William S. Burroughs

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El Hombre Invisible

"Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can't mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind, any more than a smallpox virus has."
—William S. Burroughs
"Nothing is true, everything is permitted."
—The Last Words of Hassan i Sabbah

One of the great innovators of the twentieth century and founding member of the Beats, William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was the avant-garde author of over twenty books, ranging from straightforward and autobiographical (Junky, Queer) to surreal and anarchic (Naked Lunch, and The Nova Trilogy) to nostalgic, solemn and elegiac (The Wild Boys and The Red Night Trilogy). As the titles of his first two books imply, he was both a drug-addict and a homosexual bisexual, something he had always been grimly unapologetic about.

His books contain graphic depictions of drug-usage and sodomy, which are still shocking, even by today's comparably cynical standards. But, subject matter aside, his prose was always inspirational and stunningly original, flowing like poetry even while depicting shit and ejaculation. Frequently taking Refuge in Audacity and always Crossing the Line Twice, Burroughs was called the 'greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift' (author of the misanthropic Gullivers Travels and the baby-eating fun of A Modest Proposal) by friend and fellow Beat writer, Jack Kerouac, and the controversy surrounding his opus, Naked Lunch, effectively ended literary censorship in America.

And rightly so. Burroughs's 'routines', as he called them, are the literary equivalent to a depraved vaudeville act, or by modern sensibility, a raunchy sketch show. Utilizing over-the-top characterization and hilariously opaque scenarios, Burroughs's fiction can change scenes at the drop of the hat, jumping from short, punchy hilarity to weird sex back to short, punchy hilarity. But, humor aside, he always had something completely serious to say. His experiences as a drug addict allowed him to see the complications of life reduced to a grimy skeleton, what he called 'The Algebra of Need'.

In fact, Junky reads more like an anthropological analysis of drug-addiction than a personal memoir and his follow up, Queer, (which wasn't published until many years later) occupies a sort of middle ground. His habit of telling outrageous routines originates in the latter, growing outwards like a fungus, but it was written out of desperation, in the wake of a great personal tragedy, which has since become legend. Burroughs shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head during a drunken game of 'William Tell'. While it was likely just a drunken accident, Burroughs couldn't help but think there was something in his subconscious that drove him to it, and later claimed he was possessed by 'The Ugly Spirit'.

Despite his personal troubles and the controversy surrounding his work, Burroughs became highly influential and respected by a wide variety of younger artists, most notably, the more famous beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After experimenting with the cut-up technique, he almost pioneered the graphic novel form (Alan Moore openly cites Burroughs as a prominent inspiration), but couldn't get the funds, because of the expenses of color copying. His works have also served as an important influence on Cyberpunk and "New Wave" Science Fiction. And of course, there's his literary heir, Hunter S. Thompson, who was basically Burroughs but straight, younger, a sportswriter, a gun nut, and focused more on nonfiction. Most Thompson fans have at least a liking for Burroughs, and vice versa.

Burroughs' use of the cut-up technique, surrealist satire and harsh criticism of society made him a countercultural figure starting in The Seventies, and he began to be cited as a significant influence by numerous musicians, including Genesis P-Orridge, Ian Curtis, Al Jourgensen, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Kurt Cobain, Roger Waters, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith and others. Burroughs himself later embarked on a spoken word career, collaborating with Ministry, Throbbing Gristle, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Kurt Cobain among others. His last filmed performance was in the video for "Last Night on Earth" by U2.

Not to be confused with Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Works written by William S. Burroughs include:
  • And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks: Early novel, a collaboration with Jack Kerouac, recently dusted off and published forty years after being written.
  • Junky
  • Queer
  • Interzone: A collection of early routines that show Burroughs stylistic progression from his realistic works to the uncompromising surrealism of his later work.
  • Naked Lunch: Burroughs most famous work, a collection of farcical sketches that unmask the horrors lurking beneath the calm veneer of modern life.
  • The Nova Trilogy: A Space Opera about a group of extraterrestrial terrorists called the 'Nova Mob' who want to ignite the earth into an exploding Super Nova by creating insoluble conflicts. They can only be stopped by the Nova Police, who understand that "Nobody, on any planet, wants to see a police officer". Thought to be nigh unreadable because of Burrough's extensive use of the 'cut-up' technique, which involves cutting up a page of text into four pieces and re-arranging them to create new text. Although contrary to the claims of bewildered skeptics, the observant reader, if patient, can see a fairly reliable pattern emerge. Usually, a chapter will start out fairly straightforward, with normal prose and everything, then after the bulk of the story is told, the reader will become aware that they're reading the same story, only "cut-up" and may become aware of new connotations and subtleties not noticed in the original. And sometimes, passages will descend into strings of seemingly random cut-up images. If taken into account that this was Burroughs' attempt to introduce the montage technique of film into literature, some of the more incoherent passages will begin to make a lot more sense.

The Soft Machine
The Ticket that Exploded
Nova Express

  • The Wild Boys: Homoerotic fantasy in which savage teenage boys in nothing but rainbow colored jockstraps and roller blades destroy western civilization. Notable for being Burroughs' first attempt to return to a straightforward narrative since 'Queer', while managing to retain several scenes of kaleidoscopic free-association free for all, in the 'Penny Arcade Peep Show' sections. That aside, it's actually quite accessible and a great way to experiences Burroughs' savage satire if Naked Lunch is proving too difficult.
  • Ah Puch Is Here: Burroughs and Malcolm McNeil's early attempt to elevate the graphic novel into an art form, named after the Mayan God of Death. Although sadly it was never completed due to the costs of color copying at the time (a hindrance Burroughs earlier faced when trying to publish The Third Mind, his collaboration with Brion Gysin), some unfinished panels can be viewed here allowing us to all know exactly what we missed.
  • The Red Night Trilogy: Burrough's last great work; a psychedelic journey through six irradiated cities from the past that were struck by an asteroid from a red sky. The first chronicles a dual narrative about a psychic detective and some gay pirates, both which tangle together in the first of the six titular cities, Tamaghis. The second book follows a time-traveling old-western shootist, which somehow sets up the third's odyssey through the Egyptian Land of the Dead, culminating in a satisfying conclusion to Burroughs's mythology. Contains frequent references and homages to earlier works and some of the most delicious opinion pieces and elderly scorn ever written, as well as (thankfully) conservative use of the cut-up technique, these last three books can be taken as Burrough's final thesis in regards to his entire career.

Cities of the Red Night
The Place of Dead Roads
The Western Lands

  • The Cat Inside: A quirky novel that showcases a lighter Burroughs and his love of cats.
  • My Education: A collection of forty years worth of dreams.
  • Exterminator!: A collection of short stories ("The 'Priest' They Called Him") and poems ("Cold Lost Marbles," "My Legs Señor")