Naked Lunch: The Story Of A Book

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?”

“Yeah. Fine”

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.

Jon called.

“So are you reading it?”

“Finished 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.”

“Yeah. Bye”

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.





Well you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve waffled on about art. Uncharacteristically this isn’t due to my customary retreat from any form of communication with sentient beings during the winter months, but rather because my attention has be diverted into writing art related stuff for other people. (Look out for an article I’ve got coming up in the next edition of the rather wonderful Something Dark Magazine)

Other than that I’ve been flexing my creative writing muscles, my NaNoWriMo experience turned out quite well in the end.In fact, far from being the sanity destroying disaster I had pessimistically anticipated I found myself at the end of November with fifty thousand odd words of a sprawling, somewhat psychedelic toned novel. On top of that I appear to have made a bunch of rather fab new friends, a shadowy cabal known as the Watershed Writers’ Block. The down side is that I now have peer pressure to produce a piece of creative writing once a month.

As the fruits of this task are likely to have very little to do with Art, (although obliquely there are thematic collisions) this doesn’t seem the right place to put them. So just to make my life even more complicated that it already is I’m pleased to unleash upon the world Test Signals from the Never which is where the blurts from the more twisted and fevered corners of my imagination will appear. Go and have a look.

Normal whimsical art wittering will resume in the Spring.

Hello NaNoWriMo, Goodbye Sanity.

So the last month has seen a real boost to my writing confidence, largely by not only getting a piece of writing commissioned for money like a grown up, but also by getting the piece in question finished on time without any major tantrums and being quite happy with the way it turned out.

So, as it’s getting cold out there, and the attraction of sitting in the shed with my hands in buckets of plaster in winter temperatures seems to be vanishing, I thought I’d give NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for the uninitated) a go.

Of course my history on these writing challenges is not great; I fell out of the 100 days project after a piffling two weeks due to a combination of busyness, laziness, general winter malaise and a calamitous collapse of confidence. So why do I think NaNoWriMo will be any different?

Well, I suppose the freedom of it, for a start. One of the things that kiboshed me on the 100 days project was the need to keep things concise, never my forte, and I always felt vaguely unsatisfied with everything I wrote – there seemed to be so much more to say about each work of art I was looking at and the result was that, to my art history and theory drenched eyes, everything seemed pretty glib and lightweight. With hindsight though, I think the pieces that I did write aren’t bad really, they were right for what I was doing, they got across some of my passion for the subject without disappearing to much into the realms of academic psychobable, I think I was just too close to them at the time.

A novel though I think is a less focussed activity, without the need to finish a coherent piece each day I’m hoping that I’ll find the experience provokes less agonising over editing, beating myself up for leaving vital things out and generally being a neurotic idiot. (Okay that last one is probably a bit of a wish too far, but hope springs eternal).

There’s also the issue of expectations. Following my last disaster, I know this isn’t going to be easy, and that’s exciting and terrifying in equal measures. Characteristically I’m not making it easy for myself either, while other more experienced, and sane, WriMos are carfeully marking up plot outlines, doing the Snowflake method and all manner of tried and tested approaches, I have a beginning and an end and no idea how I’m going to get from one to the other except for a Venn Diagram of where the various characters sit within the two colliding universes that make up my conceptual map of how the whole thing might fit together. In a way it’s not that different to my approach to making art, I don’t like to be too prepared, the making of a piece provokes new ideas and for me creativity is always as much about the journey as it is the final result. In a way I want to be as surprised at the way the story unfolds as my characters and I’m even considering introducing various means of adding a random dimension to the plotting that’s beyond my control, just to keep myself on my toes.

So here we go, the goal of 50,000 words awaits and sloshing around my head are various narrative threads concerning multi-dimensional gods, a virtual reality that alters human perception, The Empty Men (who are going to be quite, quite horrid), a sentient chemical language, hallucinogenic viruses, a black glass planet and the end of all universes – oh and course there’ll be some art crowbarrred in there somewhere.

Hello NaNoWriMo, goodbye sanity.