To read William Burroughs is to discover a different world where people speak a different language -- a world you thought existed but never knew you thought existed. It is a place where borders are temporary, even viscous: bodies ooze and... [more]
To read William Burroughs is to discover a different world where people speak a different language -- a world you thought existed but never knew you thought existed. It is a place where borders are temporary, even viscous: bodies ooze and slime, semen flows freely, erections leap across the pages, and heroin streams from vein to vein to vein.
While he acted as perverted uncle to the Beats, Burroughs created a style that is only tangentially Beat: his books lack the romanticism of Kerouac or Ginsberg. And his books are definitely more odd: characters die only to reappear as different characters, in different times, and sometimes, in different books. It seems as if all of Burroughs' characters morph into each other at some point or other.
His writing embodies this relentless flow; the narrative voice ceaselessly shifts, at one moment originating from a gun-toting redneck, then from a bureaucrat on the take, then from an old queen doling out advice. Burroughs' hilarious yet disconcerting books are close to being novelistic cartoons: bodies are extended, twisted, smashed, folded, and cut up in the span of a few pages.
In the 1930s, Burroughs commenced the greatest experiment of his life when he moved to New York and delved into the seamy world of the heroin addict. It was in New York that he was introduced to the vital group of young Columbia students -- including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac -- that would eventually associate him with the Beat movement.
Though he was older and far more underworldly than his idealistic friends, he was influenced by them to begin writing -- his first novel, "Junky," came out in 1953. As his drug habit kept him on the run from the law, Burroughs kept on the move, residing at various times in Texas, Mexico, South America, and Tangier. In 1959, he penned his most famous novel, "Naked Lunch," a twisted odyssey through a mindscape of delusions and perversions.
Burroughs is, of course, famous for using the cut-up method to write his books: devised by his friend and fellow artist and writer, Brion Gysin, the cut-up method involved taking existing texts -- one's own books, the newspaper, Shakespeare -- cutting the pages up, putting them in a hat, then assembling them in the order they were pulled out. According to Burroughs and Gysin, there's no such thing as an accident: every cut-up is, at some level, necessary and inevitable.
As Burroughs got older, he got wiser; in the last 10 or 15 years of his life, he took all he learned from art and experience -- including the infamous William Tell incident when he accidentally iced his second wife with a poorly aimed gunshot -- and turned out brilliant books. In the end, Burroughs left us with a sprawling literary legacy whose influence can be found in the books of Kathy Acker, Denis Johnson, Steve Erickson, William Gibson, and Thomas Pynchon. [show less]