The title means exactly what the words say: NAKED Lunch - a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork. When William Seward Burroughs completed The Naked Lunch in 1958 at the age of 44, he had only one other novel to his credit, despite being the oldest and wisest of the close-knit set that also launched Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg into the spotlight. This being the 19505, the autobiographical Junky had only made it onto the shelves, under the pseudonym William Lee, in the garb of a lurid crime thriller; Queer, the manuscript which took up the story from there and centred on his homosexuality, did not appear in print at all until 1985. , » Both of those books (and
Interzone, which appeared in 1989 and collected previously unpublished writings) show how well the early Burroughs could handle cOnventional prose. In Junky, he had
obsessions have surfaced in all his works, from The Naked Lunch onwards. .
‘My concept of possession," he wrote in the introduction to Queer, . ‘is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without.’ He saw himself locked into a struggle with an invader from which he had no choice but to write his way out.
Fragmented and expressionistic, The Naked Lunch drew upon his
NAKED LUNCH FEATURE
orgasm, a junk-sick dawn, the ‘No glot . . . C’lom Fliday’ chant, the grey smell of rectal mucous— provide signposts, of a kind, for the reader intent on making sense of it. ’ Later, he was to stumble upon the techniques of cut-up and fold-in (which recombined his own and . other authors’ prose at random), which were intended to bring into the open not only messages from the author’s subconsciOus, but predictions of future events and
I messages from other dimensions. He
even made cut-ups of medical journals in the hope that they would
from a drug-befuddled denial of his homosexuality to a celebration of it in literary form. ‘It begins with the drug,’ explains Cronenberg, ‘because we have posited a man, Bill Lee, who is evading a lot of things — himself, his homosexuality, his creativity. He’s trying to “exterminate all rational thought”, as he says, and live a straight life — married, got a job, all ofthat stuff. But he can’t allow himselfto do it,.so the drugs are the first way that he seeks to destroy the middle-class existence that he seems to think he wants. So what really happens is that drugs gradually are taken over by the creative act itself. Really, what I’m saying is that there are many ways that we can alter reality for ourselves, including drugs and any kind of art.’
Like the wizened Mugwump who first tells Bill Lee about Interzone, or the squelchy Sex Blob which emerges from the typewriter when Bill and Joan Frost type forbidden sexual things into it, the insect-typewriter is a classic example of what Cronenberg calls
wanted to present as accurate an account of his addiction as possible, and his style was laconic, expunged of sentiment, dry as weathered old
Bold, experimental, The Naked Lunch marked a quantum leap from his previous work; but the ground was gained at a price.
Without the fatal shooting of his wife, Joan, Burroughs asserts, neither Naked Lunch nor any of his other books would have been written. He maintains that her death at his hands turned him into a writer, and equally strenuously argues that her killing was the result of his ‘ possession by another entity. His coldly analytical mind was preoccupied with telepathy, psychic phenomena and the mysticism of ancient civilisations, and these
‘making the mental physical’, a plastic image of an abstract mental state.
‘Let’s say, being Freudian for the moment, that Bill Lee’s an exterminator, he’s trying to exterminate insects; but he’s also trying to exterminate his straight life, and he achieves that. It’s right then that the instrument of his salvation should be this insect—typewriter. Which also represents the writer‘s unconscious, the thing that you have to tap into; that’s why I’ve made it kind of sexual and gooey as well.’
Cronenberg’s major innovation, and the element which makes the film most his own, is the incorporation of Burroughs’ writing of The Naked Lunch into a complex narrative structure. Films about writers and the act of writing are notoriously difficult to pull off and, to avoid this trap, Cronenberg has re-created not so much the process of writing as the act of creation; not the physical act of typing but the mental act ofimagining.
‘The normal movie about a writer — and in a way Barton Fink is no exception — consists
experiences as a junky to portray a nightmarish world which consisted of a series of control systems, each inﬁltrated by rival factions of ‘power
Burroughs saw the book as a ‘direct recording of certain areas of psychic process’, and graced it with neither linear plot nor rounded characters. The chapters developed from what he called his ‘routines’. These were absurd improvised monologues at one time intended to lure prospectivelovers to his bed, but the soliloquies mutated until they seemed to belong inside some profane Surrealist stand-up nightclub. That the book’s structure was determined by the order that these sections arrived at the printer‘s heightens the disorientation, while recurring images -— the ﬂash bulb of
reveal a cure for cancer.
However, those experiments lay in the future. The associations of The Naked Lunch were made purely inside the writer’s head; his own synapses were the tools he used to create it, not the scissors and paste of the years to come.
The grotesque but compelling vision, the power of his language, the darkness of his wit - all are still potent for anyone coming to Burroughs for the first time. His biographer, Ted Morgan, was impressed by what he saw as a startlingly accurate prediction of the late 20th century, written in the mid-SOs; but the implications of the fact that, as in Junky, Burroughs was trying to put the world down on paper literally as he saw it, are perhaps more chilling still.
of lots of shots of a guy sitting in a room, smoking cigarettes, drinking, typing, and maybe some voice-over. I find that boring and really not very revealing. And, in fact, it’s not even the way it feels, because when you’re writing you don’t feel yourselfsitting there, you’re in your head.
‘So I tried to turn the process inside out, by making the typewriter a living, talking creature, and by representing the writer’s sometimes difficult relationship with his writing machine. This is what it’s like when you write — the typewriter talks to you; it pushes you around, and you push it back. It tells you you’ve gotta do this and that; it says, “People from other places, and I’m not going to tell you who, are saying you better do this.” And to me that’s like the process of writing: we are all filing reports to somebody, our audience, but we don’t know who they are.’
Naked Lunch opens at selected cinemas in Scotland on Friday I May.
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