198 pages • Olympia Press • 1959
Naked Lunch, the second published work of William Burroughs, marked its fiftieth anniversary in July 2009. It was first published in France by the Olympia Press. This publishing house was founded by Maurice Girodias, the son of Englishman Jack Kahane, who had published such authors as Lawrence Durrell, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller under his Paris based Obelisk Press. The Olympia Press was founded to publish pornographic literature, both hard and soft, and this brought Girodias into conflict with the schizophrenic French government of that era. Nevertheless, he introduced works that could not be published in America, the two great examples of which are Vladimir Nabokov’s extraordinary Lolita, and William Burroughs’ frenetic masterpiece Naked Lunch.
Naked Lunch is … well, it is hard to call it a novel, but that is only because the classification of the novel is one of those agreed upon definitions that the creators of the Syllabus go in for. Burroughs nevertheless called it a novel in his letters. That said, he was also off his head on junk when writing both the letters and the book itself. The editors of the Restored Text edition of Naked Lunch published in 2003 – more on that later – conclude that “by its nature” the book “resists the idea of a fixed text”. This is one of those academic cop-outs that smacks of a little too much French literary theory. Classification, classification, classification: this is what Burroughs is writing about in Naked Lunch, both the need for it, and the limitations that it introduces. There is a conflict between the two, an attraction-resistance if you will. The form derives from the subject and that is all that should matter.
In his introduction to the Restored Text edition of Naked Lunch, the great JG Ballard writes that it is “a comic apocalypse, a roller-coaster ride through hell, a safari to the strangest people on the strangest plant, ourselves”. And that it is. One has to approach this book with the imagination unleashed and the need for classification tethered. To read Naked Lunch is consequently a challenge. One has to listen to the voices, make the connections, and to pick out the narrative threads that are there. Burroughs does not do it. There is no narrator because there is no narrative in the traditional sense. The line between physical experience and imagined experience blur. To make sense of this the book resists narrative, and the result is the experience of a world on drugs, the experience of the lows of withdrawal as well as the heights of ecstasy, in which all sorts of pornographic and sado-masochistic scenes occur.
There certainly is a lot of sex. Well, not so much sex as sexual activity, with some masochism, sadism, and mutilation thrown in. It is not there for idle titillation – and if one were to find it titillating the damage has already been done. There is rather a lot of homosexual activity, also, which was in the mainstream as controversial a subject as drugs fifty years ago. The sex in the book is more a result of the experience of drugs, nevertheless, and this is the subject. It is not about homosexuality as such, it is about sexual behaviour that is animal, and as divorced from society as the everyday life of the addict.
‘Moralists’ by and large react to such books thinking the worst of the human animal, that it will corrupt, lead people astray, open their impressionable minds to possibility. The gates are closed by the guardians of … what exactly? One has to have a dim view of the reading public, and a rather twisted mind, to think that Burroughs’ scenes of depravity constitute a handbook of some kind. If Burroughs taught that there was no action without consequence then perhaps a case could be made. That did not stop the book being brought to trial after it was published in the US in 1962. The hearing in 1966 concluded that the book possessed “redeeming social value”. This was a landmark decision that changed the possibility of what could be published in the US as well as, to a certain extent, the practice of literary censorship.
The genesis of the book is as chaotic as the book itself. The Editor’s Note by Barry Miles and James Grauerholz in the Restored Text describes the process in detail. Burroughs, who was for the duration of the writing on junk, would assemble the random notes that came to make up the text. There were several revisions of a final version that only came together because Maurice Girodias told Burroughs in June 1959 that he had two weeks to submit a finished version for publication. This was followed by a different version published by the Grove Press in the US. The Restored Text is an attempt to get as close to the original intent as possible. In some ways it is good not to know much about the genesis of Naked Lunch. It makes it seem all too … amateur. The proof is in the pudding, as the old saying goes, which seems like a fair enough cliché to use when writing about such a book.
Barry Miles and James Grauerholz have put together a fascinating version in the Restored Text. The main body is supplemented by letters Burroughs wrote about Naked Lunch as well as pages of Outtakes. The Harper Perennial editions are interesting anyway because of the PS section at the end, which provides further information about the author, the book itself, as well as suggested reading. It is nevertheless a little unnerving to read a letter from the Beat writer Jack Kerouac to the poet Allen Ginsberg reminding him that he had misread ‘Naked Lust’ on the manuscript as ‘Naked Lunch’, and that the title had stuck.