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'Possessed By Genius': A Centennial Tribute To William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs' cult novel <em>Naked Lunch</em> has sold more than 1 million copies since its publication in 1959.
Evening Standard
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William S. Burroughs' cult novel Naked Lunch has sold more than 1 million copies since its publication in 1959.

William S. Burroughs was a counterculture icon: In more than two dozen books, including the landmark novel Naked Lunch, he laid down an original vision that influenced everyone from political activists to punk rockers, filmmakers to sci-fi writers.

In 1962, writer Norman Mailer described him as "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius."

Burroughs was born 100 years ago Wednesday.

'Life Is A Cut-Up'

Burroughs believed words took on new meaning if you could see them or hear them in a new way. So beginning in 1959, he made his "cut-up" recordings: Using reel-to-reel tape, Burroughs recorded snippets of everything from readings to TV and radio clips, then rewound, randomly stopped and recorded over the original sounds.

It's the same technique Burroughs used in his masterpiece novel Naked Lunch — he shuffled the sections of that manuscript before submitting it to the publisher. The result is a story that jumps from scene to scene, idea to idea, narrator to narrator, in a random, disjointed manner.

As Burroughs told me in 1987 — in the New York apartment he called "The Bunker" — the idea for the cut-ups came from his friend and collaborator, the late avant-garde artist Brion Gysin.

"He was, of course, the inventor of the cut-up method, which did introduce an element of chance into selection of material for writing," Burroughs said. "And of course then he realized that life is a cut-up. Every time you walk down the street or look out the window, you're conscious is being cut by these random factors. So it's really closer to the actual facts of perception."

Burroughs' perception while writing Naked Lunch was affected by heroin — and withdrawal from it. In a commercial recording, he extrapolated the terror of that withdrawal into a vivid scene of horrible creatures drinking in a dark cafe:

The vivid language and erotic fantasies in Naked Lunch led to an obscenity trial, which the writer and his publisher won.

Three Beats And One 'New Vision'

Barry Miles, author of the new, 600-page biography Call Me Burroughs, says the central theme of much of what Burroughs wrote is the attempt of those in power to control those who aren't.

"I think his main role has been to look for control systems," he says. "Find out who you really are rather than who other people want you to be or what circumstances have made you. And [that] I think we need [more] than ever, quite honestly. I mean, this society becomes more and more a surveillance society and less and less a democratic society."

Yet Burroughs still came from society. He was named for his grandfather, the inventor of the adding machine and founder of the Burroughs Corp. He went to Harvard and studied English, but had no intention of writing until he met 17-year-old poet Allen Ginsberg and 21-year-old novelist Jack Kerouac. They shared an apartment, and what they called "a new vision."

"Artistically, we were doing completely different things," Burroughs said in 1987. "It comes down to the fact that we did have quite a lot in common: being interested in expanded awareness and being completely disillusioned with all the old answers."

A Pivotal Moment In Mexico City

It was the beginning of what came to be known as the Beat Generation, and in its circle Burroughs found a soul mate. Joan Vollmer became his common-law wife of six years, even though he himself was gay (he preferred the word "queer").

In 1951, they were living in Mexico City when they found themselves drunk at a party.

"It was during this party that at one point he just told Joan, 'Let's do our William Tell act,' " Miles says. "And she put this shot glass on her head and he whipped out his gun, and he missed. He shot low and got her in the forehead. It was quite clearly an accident, but he felt that some bad part of him, some evil spirit in him, had motivated him."

In 1985, Burroughs told me he spent the rest of his life trying to write his way out of Joan's death.

"It was an event that made me see, or, made me into a writer," he said. "And of course, a writer often has — all his work will pivot around some simple idea, like Poe, the fear of being buried alive, which happened in those days. But it was a sort of a pivotal event."

Before that, in novels like Queer and Junky, Burroughs' writing was more or less straightforward autobiography. Afterward, he began to write the denser, visionary prose of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and Nova Express. Even autobiographical characters, like Kim Carsons of 1984's The Place Of Dead Roads, became more fantastic. Here's how Burroughs describes Carsons in the book:

'We've Barely Started To Touch Him'

Burroughs became a magnet for artists, musicians and wannabe hipsters, but biographer Miles says the writer's influence is yet to be completely understood.

"I think the Beats have now, they've all died — all the main ones except Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And we're now starting to be able to see them from a distance and appreciate who was really important and who wasn't," he says. "And I think Burroughs is possibly now the leader, really the lead contender. [He's] someone whose work is so deep and on so many levels ... that we've barely started to touch him."

William S. Burroughs died in 1997 at the age of 83.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale