which is good, because it isn’t. It turns out to have been written (and I use this term loosely), over the space of about nine years, by Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, my neighbour’s cat, and a monkey called Dave.
Dave was in charge for much of this time.
It was then thrown into a mincing machine and stuck together by a band of clowns on acid to produce the final manuscript.
I spent the first sixty pages scratching my head and wondering if I was ever going to figure out what was going on, until I realised that the entire meaning was that I was not meant to figure out what was going on.
It is the lubricious meanderings of a drug and alcohol filled consciousness, scrabbling through the abyss of addiction and trying to make it seem damn cool, sexy and edgy, while actually showing it for the utter boring horror show it really is.
If you want to know what addiction is really like, wear the same clothes for twelve months, sitting in a bucket of dung whilst covered in open sores, watching Homes under the Hammer on endless repeat. Nod off occasionally, jerk awake, shout ‘fuck me that was tedious’ spend five minutes worrying about being nicked, nod off, rinse, repeat.
If you are William Burroughs, and you want to be published, you will realise that this is even more boring than it sounds, so to make it seem cool, and in the hope it will get banned, thus fostering the assumption that anything worth banning must be a) exciting and b) the work of a misunderstood genius, intersperse the above with long and rambling necrophiliac homoerotic porn fantasies and the word fuck.
It is my belief that William Burroughs was a very dull child, whose parents mostly kept him in the cupboard under the stairs, allowing him out only to endure long afternoons of playing cribbage and/or beggar my neighbour. He grew into a very dull adult, who only found an escape from the tedium of his very ordinary life by running into the tedium of the life of an addict and finally being allowed to say words like ‘shit’ and ‘arse’ without being beaten around the head with a rolled up copy of Women’s Weekly.
This went to his head rather, and it was all down hill from here on.
It is not that Naked Lunch is shocking. I am sure it was in 1959 when it was first published, but there is nothing here that has not been said more eloquently, more beautifully and with more plot elsewhere since. It is not that Naked Lunch is radical. It isn’t. Not any more. It is that Naked Lunch is boring, and I am sure, appeals mostly to people who want to think that shooting up multiple times a day, getting nicked, prostituting yourself, infecting yourself and being unable to string a coherent sentence together for days at a time is somehow a reasonably artistic, valid and culturally exciting way to spend your life.
I am not one of these people.
I am sure that in its day it was much more fun to read than say, Lassie, or Bleak House or whatever else was on offer, and I can see that other writers have been influenced by it to a greater or lesser extent, and with greater or lesser success for their own careers. But if you are reading it for the hell of it, I suggest you don’t.
What upset me more than his repetitive use of the word cunt, or his descriptions of suppurating veins and snapped necks was the fact that he uses the word innaresting instead of interesting.
I know I am the sort of person Burroughs was probably running away from when he took up his opium pipe. We were destined never to be together.