Tag Archives: cutup technique

Covid-19 Diary, part 9: William Burroughs willed the pandemic into being.

4 Apr


Can you imagine being an addict right now?


I’ve never really liked William Burroughs. I think Junky is a lean 1950s masterpiece, but it isn’t really a novel. As his books become more “literary,” they get worse and worse. His last few novels are unreadably terrible. I despise the cut-up technique, where the original meaning of the text is destroyed. Still, he has acolytes, among them a lot of writers I admire.


I had to read Naked Lunch four or fives times before I gave the audiobook a try. Only then did it make any sense to me at all.


Me: What’d you get mad at Pearl for?

Beth: Oh, you know.


David Cronenberg adapted it into a very odd film. There’s a typewriter with a human butthole—that it speaks out of—and a stripped down clapboard aesthetic. In some ways, the movie is weirder than the book. Cronenberg and Burroughs—there’s a marriage made in some netherworld. 


If you read into Burroughs at all, he’s a very sinister figure. He called his cut-up technique a type of disruptive sorcery, a way of breaking down barriers between different realities. He was trying to maim the world. 


At a party in Mexico, he also shot Joan Vollmer, his second wife, in the head, killing her. He claimed it was a failed William Tell act. He later admitted that this murder jumpstarted his writing career.


Burroughs: “In the magical universe there are no coincidences and no accidents.” 


Patti Smith is infatuated with Burroughs, and it shows in her lyrics. Her great memoir, Just Kids, details how to be an artist and poor. Or, rather, how the two are linked. (Don’t worry; there’s plenty of drug use, too.)


Herbert Hunke was a drug-using hustler who fell in with Keroauc, Cassidy, Snyder, Diane Di Prima and the rest. By all accounts, he’s the guy who introduced heroine into their circle. (He also wrote an unforgettable short story, “In the Park,” that will break your heart.)


Me: I’ve got it! Alone at Home. The third movie in the Home Alone trilogy. It has a grown-up Kevin, in a giant mansion, all alone while the pandemic rages outside. He spends his days walking around, revisiting memories. Maybe someone tries to break in. There’s no dialogue, he watches the news, he checks his email, he tries to skype with his family. That’s the whole film.

Pearl: And then he dies at the end.

Me: Right! The last fifteen minutes is just a closeup of his face as he struggles to breathe.

Beth: The whole movie is flashbacks?

Me: No, the movie just follows him around, bored and scared, for two hours. It’s basically an art movie.

Beth: Sounds . . . really good.


I read Trainspotting in 1997. It was as revelatory as the movie. A druggy, often hallucinatory novel written in a Scottish patois. I was an Irvine Welsh man for a couple of years afterwards.


After Claude is a great drug novel. Written by Iris Owens, it’s also, in essence, non-fiction, about partiers in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. It’s a strange and wonderful piece of writing. Drugs are used to dominate and manipulate women.


The Ginger Man isn’t really about drugs at all, but squalor. J.P. Donleavy was an American expatriate living in Ireland. He out-writes most of the Irish writers we celebrate, but only—as far as I can tell—with this novel. If James Joyce toned down some of the more obscure references, and wrote about drunks in Ireland in the late 1950s, you’d have the flavor of this funny, horrifying novel. (Gary Gilmore, the killer in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, mentions The Ginger Man as one of his favorite books.)


There’s something about your life being boiled down to a single need. That’s the appeal of the drug story. The junkie who lives for one thing: the next hit.


With the sheltering in place and the soaring death toll, where does a junkie go?


Junkies are often powerless. They require movement for their scheming. They have only their charm and diminishing cleverness to satiate their hunger.


That hunger easily fills any number of metaphors, especially for being alive.


Beth: I didn’t just develop mental retardation with the spread of the Corona Virus.

Me: Who said anything about “develop?”

(Beth leaves the room.)

Me: You can’t develop something you already have!

(Beth doesn’t respond.)

Me (going into our bedroom): Why aren’t you laughing at that sweet burn?

Beth: (pause) That was pretty good, actually.


A thousand years ago I wrote a short story about Hunke, lost on some former hard drive. He rips off some of his writer buddies and heads out for Texas. It wasn’t very good. I’ve never been a junkie, save for my coffee addiction. I don’t really understand the sullying, overriding need.


1,000 New Yorkers died overnight—one thousand people in a single day. 


Burroughs often writes about pestilence and disease, viruses that spiral out of control. His misanthropy gives his books a repugnant jolt. He saw language itself as an alien virus that passes from one generation to the next. Language is alive, and a parasite feeding off its human hosts.


