Thursday, November 30, 2006

Writer's Corner: William S. Burroughs

This is week two of the Beat Generation focus in the writer's corner, and this week features one of the most mysterious figures in modern history, William S. Burroughs. In an article in Salon Magazine in 1997, Richard Kadrey had this to say "For nearly half a century, he infected our literature, seeding it with his obsessions, suspicions and passions". The key word is infected, but more accurate word may be destroyed. His most famous work is "Naked Lunch", which was made into a movie in 1991, and follows the life of a bug exterminator who gets addicted to the chemicals that he uses on the job. It was that addiction that gave the novel a persistent sense of paranoia. Here is the opening line of "Naked Lunch", "I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station". I believe it was his own personal addictions that allowed this fear and despair to creep into his work. Burrough's always focused on the underbelly of society, and glorified the "Junkie" at every turn. In a case of fact stranger than fiction, Burroughs shot and killed his common law wife in 1951, while attempting to emulate William Tell.

Burroughs most fascinating contribution to the literary world was the cut-up style of prose. There is always a fine line in art between genius and absurd, and Burroughs stumbled along that line in haze. The cut-up style is basically taking an existing piece of writing, cutting it into pieces with a word or a few words per piece, and then rearranging the text to create a new text. The result is a nonlinear work that is quite difficult to read. JG Ballard said this about the style "I think his whole cut-up approach was an attempt to cut through the apparent manifest content of language to what he hoped might be some sort of more truthful world".

Here is a except from the cut-up work Nova Express:
Nothing here now but the recordings may not refuse vision in setting forth -- Silence -- Don't answer -- That hospital melted into air -- The great wind revolving turrets towers palaces - Insubstantial sound and image flakes fall -Through all the streets time for him to forbear - Blest be he on walls and windows people and sky -- every part of your dust failing softly - falling in the dark mutinous "No more" -- My writing arm is paralyzed on this green land - Dead Hand, no more flesh scripts -- Last door-Shut off Mr. Bradly Mr. -- He heard your summons - Melted into air - You are yourself "Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin - "all the living and the dead - You are yourself -- There be -- Well that's about the closest way I know to tell you and papers rustling across city desks . . . fresh southerly winds a long time ago. (NE, pp. 186-87)

Here is Burroughs' personal take on the process.

Was he a genius or just a junkie? I don't know, but he was an interesting figure and a key part of the Beat Generation.

See Also:
Firehorse page

Klaxons - Atlantis to Interzone (Klix Klax Remix) (mp3)
Matmos - Rag for William S. Burroughs (mp3)
William S. Burroughs - You Got Any Eggs For Fats? (from Naked Lunch) (mp3)

Painting by Jenny Long (she does incredible work!)