Okay, I finished Naked Lunch today. I reached my goal of finishing it before New Year’s.
Where to start? I can confidently say Naked Lunch is unlike anything I have ever read, and probably ever will read. Written by 1950’s beat writer William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch explores the world of drugs and addiction, relying on the author’s own experiences as a heroin addict, so much so that at the time of its’ release , it was described as “mostly confessional, not literary.” by Time magazine. It is this that makes the book so unique; there is an absence of story or plot really, and the book is really just a series of vignettes about drug use; it isn’t a novel in the classic sense.
There is a vague storyline about an addict venturing from New York to Mexico to South American and finally to North Africa, just as Burroughs himself did in his life. However, much like the life of a junkie, the point is often lost in a sea of vulgarity and immorality, and the book ends up being difficult to follow and often hard to understand.
Burroughs uses obscene language to effectively communicate many things that a non-junkie just simply wouldn’t understand. He talks of things such as the ‘Algebra of Need’, to describe how junkies often find themselves in such bizarre and sinful situations. “A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope… (and this) need knows absolutely no limit or control.” This explains what is often unexplainable in this book, and why certain characters would find themselves doing some of the things they do. While it may seem inconceivable to the average person, the junkies in the book have no problem doing anything to get that next fix. “Wouldn’t you?” is a question posed by the author, describing what a junkie would do for his next hit. That question can be followed with anything because the answer will always be yes.
The language is one of the most striking aspects of the book, and not because of its vulgarity, but because of its vulgarity in 1959. Today, having been raised in a world of ‘R’ rated movies, cable TV and Internet pornography, Naked Lunch may seem rude, but it isn’t much worse than many other things seen on the Internet or in the movies. If I put my mind to it, I’m sure I could find worse on-line in about ten seconds. However, when this book was first released, the United States and Canada were in a world of ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and The Hardy Boys. Movies didn’t have nudity or graphic violence, and they certainly didn’t use the words that Burroughs uses so freely in Naked Lunch. While literature had more of an edge to it than movies or television, Naked Lunch uses “obscene” language continually from start to finish, describing scenes of sexual exploitation, drug use, illness and death. When first released, the United States postal service at first would not deliver the book to subscribers, arguing they were not obligated to deliver obscene material. In 1966, the state of Massachusetts banned the book, a matter that ended up in the State Supreme Court. There, it was ruled that the State had no right to decide what was moral and what was not. This would be the last obscenity trial against a literary work in the United States.
I will admit that I really struggled through the first half of this book, unsure if I was missing something or not paying close enough attention. It seemed to be page after page of rambling, obscene imagery, talking about things I didn’t know anything about. There aren’t any characters you get to know, and there is not a build up toward a dramatic conclusion; or any conclusion for that matter. After the “story” is finished, the 2nd half of the book consists of letters from Burroughs to various doctors, editors, and friends, offering his opinion on changes to the book and his thoughts on drug use and curing addiction. It is in this section of the book that Burroughs explains many of his motives for writing the book, and more clearly explains many of his experiences that led to its writing. It is here that the reader becomes more understanding of the events of the book.
In one letter to his editor, Burroughs describes exactly what makes Naked Lunch such a difficult read. “THIS IS NOT A NOVEL,” he writes emphatically, stating the book could really be started anywhere as it was never meant to have the chapters in a specific order. The same editor noted in a later interview, “the novel was not created according to a predetermined outline or plan, it is simply a collection of Bill’s experiences retold in the frankest of manners.”
While discussing his experience with every drug under the sun, Burroughs writes to one of the doctors that helped him end his heroin addiction (temporarily), going through a cornucopia of drugs and notes their effects and their habit forming ability. It was fascinating to read a 1950’s perspective on drugs and drug use, in an era when most people would rather have swept the issue under the rug in the hopes it would never be mentioned again. Yet Naked Lunch offers a first-hand perspective of a subject everybody was fascinated by, but nobody would discuss.
Despite some of its more interesting revelations and the shock value of the writing itself, it is not a book I’ll ever pick up again, but still one I’ll never forget. Or understand for that matter. I did not enjoy reading this book and can't really figure out how so many have enjoyed reading it.
Here is Time Magazine’s original review from November 30th, 1962:
I’m not sure what book I’ll be reading next, but I’m going to go to the library in the next couple of days to find one. Right now I’m thinking Animal Farm. Maybe I need to go lighter after this book. Maybe The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I need something simple, and something fast after spending almost the entire month of December reading this book.