Burroughs would interpret Covid-19 as some kind of necromantic revenge, the dead finally figuring out a way to avenge themselves on the living. Or as language itself separating from its human hosts. 


I can see Burroughs, craggy-faced and lanky, standing in a hazmat suit while spraying clouds of synthetic cleaner, waltzing around the desolate Times Square, his ancient features illuminated by the flashing neon. He would have admired the malicious simplicity of the ongoing national tragedy. 

Interlude 4: Brief essay on pestilential weed (also known as William Burroughs)

31 Jan

(Writing, writing, writing. Working on next National Book Award essay, as well as latest novel manuscript.)


There’s one lunatic in American letters who shot his way into the canon and doesn’t belong there.

It’s time to speak of William Burroughs.

Burroughs is a strange figure—truly fringe—who managed to storm the walls of American culture and appear in the mainstream. He’s a prime mover in drug fiction—one of the founding fathers of a whole genre of writing. He’s the originator of some startling ideas. He has legions of admirers. And he’s a talented writer who wrote many bad books.

He wrote one great book: Junky. Influenced by Herbert Huncke he catalogs the urban wanderings of a group of nomadic addicts in 1950s America. It’s lean, elegant, taut—near perfect. I love it. It reads like a memoir, or an oral history, which is how the project began. Burroughs could have written novels like this his whole career and he’d be a John Fante for the second half of the 20th century.

Instead, we have giant cockroaches and despicable yellow dust. For the more writerly Burroughs tried to be, the worse his books became.

Naked Lunch is not without its merits, but I challenge anyone to decipher it in any kind of joyful way. It’s drudgery, the reading of it, with moments of soaring prose.

Ditto for The Soft Machine. Ditto for The Place of Dead Roads. Minus the soaring prose.

Exterminator is worth reading, I suppose. So is Queer, an inferior sequel to Junky.

That’s it. Avoid the rest.

Burroughs is extreme—his books are ultra-violent, pornographic and alienating—but the lurid descriptions seem like they are the point of his writing. They aren’t used for anything. They serve no purpose.

Burroughs is viciously amoral. I prefer the thrum of Celine’s misanthropy, or the rutting excesses of DeSade, to Burroughs and his disaffected violence, grotesque in its casualness. He isn’t satirizing anything. He isn’t critiquing. He isn’t recording, cataloging or bearing witness to anything. He’s just . . . spitting. Or belching.

He isn’t really even experimental. He got high, wrote down a bunch of shit, and then tied it all together with bugs and aliens and guns and poison.

He isn’t Joyce. Or Stein. Or Markson. Or Erickson. His cutup technique all these years later seems lazy, unfocused. He writes stream of consciousness with no glue.

And without beauty, or a good story, or interesting characters, or a narrative thread, reading his later novels is an exercise in—I don’t know how to categorize it—poetic masochism? Stream of consciousness flaggelation?

Peter Schjeldahl nails it with his review (the reason I decided to weigh in here).

Not a nice guy.

Not a nice guy.


Burroughs’s life is more interesting than his fictions.

He is born in 1914 but he is never young.

From St. Louis to Harvard to the streets of New York City.

Junk, rough trade, guns, the hustle.

Gay. But he marries.

From NYC to Texas, to grow marijuana on a dirt-farm. Has a child.

Gives the boy his name.

Toil, raw earth, struggle.

Failure, frustration—on to Mexico.

Drugs and more drugs. He shoots his wife in the head at a party.

She dies. He flees. All over, up and down the Amazon.

To London. To Paris. To Tangiers—where he spends time with Paul and Jane Bowles (how’s that for a great set up for a movie or play).

Drug-fueled peregrinations. Booze and pills. Minor celebrity.

All of it adds mystique to a dreadful man who was an okay artist. He should have read more and lived less. The epiphanies that most people experience when they have children—that your life is no longer solely your own; that the world exists independent of your urges; that kindness and decency have to be taught—never took hold. He faded out of our reality into his books. He’s a specter. He’s a shade. The emptiness in his books is the emptiness that resides inside him. It’s a cosmic hollowness. A vast disconnectedness. He’s a reptilian brain with a fierce, evolved intelligence, with none of that pesky morality.

Read Barry Hannah instead (He wrote a crazy story about Burroughs, “Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other”). Or J.P. Donleavy. Or Ginsberg, or Huncke, or Keroauc. All better writes in the final tally. They all have some essential humanity; Burroughs lost his somewhere before his life began.

Disagree? Let’s get into it.