Naked Lunch

Naked LunchTitle: Naked Lunch
Author: William S Burroughs
Publication date: 1959


It’s become increasingly difficult to pinpoint genres for the books I’m reading this year, as several of them seem to be best served by the description ‘general fiction’. As Naked Lunch kind of defies categorisation altogether (unless it is ‘Beat fiction’), I’m therefore going to stop including this element in my posts from now on. I will, however, continue to tag them with suitable keywords.

What’s it about?Naked Lunch

The novel is a loosely connected series of vignettes, which (according to the author) can be read in any order. They tell the story of a junkie, his travels around America and the wider world, and the people he encounters along the way. It is incredibly surreal.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library again! What would I do without this place?

What did I learn from it?

I learned that I should never make assumptions about a book before reading it!

I fondly imagined last year, when I successfully turned over the final page of Ulysses, that the most difficult reading experience of my life was behind me. Not so. I opened Naked Lunch with the vague awareness that it was (a) about a junkie and (b) a bit surreal. However, at no point had I expected it to be quite as weird as it was.

I’d seen the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (by Hunter S Thompson) and had got it into my head that Naked Lunch would be similar. And it is, in a way. Both are stories of travels and increasingly bizarre events experienced through a drug-induced haze. However, the film felt more cohesive – probably because films have to be, to attract funding and gain/retain audiences – whereas when I’d finished Naked Lunch, I wasn’t at all sure that I hadn’t just come round to the beginning again (or the middle, or somewhere else entirely). But I guess that’s how Burroughs intended it.

So I really, really struggled with this one. Instead of a slightly odd tale of junkies and other colourful characters, I found a writhing mass of weird, sometimes brutal, sometimes pornographic imagery that conjured up blurred, fantastical snapshots of a world that was totally alien to me, even if I could figure out what was going on (which, a great deal of the time, I couldn’t).

I don’t think I dare make any assumptions about the remaining books on this year’s list…

How did it make me see the world differently?

It gave me an insight into what it might be like to be a drug addict – but then made me realise that, no matter how many books I read or people I meet, there are some life experiences I will never even begin to understand.

Reading books and talking to people from different backgrounds are often suggested (by myself as much as anyone) as ways of getting to know the world outside your front door; of gaining understanding of – and therefore empathy for – those in unrelated and unfamiliar circumstances. If we cannot live a myriad of lives, we can at least talk to those who do live them; and if we can’t meet the people, we can at least read about them.

However, Naked Lunch brought it sharply home to me that, no matter how much I read about the experiences, feelings and thought processes of those addicted to various hard drugs, a true understanding of what it must be like to experience this every day simply eludes me. The flights of fancy in the novel are partly due to Burroughs’ writing style, but also to the life he has lived – which is far beyond anything I have ever encountered.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading books to learn about the world. I’m certainly not so desperate to know what life is like for others that I’ll undergo their own trials and tribulations to find out. But it certainly doesn’t do any harm to remember that, whatever we think we know of people from the stories told about them (or that they tell about themselves), we can never, ever, really know what it is like to be them.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

While I was getting to grips with figuring out what on earth was going on here, the one thing that kept me going was the author’s use of language and imagery. Even though I didn’t understand half of the situations and events that were being rolled out in front of me, I could still tag along by letting the visual pictures wash over me and carry me forward with them. In this way it was similar to Ulysses, where I also gave up any attempt to make linear sense of the action and just went with the flow – and ultimately got the gist.

This is seriously inspiring stuff for any writer. I’m very conscious that these blog posts are essentially quite prosaic: I want to get my message across as simply and directly as possible; and also, with one post to write every fortnight, I don’t feel there’s much time in my schedule for working on my style. There’s normally so much going on inside my head that merely unravelling the threads and getting a blog post published feels like an achievement.

However, this book has caused me to see things differently. I need to practise my writing for its own sake, to go beyond a basic attempt to translate the contents of my head into something less resembling Klingon to the average reader, and to create a work of art in and of itself.

I can’t promise I will manage this with these posts; it may be that I simply step up my plans to do more creative writing and liberate my own flights of fancy that way. My novel is pencilled in for next year, and also a few short stories if I can really get into gear. Let’s see what kind of style emerges…

A musical interlude

I nearly didn’t pick the song I’ve opted for this week, because I’d already chosen a track by the same artist for a recent post. However, it struck me that the book in the other post was from the same era and same ‘school’ of writing as Naked Lunch, so I thought that it might be rather appropriate after all.

The previous book is On the Road, another Beat novel, and the song accompanying the post was The Passenger by Iggy Pop. Can you guess which track came instantly to mind for Naked Lunch? It’s probably most well known for its use in a seminal film about heroin users in Scotland: Trainspotting.

Yes, you guessed it. It’s Lust For Life.

On the Road

On the Road

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publication date: 1957
Genre: Beat fiction; road fiction

What’s it about?On the Road

Writer Sal Paradise meets free spirit Dean Moriarty and, sometimes together, sometimes apart, the two embark on a series of road trips, from East to West (and back again) across the United States of America. Fuelled by poetry and jazz, and accompanied sporadically by a host of friends and acquaintances, their search for new horizons also represents a search for life, fulfilment and meaning.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was another Christmas present, so it was already on my shelves. However, if it had been a library copy, I’d definitely be adding it to my shopping list as I loved it so much.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a good deal about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, of which Kerouac was a leading light. On the Road is essentially an autobiographical novel, the characters representing people in his life and the events based on real experiences. Although I don’t normally read ‘around’ the books I choose for this blog series, sometimes I can’t help it; and when a book has gripped me so much, it’s even more fascinating to discover that it all happened (to some degree) in real life.

