Jack Kerouac has been kind enough to supply us with a by-now stock interpretation of the title of his friend William S. Burroughs' oeuvre:
"The title means exactly what the words say: Naked Lunch - a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
This book is the result of an unusually fruitful period in Burroughs' life, after he had (accidentally)(?) shot and killed his wife and finally been detoxified (of harder drugs) by Dr. John Yerbury Dent's apomorphine treatment. Quick as a whip, he returned to his home-away-from-home Tangiers where, on a nutritious marijuana-and-coffee diet, he typed at top speed for six hours a day, not even stopping to pick up the pages of yellow foolscap manuscript as they were ejected from the typewriter, piling up in a scattered heap on the floor. This whole period is portrayed in a rather interpretive manner in David Cronenberg's movie Naked Lunch, about the writing of the book as seen through Burrough's drug-withdrawal delusional paranoia.

Upon deeming the text complete he called for his friends' assistance and in 1957 Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky arrived to help with the manuscript - no mean feat considering Burroughs' cut-up technique (dichotomyboi* would like me to note: a technique admittedly not employed until some time later -- but the germs of his post-modern approach to such bourgeois notions as a coherent narrative can certainly be observed in action here.) Ginsberg, with the further assistance of Alan Ansen, also worked six hours a day for two months putting the manuscript in order, at which point it arrived in the form of the coherent (har har) text we all know and love today.

Fearing (and perhaps expecting) censorship on account of the book's harsh language and its graphic depictions of drug use, homosexual acts and ... cannibalism, the manuscript was offered to Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press in Paris who eventually (1959, after about five years in limbo) bought the book. Naked Lunch was banned in the United States (surprise, surprise), and was only published on this side of the water after Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was cleared of obscenity charges in 1962. Though it was critically spurned (not given poor reviews, but barely acknowledged at all) Naked Lunch's reputation grew from the notoriety of its author, his association with the Beat movement and the censorship trials it faced to become one of the most important novels of the Beat era and a striking moment in American Literature today.

(Also worth mentioning: in Simpsons episode 3F17, "Bart on the Road", a posse of delinquents sneaks into this racily-titled R-rated movie. Two hours later they leave, Nelson Muntz exclaiming "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.")

* dichotomyboi says As I recollect, the typings in Tangiers were part of a larger overall work that he referred to as "The Word Hoard", portions of which became Naked Lunch. While portions of the novel feel non-sequitor, it is distinctly different from the sections of cut up prose in the Nova Trilogy. I'm currently writing a guide to reading the Novel, and all of this stuff is really fresh.

I saw Naked Lunch (the movie) when I was 15 or 16 or so. I can't recall who rented it. But there we were, watching Peter Weller (who was also in Robocop which is really about Christ and messiahs and things) in quite possibly the most fucked-up movie I have ever been privy to see.

I have not seen it since then (I am now 24 or something). Though at some point I do wish to see it again. And read the book Naked Lunch (the movie is not based on the book).

I remember a lot of bugs. And typewriters and insecticide that got you high and a lot of homosexual innuendo. And assholes that could talk.

In short, if you ever want to see this movie and you're the type of person that gets disturbed watching movies like Pi, then be sure to watch it with plenty of friends; make sure you're sober and not under any influences; and watch it with plenty of daylight. If you really get disturbed by movies like Sixth Sense (which is child's play comparitively), then be sure to schedule a good appointment with you're local clinical psychologist the following morning. And a chauffeur to get you there.

Having found Junky by William S. Burroughs quite interesting as an expository story of early Heroin addiction, I was looking forward to reading the much hyped Naked Lunch, Burroughs' most famous work.

This book is infamous for being extremely explicit and shocking, having been banned for years in the US. The book did have some rather graphical descriptions of scenes including all kinds of sexual perversions, mutation stories and strange hallucinatory experiences. While perhaps shocking to the average person back then, as a member of todays stile project reading generation, I found it no worse than the strange URL's I send to my friends for my own entertainment.

Aside from the explicitness, there are a few interesting surreal scenes such as Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk? but I found large sections quite tedious as it seemed that Burroughs was just rambling on while high.

While this book is no doubt significant as a censorship issue and a pre-sixties psychadelic novel, I did not find it particularly entertaining. If you wish to read about drug experiences, I reccomend erowid (web site), Fear and loathing in Las Vegas or PiHKAL as superior alternatives (IMO).

