Bill Lee, an addict and hustler, travels to Mexico and then Tangier in order to find easy access to drugs, and ends up in the Interzone, a bizarre fantasy world, in a commemorative edition that features restored text, archival material, Burroughs's own later introduction to the book, and his essay on psychoactive drugs.
So now you are online, searching reviews, and you see words like: 'groundbreaking,' 'visceral,' 'audacious,' and 'non-linear.' Ahh, the reassuring authority of terms. That feels better! You go back to the book, and for while you succeed in wearing some of the reverence you read online - for this writer whose beat words spew out like overripe fruit and broken glass, and which he glues to the page using every conceivable and unfortunate body fluid.
Your eyes glaze over at sentences that promise temporary handholds of sense and then forget their origins without notice. You catch at the swirl of crude images and broken meanings that come and go like random bursts of machine gun fire. Clearly, some of the bullets are hitting you, though many fly harmlessly past. But the ones that do connect. . . you begin to wonder what the hell they might be doing. Is there a subliminal agenda? Are you being corrupted by this book?
But maybe getting a little unhinged is not such a bad thing. And really, the book isn't so long. You can stomach the uneasiness. Finally you settle into a pattern of reading one sentence after another - dubiously and a little mechanically - like a puzzled arts patron given a one inch window to move randomly over a Jackson Pollock canvas. This task is not easy. You just wish the words would all shout their meanings at once - discarding the sequential - so you can hear it as one grand howl of pain and confusion.
And you start thinking about the metaphor of the canvas; and maybe just standing speechless in front of it is OK. And then finally, Burroughs tells you at the end to start anywhere in the book. (“Gee, thanks!”) All of which underlies the suspicion that this book doesn’t even exist while you are reading it, that it coalesces into a book sometime after you finish, and to say you "read" it is to say that you remember pieces of a confusing and relentless pipe dream.
Trying my best to draw meaning out of this I've come up with a few theories. First, Burroughs, being a homosexual and frustrated by the seemingly puritanical culture in which he lived, decided to set the bar for debauchery so low that once the reader came back into reality they would decide that the "deviant elements" in their world weren't so bad. This would then hopefully create a more egalitarian society that wouldn't persecute Burroughs for his comparably mild deviations from the status quo. Somewhat insipid, but necessary in finding the meaning of sodomizing a boy so violently that his spine snaps--a short time before the character "finishes up"(I may have gotten the specifics wrong, I'm writing this review a good deal after having read the book. Although, I do remember the sodomy/spine-break thing being a theme). Secondly, it could have been a commentary on what a culture could be, given the right set so circumstances. Attempting, again, to create that egalitarian society. Thirdly, as much as I hate to admit it, this book could be truly seminal and I'm unable to understand the message. This, I'm assuming, would be due to the nature of my experiences; an existence that shelters me from minority thought, making it difficult or impossible to see subtle, and some major, themes in writing that I don't identify with. I prefer to call this ignorance, but some may call it bigotry.
This is something of an accomplishment: After reading this I felt shame for myself, not disgust for the writer. Shame because I hated it, thus making me a bigot. Such is the beauty of this 'belles lettres'.
Next I plan to watch the movie Salo. Hopefully I will feel the intellectual fervor that some people have felt for Naked Lunch.
I gave this book 2 stars, and not 1/2 star, because I hated it. And any book that makes you feel a strong emotion is worth something...right?
I did not enjoy this book one bit. It was, as I said, incoherent and nonsensical. It was also filled with degrading scenes and disgusting descriptions written simply for the sake of being shockingly nasty. I will never read this book again.
That said, I think it's important to be open minded about the point of the book. It wasn't meant to be a fun little fairy tale. It was supposed to portray the life of a junkie and that it does. It certainly has its intended effect, although I think that it could have the same effect with one third of the length.
Now it is freely available and lauded as a literary classic so no funny looks when buying it at the bookshop - sort of like getting Playboy for the articles while there's no way to excuse buying Hustler. Anyway, I hoped to elevate my mind, improve my reading and sit goggle eyed at all the filthy sex. Hmm, I should have learned from Lady Chatterley's lover: no such thing as readable literary porn.
