Cities of the red night

by William S. Burroughs

Hardcover, 1981




New York, N.Y. : Holt, Rinehart, and Winston


From one of the founders of the beat generation and the 1960s counterculture comes this opening novel of a series available now in audio for the first time. An opium addict is lost in the jungle; young men wage war against an empire of mutants; a handsome young pirate faces his execution; and the world's population is infected with a radioactive epidemic. These stories are woven together in a single tale of mayhem and chaos. In the first novel of the trilogy continued in The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands, William Burroughs sharply satirizes modern society in a poetic and shocking story of sex, drugs, disease, and adventure.

User reviews

LibraryThing member fieldnotes
Burroughs can introduce himself:

"The usual costume is boots and chaps, bare ass and crotch. Some have tight-fitting chamois pants up to midthigh and shirts that come to the navel. Many are naked except for boots, gun belts, and hang-noose scarves. Nooses dangle every ten feet from a beam down the
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center of the room."

"Streaks of phosphorescent shit, a smell like rotten solder, burning shivering sick, he needs the Blue Stuff. Dry blue crystals of snow on the floor stir in an eddy of wind and a crystal spark boy takes shape, naked, radiant, his long needle fingertips dripping the deadly Joy Juice, bright red hair floating about his head, disk eyes flashing erogenous luminescence, his erect phallus smooth as seashell with a tip of pink crystal, he is like some dazzlingly beautiful undersea creature dripping deadly venom."

"Cities of the Red Night" is perpetually climaxing. Whereas, for other authors, it might prove a diverting or comical (unwritten) pastime to imagine what it might be like if all of their characters--from every time and space--were to meet over drinks, Burroughs can't seem to resist transporting his entire cast into hallucinatory, ritualistic, gay bacchanals, frequently spiced up with hangings or gun play and always featuring copious technicolor (and sometimes poisonous) ejaculations. During and in between these sensory explosions, his sex-ready, fringe-inhabiting adolescents wage war against the establishments that Burroughs doesn't like, for instance, the church, imperial forces and women.

The stories that drive the first two "books" of this novel are both gripping (and comparatively light on the orgies). A detective involves himself more and more deeply in the globe-trotting hunt for a missing rich boy and a trio of young men join a collective of revolutionaries in Central America who are fighting in the name of freedom (sexual and otherwise) to expel Spain and the Catholic church from the hemisphere.
Burroughs' prose is totally appropriate to the tough guy detective and the military strategizing of his commundards. But then, in book three, from which the novel takes its name, drugs start writing the book, which shifts into a world of five (entirely fictional) dueling cities. The anchors of the first 243 pages come loose and swirl around with fever victims, imaginary drugs, vendettas, hangings and sodomy. For a Burroughs purist, this might be quite satisfactory, since his dissociative methods and provocative subject matter trump representative story-telling. But, I was let down and disengaged.

Still, this was worth the read for the simple fact that Burroughs pulled together more than 200 consecutive pages of relatively logical and linear prose and he is a skillful, imaginative writer with an entirely decadent sense of humor. For anyone who wishes to continue from where this book leaves off, "The Place of Dead Roads" offers a sequel in the same vein that is not at all disappointing.
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LibraryThing member CliffBurns
Burroughs' best. Incendiary. Lunatic. Surreal. Anyone who doubts the man's intrinsic genius or associates him with cut-ups, dissing him as an "experimenter" should read the first thirty or forty pages of COTRN. This is the grand ol' mugwump at the top of his game...
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Burroughs’ plot may be confusing with characters that morph into each other, but otherwise this book shines with wit and poetry disguised as filthy trash. One has only to imagine him reading the book aloud to get a glimpse of some genius.
LibraryThing member Jonathan_M
*Partial spoilers ahead*

Frustrating. After years of blah, increasingly indifferent experimental novels and a relatively short (though brutal) period of writer's block, Burroughs almost staged a comeback with Cities of the Red Night. Almost, but not quite. The first half of the book is the most
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ambitious thing he ever wrote, and the array of characters and situations is very impressive; it's obvious that he was taking greater pains with the material, and found it interesting and engaging. There's a story here, and you actually want to turn the page and find out what happens next. (This is extremely rare in WSB's oeuvre; he was by nature a writer, yet not a natural storyteller.)

