Take a second to reflect on the most appallingly miserable thing you’ve ever had to do. Got it? Exponentiate that by twenty. We’ll call that incident “A”. Now, think about a situation in which you or a close friend felt profoundly degraded. Exponentiate that by twenty. We’ll call that incident “B”. Finally, multiply “A” by “B”. This monstrosity of a result is no match for the unbearable experience of trudging through William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch*. I wouldn’t even call what I had to do “reading”. Before I unload a list of reasons supporting its gratuitous intolerability, let me make a few things perfectly clear:
1) It’s not that I can’t handle vulgarity. I’m like kind of a gross person and I certainly don’t expect all of my books to reside on a pedestal of propriety. I appreciate Bukowski (just recently purchased Post Office—can’t wait). I’m not easily offended and I categorically oppose all forms of censorship and book banning. Obscene language/content does not faze me nor is it the core of my complaint.
2) I don’t shy away from books about drugs. Much merit can be found in drug literature—from Huxley to Kerouac to Hunter S. Thompson, and everything in between. You can talk negatively about drugs, speak positively about drugs, be on drugs, etc. and create something of artistic significance.
3) I can enjoy novels regardless of the existence of a clearly defined plot. Naked Lunch is experimental in that each page can (theoretically) be read individually, at random. Certainly, there is no linear narrative. I so badly want to relish in that unbound, vignette prose. I’m so incapable of doing so because this is not the product of a respectable author. It’s the haphazard garbage of a heroin addict—quite literally. In 1951, he accidentally shot his wife in the head while aiming for a glass that she balanced atop. That’s cute. But remember—this book isn’t bad because the author was high all the time. The only reason Naked Lunch receives any attention is because it’s jarring. Personally, I don’t automatically assume that because something has shock-value, it’s worthy of my time. This man is talking out of his ass. Of course that’s going to grab attention, but that does not necessarily implicate that his work is reputable literature.
Burroughs (1914-1997) came to fame in the Beat generation. I desperately want to love the authors of that era because their subject matter sounds so beautiful and free. But they disappoint! Hunter S. Thompson wrote with the same laissez faire attitude and then added a layer of profundity to his writing. He recounts his putting-around but also commentates—he’s simultaneously within that world and without. Notably, Thompson hated Kerouac—or so my friend Callie told me over a glass (or four) of wine, and I’ve taken that to be an absolute fact ever since. Hunter S. Thompson disliked Jack Kerouac, tell all of your friends!
After a while of reading and re-reading, questioning my own sanity and wondering if some obscure, deeper meaning was eluding me, I realized that a clever writing style couldn’t entirely make up for lack of substance. This shitty excuse for a book reads as if a 15-year-old sadistic, sex-addled junkie stumbled upon a thesaurus and threw some big words into his incomprehensible orgiastic fantasy for good measure. Does this seem remotely on par with the writing skills of his generation? Despite my reservations on Kerouac, I recognize that he was a very talented writer, perhaps because he adhered to a hazy morality. His words still read like actual literature and not something that belongs in a trashcan. Kurt Vonnegut once declared, “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing of a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split.” Good point, but I don’t like chocolate or bananas. In my further defense, he also said, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”
Think I’m exaggerating on the book’s repulsiveness? Instead of underlining phrases that speak to me as I typically do, I was only able to mock Naked Lunch and highlight the most ridiculous statements to share with you all. Because I suppose I’m part sadist too, here are two particularly cringe-worthy excerpts. Full disclosure that these are NSFW:
“Johnny extracts a candiru from Mary’s cunt with his calipers…he drops it into a bottle of mescal where it turns into a maguey worm…He gives her a douche of jungle bone-softener, her vaginal teeth flow out mixed with blood and cysts” (Burroughs, 84).
THE ENTIRE THING IS LIKE THAT. Here’s some more:
“The boy crumples to his knees with a long “OOOOOOOOH,” shitting and pissing in terror. He feels the shit warm between his thighs. A great wave of hot blood swells his lips and throat. His body contracts into a foetal position and sperm spurts hot into his face. The Mugwump dips hot perfumed water from alabaster bowl, pensively washes the boy’s ass and cock, drying him with a soft blue towel.” (Burroughs, 63).
I’m immediately reminded of the “nope, nope, nope” running-away Bitmoi. You’re probably still wondering what the book is about. I HAVE NO IDEA. I truly could not tell you. What you see above is what you get, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I didn’t award this literary joke 0 out of 5 camel humps.
*Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. Paris: The Olympia Press, 1959. Print.