I first read [Book: Naked Lunch] during my frosh year in High school. I didn’t have a clue as to who William S. Burroughs was, I hadn’t heard of the beat poets, sex was an allusion, and opium was merely an incense scent. I think I only picked it up because it had the shocking word naked in the title.
I didn’t fully understand it at that point in my life. Who could with so little context and a lack of worldly experience? But I knew that I was reading something just as important today as it was when it was published in 1959. Here’s what I understood then: A society had gone terribly wrong; life was cheaper than sex; and sex wasn’t sex but some sort of trope (I guess it’s metaphoreplay, ha ha).
As I’ve gotten older, different images and scenes from the book pop into mind, like acid flashbacks, and I realize that I’m standing in what Burroughs was writing about. This book should be required reading for every college freshman if not for all high school seniors. I’m not saying they have to agree with it or even like it, but it’s an extremely important piece of writing.
Beware: [Book: Naked Lunch] is a gateway novel. It leads to reading other works by Burroughs, [Book: Cities of the Red Night] (1981), and it opens the flood gates of subversive literature. People who suffer an adverse reaction to this book are advised to read volumes 8 through 14 of the most recently printed versions of the U.S. tax law.
In the book itself, however, there are only brief glimpses of this fluid style. These brief moments are often fantastic, but they are not enough to make up for the endless puerile fantasies about masturbation, semen and bodily functions, the unfunny jokes, the bizarre hallucinations, the utter incoherence of 90% of the book.
I can't help wondering whether this book would have received so much attention if it hadn't been banned for a few years by US and UK censors. Perhaps all that gratuitous sex did serve a purpose after all.
The only other explanation I can think of for this book's fame is the fascination the drug culture seems to hold for so many people. Incoherence is fine, nonsense is fine, lack of any believable characters or any point at all to the story is fine, as long as it's written under the influence of a drug or, preferably, a cocktail of drugs. I wonder if books like this hold any interest for addicts themselves, recovering or otherwise. Or are they just a voyeuristic thrill for those with more conventional lives, those who would never dare or even actually want to shoot heroin, but who want to know what it feels like from the safety of their living rooms?
That being said, I have to admit I kinda loved this book. It's all characters and language play and dirty talk - some of the my favorite stuff. I've had druggie friends, so I recognize easily enough the way things come and go in their minds, reality taking a backseat to whatever chemical's working its way through their minds at the time.
All the parts about dealers and their habit of turning up late - if at all - and keeping the buyer waiting rang way too true for me. I've smoked my share of green in my time, and the man is never home when you want him, never comes over when he says he will, and never has a steady supply when you have the cash. Is it because he gets a power high off making the user conform to his actions? Well, I can see where that idea would come from, certainly. I can see how those feelings would lead to a book like Naked Lunch, essentially the rantings of a dry junky recovering from or waiting for his hit.
The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.
I recently read the novel Hogg by Samuel R. Delany, which is probably the flat out dirtiest thing I've ever read. And I've read a lot of porn stories online. In reading Lunch, I could see a major influence on the style and subjects and various sex acts detailed so extensively in Hogg. If anyone wants an interesting and disturbing experience, I suggest reading them one after another. And then taking a long, hot shower with lots of strong soap. Burroughs was less concerned with storyline, though.
final thoughts: Burroughs was a bastard, but the man could fill a page.
I was not expecting this.. and at first I hated the book. I hated it for the lack of plot, for the long winded, confusing whirlwind of experiences that had no reference to a plot or a continuum of experience (or so it seemed). But then about halfway through I began to think more of the actual experience I had during my journey through this book and it clicked. I had put aside my disdain for it's unconventionality and began to realize that the response from the book must be somewhat like what this character (or characters) in this book must be experiencing.
Now that I am done with the book I have come to appreciate it for what it was meant to be. I was disgusted, shocked, annoyed, and intrigued, and the year is 2009. I cannot imagine what it would have been like reading this around the time it was finally published. So in summation I have to say I didn't necessarily 'enjoy' reading this book, it was more like I couldn't turn away from it.. it was a guilty intrigue that made me stick it out to the end, and when I finally put it down I wanted to crack it open and peer into it again. Which is the point of this book in my opinion.. just like the junk fiend.
