William S. Burroughs Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

"Billy, what a saint they've made you, just like Mary down in Mexico on All Souls Day."

--10,000 Maniacs, "Hey Jack Kerouac"

William S. Burroughs was one of the most influential and bizarre writers of our time. Burroughs' canon charts his stylistic growth from the relative deadpan of "Junky" to the amorphic cosmos of the "Cities of the Red Night" trilogy.

Like the viral imagery that forms the aesthetic glue of his "cut-up" trilogy, Burroughs' prose is in a state of near-constant mutation. His language is graphic, disturbing and visceral. He dissects human motivation as a biologist would approach a vast and malignant tissue culture. Burroughs' writings and literary experiments are weird, confessional and esoteric. The scathing beauty behind Burroughs' work remains unequaled; Burroughs' mythic literary cosmology is one of the most distressingly relevant artifacts of the 20th century.

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"Naked Lunch" is the controversial Beat masterwork that put Burroughs on the literary map. A synthesis of bizarre locations, urban decay and underworld dealings, "Naked Lunch" highlights the author's grasp of language and literary perversion. "Naked Lunch" later served as the springboard for David Cronenberg's film of the same name, starring Peter Weller as the monotone, drug-addled "William Lee."

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"The Soft Machine," the first volume of Burroughs' infamous experimental "Cut-Up Trilogy," is a collection of graphic, loosely connected vignettes that expound on the fevered biological and sexual imagery of "Naked Lunch." Topics include perverse religious initiations, time travel, media bombardment, crustaceal mutations and out-of-body travel.

In "The Ticket That Exploded," Burroughs deals with tape recorders (a Burroughsian metaphor for the destruction of control systems), cybernetic pleasure farms and homoerotic escapades on Venus. Like the other volumes in the Cut-Up Trilogy, "The Ticket That Exploded" has to be read to be even remotely understood, as a plot synapsis is virtually impossible. (All three books of the trilogy may be read in any order with no marked difference in cadence or chronology.) Burroughs aims for the gut, bypassing linear thought.

Third in Burroughs' celebrated trilogy, "Nova Express" tracks the hallucinatory exploits of Burroughs pseudonym "Inspector Lee" as he tracks down members of the vile Nova Mob. Contains liberal samples of the famed "cut-up" technique. Hard-to-follow but conceptually compelling, "Nova Express" is possibly the best book of the "trilogy": graphic and singularly demented. Reading these books is the literary equivalent of downing a few vials of choice LSD.



"The Wild Boys" is a characteristically disjointed utopian experiment with a narrative style that's a strangely poetic cross between "The Ticket That Expoloded" and "The Place of Dead Roads." "The Wild Boys" provides a good introduction to Burroughs' primary motifs and preoccupations.



If you watch the credits to the cult masterpiece "Blade Runner," based on the Philip K. Dick novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", you'll find a note of thanks to William Burroughs for use of the term "Blade Runner." Although unrelated to the Ridley Scott film, Burroughs' cunning science fiction vision shares something of its post-apocalyptic milieu. Like "The Wild Boys," "Blade Runner: A Movie" is a story of youthful discontent in a world gone insane, told in quick, razor-sharp scenes and snatches of dialogue, like bits of film found littering the floor of some hallucinatory projection booth. Burroughs' near-future satire is fast, funny and inspired.

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Burroughs' "Cities of the Red Night" is a manic glimpse into alternate histories, new forms of government, viral mutations, ethnicity, and the to-be-expected preoccupation with hard drugs and wild sex. Prose style gyrates from first-person hard-boiled sleuth to all-too-believable boardroom monotone. A long and involving reading experience, "Cities of the Red Night" squirms its way through myriad plot-lines without collapsing into complete incomprehensibility, although at times it trods perilously close.

In "The Place of Dead Roads," the second volume of the "Cities of the Red Night" trilogy, Burroughs continues his scathing deconstruction of Western society, making a murderously funny mockery of hypocrisy and hum-drum normality. Written with a practiced mix of anger and nostalgia, "The Place of Dead Roads" is like a prison confession written in some other dimension, a rollicking synthesis of Burroughs tropes old and new. Join Kim Carsons on his nightmare quest to rid the planet of its addictions: it's a haunting literary journey, the last 100 pages of which witness Burroughs at his visionary best.