My first instinct in describing Naked Lunch is to say something along the lines of "It grabbed me by the balls and refused to let go," but I should probably be a little more descriptive and a little less sensational about it. To condense my feelings on the book: I found it absolutely compelling; it made me want to read it again.

I do not understand this book at all, but I feel like I am not meant to do so. There is certainly no consistent narrative (the opening section seems to be the most lucid, and even that admits no easily decipherable plot), but then there needn't be. I found the novel most rewarding when I stopped trying to figure out what in flying hell was going on and just kept reading one word after the next, not even really trying to parse sentences together into coherent thoughts. The book does not ask for in-depth understanding but for surrender to immersion in a completely alien universe. Burroughs does an excellent job of deconstructing reality to give the reader a glimpse into the fractured perceptions and hallucinations of an addict or a madman. The experience reminded me of a screening I once saw of Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial in the surrounding sense of confusion and uncertainty.

In addition to his ability to warp perception, Burroughs shows a mastery of his language. He wastes no words and really makes his English come alive. Example: "Gentle reader, the ugliness of that spectacle buggers description. Who can be a cringing pissing coward, yet vicious as a purple-assed mandril, alternating these deplorable conditions like vaudeville skits?" (He certainly has a talent for simile.) In short, his writing just sounds really good. This is a book that would read very well out loud.

Analysis of the movie, its shifting levels of reality, and questions of interpretation.

The audacity of filming Naked Lunch is impossible to overstate. David Cronenberg adapted a William Burroughs novel that is one of the most incomprehensible creations in the Western canon – a novel that has been critically lauded for nearly fifty years, but never understood. It's not in the category of mind-wandering experimental fiction to be unraveled like a Finnegan's Wake – any questions of 'correct interpretation' miss the point. Not only is there no 'one thing' that it means, it is a work that stands in absolute defiance of meaning. Burroughs didn't understand it himself. He thought he was writing something else altogether.

Art tries to interface with the mind of its viewer. In the case of Burroughs' novel, the interface is inherently defective, due to his psychotic mind-state at the time of writing. He was going through severe withdrawal from the heroin addiction that defined and delineated his life, but his writing did not suffer per se – only his reality. Burroughs' novel brought the near-journalistic, from-the-gut Beat philosophy to a world of unintelligible paranoid hallucinations. Meanings shattered, narrative escaped from rationality – but Burroughs' linguistic virtuosity and tremendous discipline held it together. Nobody can say, however, what this it is. The novel is a journalistic record of a subjective state wholly incompatible with the reader's – incompatible by necessity. It is unlikely that anyone in the position to think thoughts like these would have the capacity to read anything at all.

Filming the novel with accuracy, then, presents a problem on the level of filming Finnegan's Wake or Gravity's Rainbow. David Cronenberg, writer as well as director, responded to the challenge by remaking the script from the ground up. Rather than take closeness to the original text as his goal, he submerged his story in the tone of Naked Lunch – the seedy, unearthly atmosphere runs through every word of Cronenberg's script, as does the sense of palpable violence done to mundanity. Paradoxically, Cronenberg did more justice to the text by radically transforming it than he ever could have by following it as gospel. Burroughs' Naked Lunch is, after all, a novel that can be read equally well after tearing out every page and collating them again at random.

Cronenberg's Naked Lunch actually has a tremendous narrative thrust that's nearly straightforward. In composing the script, he drew heavily on the actual life experiences of William Burroughs while his Naked Lunch was being written. The film's protagonist, in fact, is 'William Lee', Burroughs' infamous pseudonym, and his two friends Hank and Martin are plainly the young Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. What is told here is the chronicle of William Lee: wanted for the accidental murder of his wife, he flees to the African port city of Interzone, and becomes enmeshed in an exceedingly complex government conspiracy plotted by sentient cockroaches and centipedes. (Some of this might not have happened in real life.) The unrelenting and skilful portrayal of Lee as viewpoint character keeps the viewer immersed in the story; when the plot becomes intentionally incomprehensible, Peter Weller’s performance anchors the narrative with stunning emotional clarity.