As part of this process of discovery I also learned that William S Burroughs was another Beat figure – and his novel Naked Lunch happens to be next but one on my ‘to read’ list. It will be interesting to compare that with On the Road; I wonder whether it will give me a totally new window on to Beat culture or whether it will reiterate the themes of Kerouac’s novel. I guess I’ll find out soon…

Of course, On the Road also gave me more insights into towns and cultures across America, as Sal and Dean travel across states and see new landscapes and peoples unfolding before their eyes. From the metropolis of New York to the swamps of the Deep South, from the plains of the Midwest to the seaport of San Francisco, and venturing ultimately even to the deserts of Mexico, there is more here than I suspect I will manage to see in a lifetime.

How did it make me see the world differently?

It introduced me to the Beat Generation, and thereby an entirely new perspective on life and how to live it. Despite having studied English Literature at university, I never came across the Beats (I read French as well as English, so was only really exposed to half a syllabus for each, and my preference at the time veered towards the 16th and 17th centuries), so at the age of 45 I feel a bit ‘out of time’ discovering them.

It’s been a while since I read anything that came so close to capturing the way I feel about the world. I wouldn’t say I’m quite as free spirited as Dean (let’s be generous and call him a free spirit rather than ‘a rat’), but I have never felt that I connect with other people as well as everyone else seems to, as if it’s a knack I haven’t quite ‘got’.

I’ve always prided myself on being self-sufficient, but the downside of this is that I struggle to fit in with any ‘community’ with whom I cross paths. This is probably the reason I’ve flitted from one job/career to another and eventually found fulfilment (of a sort) in self-employment: although it can be frustrating not to know when my next piece of work is coming in, I adore the fact that I have the choice whether or not to take it up or turn it down when it does come.

The interesting thing for me about On the Road was that it’s not just about guys who ignore work altogether to go on endless trips. Admittedly they do sometimes beg, borrow and steal to get by, but, more frequently than I would have expected, they do seek work – with the clear aim that they will do whatever work is needed to earn the money they need to do the next thing they want to do. It’s a transaction – and then they move on. I can really relate to this. I do usually take the work that comes to me – and I should stress that I do it to the best of my ability – but when it’s done, it’s done.

I have never felt comfortable belonging to organisations, whether in a work or a social context. I don’t know whether it’s the weight of expectation – that if I declare my allegiance to a group, they will have the right to tell me how to behave, and this will somehow feel like a constraint upon my personal freedoms? Or is it that I feel I’m giving up other options (ditto)? My overwhelming instinct any time anyone tries to pin me down is to run. In my defence, this may be because, when I do commit, I commit fully and give 100% – and I only have so much energy to go round.

I still don’t really understand it. All I know for sure is that this is how I’m wired, and rather than beat (ha) myself up over it, surely it makes more sense to become at peace with it, in the time that remains to me. It should still be possible for me to do good in the world; and if I can do it in my own way, isn’t that what they call a ‘win-win’?

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The first step on the road (again, ha) to doing things my own way is to recognise what I truly feel at ease with. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year planning a variety of creative projects that I genuinely do want to see out there in the world. However, I’ve finally come to terms with my own limitations and have recognised that I can’t do them all instantly. All of that creative energy takes its toll, and if I try to do too much too quickly I burn out.

I’ve therefore given myself permission to put some things off until next year or even the year (or years) after that. I have the launch of the Book Diaries Volume 1 tentatively scheduled for this October; there’s the next issue of Bookylicious (same month); and I’m going to try to finish one other project related to the Quick Lit Fix some time before the end of 2016. But I think that’s as much ‘production’ as I can cope with for now.

So the one thing I’m going to do, to honour my own way of operating in the world, is to let myself retreat into what truly makes me happy; to return, once again, to the original intention of this very blog challenge, and tell myself that reading is important and I need to make more time for it. As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way, I can’t just continually create: I also need to ‘fill the creative well’ from time to time.

I promised in my last post that I wouldn’t make any more vows about scheduling. This is, therefore, not a commitment to figuring out the best time of the day or week to put ‘reading’ in my diary. This is about saying that reading needs to come first and everything else needs to fit around it. This may sound like a rather wishy-washy target, but I assure you, for me it is massive.

I suspect it won’t be easy. Pressures of work and society will no doubt challenge me in this intention, and it’s also likely I’ll tell myself off for not ‘doing’ more to make the world a better place. But given the insights I’ve had through a mere 18 months of writing the Book Diaries, I can’t think of a better way to improve myself (and the world) than to do more – not less – of my beloved reading.

A musical interlude

After my last foray into the ‘obvious’ choice of song to accompany Lolita, this time I’m heading back to the realm of the tenuous. Once again, my trusty subconscious offered up a great track that seemed highly appropriate for On the Road.

I bring you… Iggy Pop’s The Passenger.