So why did Burroughs allow this extraordinarily promising beginning to go to hell in the book's second half? Why did he abandon the various threads of the plot to churn out 160-odd pages of dreary, Naked Lunch-style routines? (You know the stuff I mean: young red-haired boy bends over and farts righteous green flame, setting fire to a bunch of screaming Southern bigots as Doc Benway looks on and mutters, "Most interesting case indeed," etc. This goes on for page after page after page, almost as if Burroughs intended to confound the reader's expectations.) Did he find himself unable to write a coherent ending? Was he only trying to give his audience the obscenity-by-numbers that he thought they expected? Your guess is as good as mine, but the unfulfilled potential of Cities drives me crazy. I do feel that it's worth reading for the excellent first half; just enter into it with the understanding that the whole thing collapses rather abruptly and never recovers.

Burroughs was mixing with a dark, dangerous crowd during the years that this novel was being written, and the influence of the Magickal Childe scene is evident in the subplot involving New York private eye Clem Snide and the supernatural forces he encounters while investigating a cult murder case. If memory serves, the macabre death of the Jerry Green character was based on a real-life incident briefly described in a book by English travel writer Bruce Chatwin, and which actually did occur on the Greek island of Spetses or Spetsai. This island was the setting for John Fowles's critically acclaimed The Magus, to which Burroughs makes direct reference in this book. It's interesting to note that horror novelist Peter Straub, who likewise appears to have rubbed elbows with some frightening folk during this same period, based his bestselling Shadowland (published the year before Cities of the Red Night) on the Fowles novel.
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LibraryThing member Sigualicious
Worst book I've ever read. It's the most discombobulated thing ever. I wish people wouldn't think of this crap as art.
LibraryThing member elenchus
The past decade or two, I've kept up with WSB more through various spoken word, audio collage, or similar projects (viz, Material's Seven Souls album), than from published texts. I recognised several excerpts here, evidently WSB gave readings while the work was in progress, and perhaps afterward,
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as well. I'm confident this novel is my first encounter with Clem Snide, for example, though this character featured in various recordings I've heard. Notably, these early encounters help me focus on themes I might not have grasped on first reading: Virus-B23 and biowarfare, or the addictive dynamics of consumer capitalism.

Other themes I don't recall from audio work: piracy's Articles of Freedom in contrast with democratic republics; time travel and references to extraterrestrials on Earth; personality transplants. "I wonder what tyranny had led him to leave his native planet and take refuge under the Articles." [265]

Novel is structured in three Books: the first two feature distinct sets of characters and timelines (modern day, 18th century), though suggestions of characters reappearing in different guises as though time traveling or reincarnating. The third is increasingly episodic, with dream logic and a cut-up grammar predominant. Novel ends without any plot resolution, and in fact it's unclear to me who is narrating in the final chapter.

At a couple points WSB alludes to the influence of six cities, armies fighting between them, and the impact of a black hole on Earth (suggesting to me the Black Hole of Calcutta). These Cities of the Red Night are linked to Hassan i Sabbah's notorious words: "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." Does each city somehow embody a variation of Sabbah's meaning? Were it not for the title drawing attention to these references, it's likely I would not have noted them, fleeting as they were.
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LibraryThing member colligan
Never having read the renowned William Burroughs lo these many years, I was eagerly anticipating "Cities of the Red Night". Yet, I found myself initially confused and then disappointed. The work was doing nothing for me. My best guess is that the work hasn't aged well. What had shock value
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(sexually explicit content and drug use) in 1980, in 2022 seemed somewhat banal and pointless. The plot, while interesting, also seemed to lack relevance. My alternate interpretation for my disappointment was that I just had no appreciation for his genius. Perhaps he was a genius for his time.
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