The film begins in a curiously timeless recreation of hep Fifties New York, and the bare-bones immediacy of Beat Generation living is adroitly conjured through detailed set-design and a powerful supporting cast whose belief in Cronenberg's vision is obvious. William Lee tries to pawn his pistol in one scene, for instance, whereupon the pawnbroker immediately sniffs the chamber and comments that it’s been recently fired. That man never returns to the narrative, but he knows what’s going on. He is an integral part of a world.

Two levels of reality, or more, are competing throughout this narrative, fragmenting against each other. The simplest level consists of a historical retelling of Burroughs' life: in this layer of the story, Burroughs (‘Lee’) accidentally shoots his wife when a drunken William Tell trick goes wrong. He escapes to Tangiers and hides in a crumbling hotel room, shooting a dwindling supply of heroin and hallucinating more and more as withdrawal sets in – while writing the book that was published in our reality as Naked Lunch. This 'baseline' version of the story, however, exists outside of the film – Cronenberg assumes the viewer's familiarity with these famous events from Burroughs' life, and the film makes much less sense without this knowledge. This history is treated in the film, but in varying degrees of symbol and allegory that range from merely surrealistic to out-and-out frightening. For instance, the character of William Lee is a pest exterminator by trade, not a writer. (He claims to have given up writing because it 'got too dangerous'; indeed the film makes much from associating danger with story-creation, as will be seen.) It's not heroin that Lee injects, but a cryptic yellow bug-killing powder. Additionally, Tangiers is never referenced directly – it's always Interzone, a deregulated and decadent port city somehow superimposed on Tangiers. Although Interzone does not seem to actually exist, that does not prevent anyone from traveling there.

Two or more incompatible levels of reality: the or more is truly key here. The actual number of competing realities is not just logistically difficult to tally, but theoretically impossible. Logical explanations of events are undercut before the events have finished taking place. A frequent motif here is the appearance of the 'aquatic centipede', roughly six feet long and thick as a weightlifter's thigh. These centipedes are sentient beings, the ringleaders of vast conspiracies and orchestrators of an infinity of interwoven lies. They are also mindless bugs that are farmed and harvested so that their dried, powdered meat can be used as a drug. The story makes room for both of these possibilities, and each version of events has definite, real repercussions that prove it relates to the rest of the world in a way that no mere delusion could.

Early on in the film, the centipede-powder is introduced by an underworld-connected doctor, who provides it to William Lee as a treatment for addiction to the yellow bug-powder. Lee asks if there are any side-effects, and the doctor simply replies that there's 'nothing the addict won't expect'. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary – but in this story, of course, there is no ordinary to be out of. It is supremely logical here to treat one unwelcome alteration of consciousness by dropping another hallucinogen overtop it, causing the second reality to displace the first. This centipede-powder, which can only be found in the phantasmagorical altered Tangiers called Interzone, is somewhat of a doorway between layers of reality – the drug is at first synonymous with Interzone, then gradually the concepts are interwoven until the imaginary drug’s effects (or mere physical presence) seem to have dragged an imaginary city into existence.

If a person believes something in this world, or sees or thinks about it, it will likely come true. Near the beginning of the film, Martin (the Allen Ginsberg character) reads from a notebook of poems, lingering on the line Addicts to drugs not yet synthesized. William Lee is not present during this scene, but later, the line is bizarrely echoed in a plaintive letter Lee writes to Hank/Kerouac from his hotel room in Interzone – I seem to be addicted to a drug that does not exist. In another instance, the act of typing certain words is sufficient to cause a creature – a pale sort of human-centipede hybrid – to actually manifest into existence.

This film makes strenuous effort to reject interpretation as a straightforward 'reality is clouded by drug use' story. Hallucinations, here, are as valid and real as anything from outside the world of consciousness-alteration – although arguably, none of the latter exists here. Reality is contaminated by some inconceivable force prior to any mere drug. For instance, many of the characters in this film are gigantic sentient cockroaches that speak through pulsating anuses on their backs. They are also typewriters. They are both at once. It isn't a question of interpreting an ambiguous image – these creatures are unmistakably present, and they have typewriter keys integrated into their bodies. Many characters use them throughout the film in a sort of Gnostic-psychosexual communion, even creating literature by erotically massaging the keys rather than typing.

