Tag Archives: Peter Schjeldahl

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.