In an age when every sensationalism has been brought into the artistic field, and little seems to shock, it is difficult to review this work fairly. In the 1960's, this would have been a decent warning about the excessive use of drugs; written by a self confessed addict, it does not preach and gives some idea as to the highs, as well as the lows.
It is probably true that a hardcore drug user has precious little self-esteem, but this leads to a problem: it is incredibly difficult to feel any empathy with any of the characters. I am fortunate enough not to need scaring away from potential drug abuse so, I am left with a feeling of being a voyeur upon unpleasant people at the bottom of the pile. I am not sure that I have gained anything but, it is undeniably, a powerful piece of writing.
I cannot recommend this book but equally, I would not advise against its reading.
At the back of the book in Deposition, Burroughs writes "I apparently took detailed notes on sickness and delirium. I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch."
That's what this book is, a scrambled, pinball shark attack of unpleasant imagery and colloquialisms. I've read previous reviews here, some of which extremely high and mighty proclaiming to have absorbed the "message" and that they "got it". Well done to those. I'm not undermining its importance at all. But to say you read this and thoroughly enjoyed it is outing yourself as quite possibly disturbed.
The first 20 pages excite you. If you want a story, don't read the rest.
Naked Lunch is certainly not entertaining. It is not coherent, it is not logical, it is not pretty, it is not for the faint of heart, and it is not in any way concerned with making any sense whatsoever. In this paragraph, which in most of my reviews is devoted to plot summary, I say these things because I have nothing to say about the plot at all. What plot? What series of events? Often, Burroughs is content with merely offering vague ideas of scenes and then inundating us with scatological and sexual imagery, body parts and fluids and substances freakishly spewed across the page. Grammar need not apply in this world.
I've read other Burroughs before, so I probably should have expected this, but it's just not something I have a great deal of interest in or enthusiasm for. It is a trial just to read through the whole thing, and I like to think that I have a pretty strong stomach for the kind of graphic images that Burroughs thrives upon. It's just that, once you get past the grossness, I don't see much behind it. I don't feel the need or desire to dig deeper to understand the subconscious ideas underpinning the words. I don't care enough about what I've read to try and make sense of what happened. Burroughs wants us to see the horror of drug abuse and the disgust that is our capitalist lives, but nothing in the text makes me care all that much.
I will probably read the other Burroughs that are on the 1001 list, simply to say that I have, but I will confess that I simply don't get it. If that somehow makes this review useless to you, that's a risk I'm willing to take. Anyone who picks up Naked Lunch deserves to know in advance what they're getting themselves into--I did, and there's a part of me that wishes I'd never bothered in the first place.
The parts I found the most well written and clear, often revolved around descriptions of fictional dystopian communities. I found these sections chilling and they effectively communicated how little faith Burroughs held in humanity (or the “human virus”). Of these sections the descriptions of the world Annexia and that of the Divisionists and their replicas were my favourite and the paranoid idea of the future held within those passages made me want to keep reading.
I do believe that this book is an amazing piece of literature, even in the midst of chaos Burroughs manages to find moments of clarity which truly reveal the dark and twisted world he was buried in. For example on page 56, when he states “I woke up with someone squeezing my hand, it was my other hand”. Nevertheless, there were still parts that disgusted me or that I thought were unnecessary and although later a sober Burroughs tried to explain the satire of characters like the Mugwump, I am still not convinced.
It is a book that you need to go into being prepared for whatever it will throw at you. It is one for which you will need to forget what a novel is supposed to be. It will most definitely shock and surprise as you follow Burroughs twisted “narrative” to...well to nowhere really. If you get the chance, the afterword written by a sober Burroughs later in life is a sobering finale which reminds us that this wasn't just a book but a living nightmare. At the beginning of Naked Lunch, Burroughs himself unknowingly provides us with, what I think is the most accurate way to describe his writing. He states “be just and if you can't be just, be arbitrary”. That is exactly what this book is, arbitrary and bizarre but at the same time the most accurate account Burroughs could give into the mind of a junkie.
But this book? I could not read.
I'm okay with the violence, drug use, sex, and depravity, but there is nothing in the prose beyond that. It is offensive for offensive's sake. The first chapter or two promised a greater narrative with the narrator moving through the druggie society and avoiding the law, but it quickly devolves into hallucination upon hallucination and not much else.
The "prose as poetry" writting doesn't help, turning any coherence into a dreamlike sequence. It's fine if you're into that type of writing, but I find it difficult to read.
Naked Lunch (published in 1959 by Grove Press) uncovers the filthy and depraved world of addiction, particularly drug addiction, though on a broader scale it can be applied to addiction of multiple and diverse forms. It is a fragmented exposition of the destructive effects of drug-addicted depravity expanded to the demise of humanity as a whole from its sickening and oppressive tendency towards addiction itself. Presented in a "cut-up" literary form, in which the fragmented sections can be considered from a variety of sequential patterns, Naked Lunch reveals the ugly realities of human need through Burroughs' strikingly vivid style and illusion-shattering, anarchic intention, a revolutionary work in post-war American literature exposing the manipulative elements of control agencies and challenging the standards of literary tradition. The 2001 version contains notes from Burroughs concerning the text, as well as a number of his essays on the writing of the book and its contents, and an appendix made up of previously unpublished material and pre-publication drafts. Also, the editor's note provides intimate details concerning the painstaking and fragmented process of the book's development and eventual publication, including the challenges it faced from charges of obscenity.
Burroughs is modern American literature's final manifestation of genius, with Naked Lunch his most essential work. He was a brave investigator of the hidden depths of the soul, fearlessly observing his own thoughts and desires, particularly the powerful forces of evil festering deep within. He was a black magic chemist and demented psychologist, and an eerily precise prophet of post-apocalyptic proliferations of the nightmarish characteristics of human nature. Above all, Burroughs was a great eradicator of illusions. His grim approach to social change and recovery from addiction was transcended by his ferocious humor and primal nihilism, making him something of a Voltaire of his time. His writing is distinct for its viciously inventive prose, harsh ridicule, conceptual depth, and morbid humor. Underneath his dreary disposition festered a dangerous, anarchic spirit and adversary of forced submission through institutions of control, be it social, political, or personal addictions.
This book is a treasure discovered within the hellish dimensions of the self. It possesses an abundance of expressive virility on its way to destroying comforting schemes of deception. It is a catastrophically sardonic attack of authoritarian dishonesty, social barbarism, and malicious egoism rampant in modern society, exposing corruptive sources of control, celebrity obsession, meaningless violence, consumerism, dogmatism, and all types of irreverent deceitfulness.
Naked Lunch is a courageous work of tremendous force and literary honor, a penetrating and purposeful exploration for the realistic conditions of moral substance. It was written with profound accuracy and a fearless spirit, confronting the possibilities of literary form, and expanding established perceptions of human nature. It is a challenging read, contemptuous, imaginative, liberated, humorous, and grim. Fueled by sheer desperation and paralyzing anxiety, it is also filthy, sick, dirty, disgusting, and utterly disturbing.
"You were not there for The Beginning. You will not be there for The End... Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative..."
Sadly, I mainly just hated it. The relentless gore, the disturbingly violent sex scenes, the terrifying medical operations... they didn't bother me nearly as much as the complete lack of plot and character. Yes, I realize that it's the point of the book and of Burroughs' cut-up-and-fold-in style, that it's basically the insane ravings of an addict in severe withdrawal, that it's better read as poetry than as a novel.... but that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to actually read. Being a straight male, it obviously didn't have any erotic appeal to me (but then I can't fathom anybody of any sexual orientation getting off to the horrifying fantasies presented here, unless they are violent psychopaths), and I ended up just found forcing myself from page to page, frustrated by the endless shifts to unrelated vignette every time I had managed to orientate myself to what was going on and desperately wishing for some to happen besides transvestites getting their throats slit after sex. Ultimately, for all of its shocking content, 'Naked Lunch' is really rather boring.
The only reason I have given this as many stars as I have is for the essays on the writing process and Burroughs drug experiences at the end of the book. They are genuinely fascinating and compelling, and far more interesting than the book itself. As an insight into the madness of a man going through heroin withdrawal, 'Naked Lunch' has merit - as a novel, it is, in my opinion, a complete failure. Instead, I recommend Burroughs' first novel, 'Junky', an utterly engrossing read which actually succeeds in both placing the reader into the mind of a drug addict and as a narrative in its own right.