Although it's certainly tempting to dismiss the movie’s bizarre events as drug-induced phantasmagoria – since this movie’s about nothing if not altered states – but their pivotal role in 'real events' precludes this interpretation. Or rather, they're probably drug-induced phantasms, but according to the Burroughsian logic of this world, their hallucinated status gives them an increased degree of reality. Early on in the movie, William Lee’s typewriter turns into a cockroach, and begs him 'rub some of this powder on my lips' – the powder is the opiatic yellow dust that is purported to kill cockroaches but plainly works at right angles to its intention, and the lips are those of the lasciviously gurgling anus between its wings. A few minutes later, William Lee returns to his apartment, and encounters his wife mainlining a heavy dose of the same yellow powder; she asks him, using identical words, to rub some powder on her lips. This can't be taken as a mere coincidence; rather, William Lee's use of hallucinogenic drugs has given him some kind of prescience, or else the typewriter-cockroach isn't a hallucination, but a genuine being from a version of reality that somehow runs alongside Lee's fifties New York. Both interpretations, along with many others, support and negate each other at once.

But the cockroach-beings cannot be taken as creatures that put on the aspect of typewriters when they wish to remain undiscovered. One of the film’s most shattering sequences involves William Lee’s typewriter, in its cockroach form, being tortured by enemy agents. Lee recaptures the dying creature and slips it into a pillowcase, later to show this evidence to Hank and Martin (who are skeptical about the stories he relates). The pillowcase, to his surprise, has stopped containing the corpse of a football-sized cockroach. Neither, though, does he find a smashed-up typewriter, which would be the obvious consequence of the interpretation stated above. Instead, the pillowcase is full of unfamiliar drug paraphernalia.

The interpretation of Naked Lunch as a work of fantasy, horror or science fiction is likewise discouraged. This film offers no cues regarding genre, even though its quizzical, unnatural creatures and shifting redefinitions of ‘reality’ are core motifs in every literature of speculation. Although speculative works define themselves by taking similar license with biology, metaphysics and other such aspects of mundane existence, they present their created worlds as things for the understanding to engage. Naked Lunch blends the themes of the most bizarre science fiction with the phenomenology of Beat journalism. Viewers are strenuously discouraged from intellectual understanding; the only viewpoint supported by the film is a schizophrenic rush that pays no heed to any notion of the real. It is an invitation to submerge the self in madness, and ignore the consequences.

Indeed, no character ever treats the movie's events as remarkable. Nobody is surprised when typewriters grow anuses. This is one of the true brilliances of Naked Lunch: reality is mocked and twisted in near-infinite ways, and yet the world conjured is absolutely cohesive. There is any number of reasons to doubt any one interpretation of events, but the existence of events is incontrovertible here. The movie opens with a quote from Hassan i Sabbah – "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." – and maintains this motto at every point. Every aspect of the movie is on a totally equal footing, and as such, it comes together seamlessly.

Naked Lunch offers a pure visual experience to equal the narrative: everything in the camera's focus is skewed and unsettling. The detail in these scenes is tremendous, with the utterly fantastical merging fluidly with what can be taken as real (i.e. the mundane, consensually real). When ichor-dripping Mugwumps with penises for hair pop up in unremarkable New York bars, or William Lee walks into a vaguely-described 'dope factory' that becomes a sort of slaughterhouse for centipedes, the transition is absolutely smooth. This continuity is accomplished by subtly sabotaging just about every mundane thing that might be looked at. No matter what sort of scene the film presents at any given moment, the quality of light is wholly incompatible with the natural illumination that a normal world would provide. It's as if it's not even light that's illuminating these scenes, but something wholly unfamiliar. Proportions are wrong, straight lines acquire subtle tilts, and utterly ordinary objects are presented in contexts that do not make sense.

The squalling bebop soundtrack is the work of the legendary Ornette Coleman leading a powerful three-man band; much like the set design, it is thoroughly grounded in the fifties period, but simultaneously its rabid excess and surreal intensity give it a subtle wrongness that makes it the perfect fit for the skewed worlds of New York and Interzone. Due to some interesting cuts and the unpredictable nature of what makes a scene demand this jazz accompaniment, it feels as if the music itself is yet another layer of reality; when it breaks through, there is a feeling of something absolutely remarkable going on. It only comes to the surface when a scene absolutely needs to be accentuated, but whenever it emerges, it energizes the scenes with a stylish urgency.

Certainly this is an atypical film for a Canadian director – but it is an atypical creative work, period. It must be classified alongside films like Eraserhead or the Cremaster cycle, films grouped by virtue of an inherent ungroupability, outside any possible classification based on today's understanding of genre. Nonetheless, there is a sense of Canadiana here, arguably stronger than in Cronenberg's other surreal pieces. Like in many Canadian films, the setting has an incredible strength to alter the course of the story – but instead of being driven by a gas-station, a prairie village or an office building, Naked Lunch is powered by an entire world and world-view that is specific and distinctive.

Naked Lunch's narrative technique is fundamentally different even from Eraserhead, which roots its sense of unreality in a setting that is unexplained rather than inexplicable. Eraserhead is a nightmare, offering (and needing) no logical justification whatsoever for its events, whereas Naked Lunch is a bad trip -- it toys with the minds that attempt to comprehend it, forcing its viewers into convolution and ultimately paradox.

The film is not truly a monument to Canadian filmmaking, but rather the skill and audacity of Cronenberg, who is willing to use themes and topics that break free of Canada’s influence completely. The topics are protean in their breadth, and yet he manages to evolve and refine similar themes (the othering of the human body, the plasticity of reality, horror that comes from within) with every film he makes. This film acknowledges the postmodern overfascination with interpretation that marks the movie-analyzing elite, and proceeds to dismantle it. Naked Lunch cannot be thoroughly interpreted; neither can it be explained or understood. Monstrous, it rises from the text and demands to be experienced.

The Hot Shot: Burroughs’s Con Game in the Opening of Naked Lunch

William Burroughs writes, in his “Atrophied Preface” to Naked Lunch, that “Naked Lunch is a blueprint, a How-To book […] How-To extend levels of experience by opening the door at the end of a long hall” (Naked Lunch 187). 1 This is a characteristically opaque statement that leaves us with a plethora of unanswered questions: what kind of experience does Burroughs want to “extend,” and to what end? And in what sense can Naked Lunch be called a “How-To” book? Naked Lunch is certainly not, for example, a cookbook or an instruction manual or collection of prescriptions. The book does not provide us with specific rules or guidelines that one must follow; and it certainly does not simplify experience in the way that a more traditional “How-To” text (just imagine the titles—Experience Extension For Dummies; The Idiot’s Guide To Breaking Out Of Control; Blocking Telepathy Made Simple; 365 Recipes For Rethinking the World) might aim to simplify experience. Finally, in what sense can a “How-To” book help us extend the levels of experience? Indeed, the very idea of a “How-To” text seems to imply a kind of limiting of experience—a prescriptive horizon that one is not encouraged to scrutinize. This would seem to be quite the opposite of what Burroughs claims he wants his book to accomplish.

How then, are we to read this statement, and how are we to read Naked Lunch in its light? I would like to suggest that the “How-To” (or at least one of the “How-To”s) of Naked Lunch works as an anti-“How-To”—that it works precisely by working to demonstrate the limits and contradictions of the blueprints and instructions of fiction. I propose to demonstrate this by unpacking the ways in which the opening segment of Naked Lunch works within the conventions of genre fiction, while simultaneously working to explode them.

As numerous critics have pointed out, the opening of Naked Lunch reads like the opening of a traditional hard-boiled crime narrative. There are “How-To”s working here at multiple levels. For one thing, a crime story (regardless of whether it is told from the criminal’s or the detective’s point of view) usually involves the tracing or reconstruction of a kind of blueprint or “How-To”: the “How-They-Did-It” is always at least as important as the more usual question of ‘whodunnit.” 2 Furthermore, the hard-boiled crime story, in this context, is a kind of blueprint, a kind of “How-To” for Burroughs—it is one of the sets of instructions around which he builds his text (or at least this portion of his text). 3 Burroughs makes use, for example, of the familiar pulp-fiction slang, and makes use, as well, of what at a first glance certainly seems to be the familiar hard-boiled first person narrator: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves” (NL 3). This is well-established Dashiell Hammett / Raymond Chandler / Mickey Spillane territory. The use of the first person, the present tense, the comma splice, the opening in media res—these are all instantly recognizable stylistic conventions of the genre. 4 There’s even a bit of the familiar hard-boiled action thrown in for good measure: “[I] vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train […] and right on time this narcotics dick […] hit[s] the platform […] but the subway is moving. ‘So long flatfoot!’ I yell […]” (NL 3). And again, true to the conventions of the hard-boiled genre, the text authenticates its “reality” by referencing “real” geographical space, and “real” people—for example, the subway station where the narrator evades the narcotics dick isn’t just any old subway station; it’s “Washington Square Station”—and the train that he catches isn’t just any old train; it’s the “uptown A” (3, my emphases). Similarly, the “square” or “fruit” with whom the narrator strikes up a conversation is a very specific type—the type who “talk[s] about right hooks and the Dodgers, calls the counterman in Nedick’s by his first name” (NL 3); who “would stand still for Joe Gould’s seagull act” (NL 5). 5

