Title: 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.
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?
- Find the book in a library near you (worldwide).
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
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.