Trying to decide what books to take with me on holiday, it dawned on me that I hadn’t had my annual read of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. I pulled my copy from the the chaos of our book filing ‘system’ – an efficient method by which we cram books onto shelves based on space available with scant regard for subject matter or size – and it fell apart in my hands.
I bought that copy when I was 15 with a book token that a well-meaning relative had given me for my birthday. On that Friday afternoon after school, there was a frisson of adolescent rebellion as I headed to the bookshop – I’d heard whispers at school of the ‘most shocking book ever written’, of its non-stop orgy of sex and drug use and yet no-one seemed to have read it or to be able to give any specifics. I remember being surprised at the time that such a devastatingly immoral book could be found in the ‘Contemporary Fiction’ section – surely it had been misplaced from either the top shelf Adult Section or at a push (if some of the rumours were true) in the horror section next to James Herbert’s lurid descriptions of people being eaten by giant rats mid-coitus.
I pulled the book off the shelf and glancing around to check that no friends of my parents had wandered in to buy the latest Jilly Cooper, I looked down at the literary dynamite in my hands.
The cover didn’t look that shocking – a pastel blue screaming face with jagged teeth that mimicked the expressionist skyline that rose behind. I blinked, confused. Pastel blue wasn’t the colour of dangerous fiction – that was black, with red splatters, or embossed like the copy of Salem’s Lot that I’d sneaked from my brother’s bookshelf when I thought no-one was looking. But I was mindful of the cliché of never judging a book by its colour, so I turned it over in my sweaty paws and read the blurb:
‘True genius and first mythographer of the mid-twentieth century, William Burroughs is the lineal succesor to James Joyce’ J.G.Ballard”
Um. What? As much as I liked Ballard – I’d read The Drowned World and Concrete Island, although at this stage I’d never heard of Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition – this didn’t exactly lead me to believe that the book contained the amoral filth I was hoping for, and wasn’t James Joyce some dusty old Victorian?. I carried on reading:
“A book of great beauty, great difficulty and maniacally exquisite insight” Norman Mailer
Beauty? Difficulty? Insight? These were not words I associated with decadence and degeneracy. Maniacal? Well I’ll give you that one, but who the hell is Norman Mailer?
I was starting to think that I’d somehow been the victim of a practical joke, but I’d been swaggering all week about buying the book to Jon and David, and since they were infinitely more cool than me, I had to go through with it. A failure to be the first in our gang to obtain the apparently forbidden text would be a loss of face I might not recover from.
Still it had ‘Naked’ in the title, so that had to count for something.
Avoiding eye contact with the salesperson I handed over the book and token, quickly jammed my bounty into my schoolbag and headed home. After the usual small talk with Mum about the day I headed up to my room and stuck a record on (I was in my ‘if it’s cheerful it’s probably not worth listening to’ stage so it was probably something with a blurry monochrome sleeve).
I pulled the book out of my bag and, skipping the introduction (Did anyone read those?), began to read:
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A-Train…”
After two pages I was hooked. After an hour the needle had lifted off the vinyl and the silence was no longer interupted. After a couple of hours Mum called me down to eat.
I ate in silence, punch drunk on a torrent of new words and ideas.
“You’re very quiet. Are you alright?”
She shrugged, at this point in my life my being monosyllabic was not unusual.
I bolted my meal and as soon as middle-class protocol would allow, headed back upstairs.
I met Dr. Benway, conductor of questionable medical procedures, Hassan and AJ hosts of the greatest parties mankind has ever seen and Bradley the Buyer, the narc agent who went native and became a sentient blob of carnivorous slime. I walked the street of New York, Interzone and Anexia. I chortled at the man who taught his asshole how to talk and recoiled from Mugwumps and Giant Centipedes.
I read into the early morning and when I’d finished something inside me had changed forever. While I was on this strange psychedelic, surrealistic journey cogs had been turning in my mind and when, in the early hours of Saturday morning, I finished the last page, something clicked. I had tuned in to the rhythmic disruptions of language, to the strange narrative structure with its discontinuities, non-sequiters and dizzying shifts between times and places.
I turned the light off and lay awake thinking until the sun came up. That morning everything was different, I couldn’t rationalise it, I couldn’t say how things had changed, but I knew I’d never look at the world in the same way again.
“So are you reading it?”
“Must be good. Any juicy bits?”
“Um, some. But it’s not that sort of book.”
“Eh? Well bring it round. Dave’s coming over with the new Cure album.”
“Nah. I’m gonna stay in and read it again.”
“Oh right, suit yerself. See you Monday then.”
I read it three more times over that weekend, this time with the introduction and appendices. I read it again several more times in the months that followed and since then, just over 28 years ago, I’ve read it at least once a year. Every time I discover something new in it and every time it sets my synapses crackling with images and ideas.
But now the problem comes. My copy is too well read, too well loved and too well travelled. It’s been a constant companion as I’ve trotted round the globe, it’s seen me through triumphs and disasters, and no matter how many times I’ve moved house it’s one of a handful of objects that I’ve always known instantly where to find. Flipping (carefully) through the pages now I can see that it bears the marks of those travels and adventures; a beer stain here, a blood stain there, some grains of sand trapped in between paper deep where the page meets the binding, it’s even got a few old bus tickets haunting it – long obsolete bookmarks, their destinations faded.
My rational self tells me that it’s not the object that matters, it’s the text. It’s Uncle Bill’s words that are important, not the bundle of paper fibres, glue and printing ink. Yet even when the ‘restored and expanded’ edition of the text was published in 2001, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it – it would have felt like a betrayal. It wasn’t just Naked Lunch that changed my life and my view of the world, it was the battered and stained copy that I’d bought all those years ago.
Sadly though the time has come for me to take the plunge and get a new copy, my friend with the pastel blue face won’t survive another read without disintegrating. It’s going to hurt, and I know that somehow reading a pristine new copy won’t be the same no matter how much I try to rationalise it. Of course I’ll never throw this copy away. It’ll sit on the bookshelf next to whatever text winds up next to it during the next random clear up. It’ll be with me ’til I die.
Perhaps though, that’s as it should be. After all, it wouldn’t do to be calm and clinical about a book in which William Lee states “Exterminate all rational thought!”
Ohwell, perhaps it’ll survive just one more read for old time’s sake.