Perhaps most importantly, the generic conventions of the hard-boiled story also serve (at least initially) as the main blueprint for the reader’s understanding of the text. That is to say: once the text has signaled that it is based on the hard-boiled blueprint—and it does this, as we have seen, immediately—we feel licensed (or, to be more precise, obliged; even forced) to interpret the text according to the conventions of the genre. Because the opening section of Naked Lunch sounds like the typical opening of a hard-boiled detective story, we expect (at some level) the rest of the text to make the typical noir attempt to “define a milieu—to bring the reader into contact with the gritty textures of a concretely imagined, peculiarly inflected, world—and to establish a perspective, by means of the cynical detective figure, from which to observe that world.” 6 We expect, in other words, a self-consistent, continuous, coherent, more or less realistic world presented to us from a self-consistent, coherent viewpoint, with which we can more or less closely identify.

And these expectations are certainly fulfilled—at least to a degree. The narrator, for example, gains our acceptance largely through his skillful manipulation of these expectations. As we’ve already noted, the use of slang—the “heat,” the “stool pigeons,” the “fruit”—both establishes a milieu and marks the narrator as “hip.” The narrator then reinforces this by quickly establishing his kinship or complicity with us, and by using this to, in effect, blackmail us into acknowledging his authenticity; his hip-ness. When the narrator describes the “fruit,” he addresses us directly: “you know the type […] a real asshole” (NL 3). We, he seems to imply, are not such “assholes” or “squares”—provided that we do “know the type” that the narrator is talking about—in other words, provided that we share his view of the world; his view of what makes a person hip or square; asshole or in the know. Well: we don’t know the type—but nobody wants to be an asshole, of course. So we decide that yes, while we’re reading this book, at the very least, we should adopt the narrator’s world view—what after all seems to be, judging from the language, a perfectly typical hard-boiled milieu—as our own. We decide, in other words, to follow the narrator’s script; to adopt his “’story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’” as our own.

But we quickly discover that we’ve been conned, from the very beginning. The “asshole” on the subway is an asshole and an easy mark for the con-man narrator because he is a “square” who “wants to come on hip” (NL 3). All the narrator has to do is to pretend to be a “character” (NL 5); to identify and act out the asshole’s preconceived notions about what a hipster ought to be, while simultaneously lulling the asshole’s suspicions by reassuring the asshole that he considers him “one of [his] own” (NL 4). Thus, for example, when he jeers at the policeman who’s been left at the subway station, the narrator is not only acting on his own impulses, but he is also “giving the fruit his B production” (NL 3). He is, in other words, acting out the “fruit’s” own B-movie derived expectations in order to later swindle him by selling him catnip in lieu of marijuana (NL 5). 7 This is precisely what the narrator is also doing to us. He lulls our suspicions by reassuring us that he considers us to be in the know (“you know the type”). We are in no hurry to contradict him: we are also squares “wanting to come on hip.” And, having shaped our expectations with his opening gambit—the hard-boiled opening—the narrator then proceeds to substitute (just as strychnine is substituted for heroin in a “hot shot” to punish the informer; just as catnip is substituted for marijuana to punish the “incautious or uninstructed”) something else in its place.

It is in this “something else,” perhaps, that we might be able to locate the “extended levels of experience” that Burroughs promises us in the “Atrophied Preface.” In the very first sentence of the book, for example, when we read that the narrator can “feel” the heat closing in, we feel compelled to assume that the narrator’s ability to “feel” the police must be metaphorical, and thus strictly in keeping with hard-boiled verisimilitude. The narrator can’t literally be able to “feel” the heat, we tell ourselves. This is impossible; it breaks all the rules. Hard-boiled heroes—Mike Hammer and Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe and the Continental Op—don’t have ESP; they just have keen senses, finely honed reflexes, and a knowledge of the working of the world. Otherwise, of course, the detective story ends before it has properly begun. 8

But that is precisely the point. Naked Lunch repeatedly signals (and punctures) the over-determinedness and narrowness of the hard-boiled generic script, staging its theatricality by deliberately departing from the hard-boiled generic conventions. The typical hard-boiled story is told in a single (implicitly heterosexual male) narrative voice that strives for verisimilitude; Naked Lunch is not. The narrator “feels” the heat because the fuzz are not, contrary to our expectations, simply typical hard-boiled cops—corrupt and fallible in a merely secular sense. Here they are actually (or, at the very least, they might actually be) demonic forces—sorcerers, “setting up their devil doll stool pigeons” (NL 3), out there “powwowing and making their evil fuzz magic” (NL 6). Their prime informant is a nightmare figure called Willy the Disk (perhaps the alter ego of Willy Burroughs / William Lee?), an embodiment of junk-hunger, “sway[ing] out on a long tube of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk” (NL 8). The narrator himself isn’t—as he would ordinarily be in a hard-boiled crime story—a private eye. Instead, he is an underworld figure: a petty criminal, a drug dealer, and a homosexual—it’s as if Joe Cairo had been substituted for Sam Spade. The policeman pursuing the narrator in the beginning wears a white trench coat, “trying to pass as a fag” (NL 3). The very slang that seems such a firm marker of the typical macho hard-boiled milieu is rendered sexually ambiguous when the narrator comments on “how many expressions carry over from queers to con men” (NL 4). And the text itself, after the first page or so, almost immediately starts to meander. Anecdote and free association and vignette multiply, becoming so much a part of the text that we quickly begin to lose sight of the story of the narrator trying to evade the narcotics squad.

In other words, the text starts to become unpredictable as we begin to lose sight of the “How-To”s of generic convention. The usual chain of association (hard-boiled language that transparently indicates the presence of hard-boiled story / plot / continuity) breaks down, and new possibilities open up. We had had reason to expect gangsters in flashy suits and sultry brunettes packing heat; a corpse or two and perhaps a corrupt city council man who meets his just deserts near the end of the book. Nothing else, after all, would really make sense in a hard-boiled milieu—nothing else would really fit the script. But with the breakdown of the script, we move from the quotidian to the unexpected—to the possibility of authentic surprise and authentic terror, unfettered by the hackneyed B-movie scripts and “How-To”s that govern “reality”—or, as Burroughs puts it in The Adding Machine, the “sequential representational straitjacket[s]” of society, reality, and fiction (The Adding Machine 62). 9

1. Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove, 2001.

2. Arguably, the detective story (or at least, the analytic detective story) itself anticipates some of Burroughs’s concerns. Clues in detective stories always have both a right and a wrong interpretation. The wrong interpretation is usually the pre-programmed response, articulated by a Watson or a Lestrade or a Hastings—the prosaic, the banal. The right interpretation is the unorthodox, “original” response, articulated by Holmes, or Dupin, or Poirot—the unlikely solution that is the only option open when all of the more easily imaginable solutions have been eliminated. In this sense, the detective story is always about extending levels of experience.

But the opposite argument, of course, could also be made, in this fashion: in the opening of a typical Holmes story, the detective will notice, for example, a pattern of scrapes on Watson's shoe, a new patina of wear on Watson's cane, a bulge in Watson's hat, and a certain paleness in Watson's complexion, and will then "deduce" correctly that Watson has had an increase in his practice (since he is keeping his stethoscope at hand in his hat at all times), that as a result the good doctor has been walking around on muddy roads, has a new servant-girl in the house who has been scraping his boots incorrectly, and has recently caught a cold that has forced him to stay indoors. But Holmes is able to make these inferences only because, in a sense, he already knows the outcome: he knows the circumstances under which a Victorian middle-class professional man has his boots scraped, the mistakes that a ill-paid Victorian lower-class serving maid is liable to make, the circumstances under which a Victorian general practitioner walks longer distances, and the place where Watson keeps his stethoscope when he wants it handy. Thus Holmes's "deductions" are in the final analysis--however brilliant--over-determined; even tautological. The analytic detective uncovers, rather than creates, meaning. No matter how scarce or obscure the clues, in the end they amount to a simple substitution code--like The Dancing Men, or the cipher from Poe’s Gold Bug--that is transparent to the trained detective. The analytic detective story works because, although every problem is inscribed in an alphabet (of bloodstains, fingerprints, footsteps, cigarette ash) that seems outré or bizarre, the vocabulary and the grammar of the language that the problems speak--the cultural/social/historical context; the milieu--is perfectly familiar and "natural," both to the detective, and to the reader. And this is precisely the kind of mechanical association between signifier and signified that Burroughs abhors.

3. That is to say, it is a program—a “routine” not only in the sense originally intended by Burroughs (a kind of comedic, vaudevillian routine)—but also in something like the contemporary sense of the computer program or routine: a set of simple textual instructions that, when followed, generate complex behavior. Here we may locate another facet of the (well-documented) appeal of Burroughs for the cyberpunk authors—in that he is disrupting and modifying the pre-programmed routines of narrative and generic convention, he is in fact prefiguring the contemporary hacker aesthetic.

4. Or rather, a kind of well-established (although not necessarily accurate) shorthand marker for Dashiell Hammett / Raymond Chandler / Mickey Spillane territory. But for comparison, try the opening of Kiss Me, Deadly: “ All I saw was the dame standing there in the glare of the headlights waving her arms like a huge puppet and the curse I spit out filled the car and my own ears.” Spillane, Mickey. One Lonely Night, The Big Kill, and Kiss Me, Deadly. New York: Dutton, 2001. 350.

5. That is to say: any con, however improbable. Joe Gould himself, as portrayed in Joseph Mitchell’s collection of essays Up in the Old Hotel, was a real-life personage who was also a kind of archetypically Burroughsian character—a Harvard-educated East Village vagabond who claimed to know the language of seagulls, and who claimed to be working on an “Oral History” of the world. The “Oral History,” of course, turned out to be a fiction (i.e., it didn’t exist); but by the time the truth came out in The New Yorker, Gould was already on his deathbed. And for the decades preceding his death, Gould used that fiction to tap the wallets of everyone from e.e. cummings to the barkeep at McSorley’s—it was, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s description of Naked Lunch, an endless fictional project that drove everyone mad. Arguably, Burroughs is imagining Joe Gould as a kind of predecessor, in much the same way that he later imagines Captain Mission as a predecessor.

6. Novak, Phillip. “Hard-Boiled Histories: Walter Mosley’s Revisionist Eye.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 2:2 (2003).

7. Although it must also be said that the narrator himself seems to harbor the same B-movie expectations. For example: “I can hear the way [the cop] would say it holding my outfit in his left hand, right hand on his piece: ‘I think you dropped something, fella.’” But it is perhaps the case here that the narrator merely expects the cop to adhere to his hackneyed B-movie script.

8. Imagine: Detective Clarence Voyant arrives at the crime scene in rumpled fedora and yesterday’s suit, yellow trench coat stinking of cheap Scotch and cigarettes. He doesn’t even bother to look at the corpse. He simply pronounces his infallible verdict—“I can smell it from here. It was the wife who did it, for the insurance money. Only she isn’t really his wife, and she isn’t really a she, anyways—the real wife ate a hot shot five years ago and her twin brother took her place… Ever see a hot shot hit, kid?” End of story.

In order to keep this scene (or something like it) from being the end of the story, I for one found myself automatically trying to devise a more naturalistic explanation of the narrator’s “feel” for the heat. For example, I found myself playing the scene in the movies where you see the protagonist walking down a busy street—cut to close up of a face that tracks his motion—disreputable looking man leaning on lamppost pushes himself off, lazily, and starts walking—cut to close up of protagonist, three quarters back-turned—he slowly, barely perceptibly turns his head so that you can see him in profile—he knows he’s being tailed—etc., etc., etc.

9. Burroughs, William. “The Fall of Art.” The Adding Machine. New York: Seaver Books, 1985. 61-5.

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