Burroughs concludes his trilogy with "The Western Lands," his most accessible and most moving text, in which he explores mortality and entropy through Egyptian metaphor. "The Western Lands" is essential Burroughs, providing a scalding introspective of the author at work. Funny and sad, this unlikely "return to narrative" is haunting throughout.



"The Cat Inside" is a brief, invaluable collection of vignettes about Burroughs' relationships with his beloved cats, and a most revealing departure from the Burroughs of "Naked Lunch." The genius of "The Cat Inside" is the way it slyly compliments Burroughs' better-know experimental works; "The Cat Inside" is an intimate portrait of the man behind the fragmented texts that helped define the Beat movement.



"Exterminator!" is pure Burroughs, presented in typically fragmented format. A few recurring motifs and a perverse sense of humor make "Exterminator!" slightly more readable than some of his others (although the cut-up technique makes a few appearances). Contains "The 'Priest' They Called Him," which was later recorded as a spoken word CD with the late Kurt Cobain playing background guitar.



Originally published as a cheesy Ace double, "Junky," Burroughs' first book, is a straight-forward novel chronicling the exploits of heroin addict "William Lee," a thinly disguised pseudonym. Quite unlike Burroughs' later, nonlinear books, "Junky" is the book that catalyzed Burroughs' writing career.



"Queer," Burroughs' second novel, shares the linear presentation of its predecessor. An unofficial sequel to "Junky," "Queer" is a striking portrait of yearning and despair in Mexico City. Readers are introduced to the typical Burroughsian "routine," which forms the structure of later satirical works. This is a moody, stylish book comparable to Albert Camus' "The Stranger."


INTERZONE James Graurholz, ed.

Vivid and visceral, "Interzone" is an indispensable anthology of Burroughs' early work that prefigures the stylistic mutation that resulted in "Naked Lunch." Surprisingly accessible, "Interzone" is the definitive primer to Burroughs' literary universe.



"Ghost of Chance" is a slim novel that finds Burroughs in great story-telling form. Nastily barbed and relentlessly disjointed, "Chance" shows us the end of the world Burroughs-style, as the jungles of Madagascar are razed to make room for more "devalued human stock." Burroughs' cautionary tale is both spiteful and tender, expertly zooming in on the ugliness of being human. This is a bitter, graphic and memorable story told by an author the 21st century can't afford to ignore.



In "My Education," Burroughs copiles vivid dreams into a candid and stirring quasi-autobiography. Burroughs is a strangely insightful psychic tour guide, and "My Education" is one of his most intriguing literary artifacts, full of surrealism and nostalgia.


THE JOB (interviews with Daniel Odier)

"The Job" is a fantastic nonfiction introduction to the obsessions and idealism that characterize Burroughs' fiction. Burroughs includes liberal samples of text (his own as well as others') to illustrate his ideas. The final product is an unlikely manifesto urging us to break out of our private reality tunnels and confront social control systems with open, empowered minds. Burroughs' prescient examination of media viruses is especially fascinating. "The Job" showcases the author's inimitable knack for nailing his target.



One of the best books on the creative process that I've ever read, "The Adding Machine" consists of collected essays by one of the 20th century's most bizarre and influential authors. Burroughs unleashes his thoughts on sex, art, drugs, crime, space travel, and everything in between.


THE LETTERS OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: 1945-1959 Oliver Harris, ed.

An entertaining collection of letters (mostly to Allen Ginsberg) by the Beat icon. A compelling document of the underground scene in Mexico City, New York and Tangier (the basis for the collection "Interzone"). Often hilarious.


LAST WORDS James Graurholz, ed.

"Last Words" is a scattered collection of journal entries that provide a candid, tender portrait of Burroughs' last days. Quietly powerful, "Last Words" is as iconoclastic as anything Burroughs published in his lifetime.


WILLIAM BURROUGHS: El Hombre Invisible Barry Miles

Barry Miles' examination of Burroughs as pop-culture fixture and literary phenomenon is breezy and insightful: an admiring introduction to the Godfather of Punk. Richly informed and incisive, Miles' newly expanded biography is certain to please Burroughs fans.

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