Naked Lunch- William S. Burroughs

“There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing… I am a recording instrument… I do not presume to impose “story” “plot” “continuity”… Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function… I am not an entertainer…”

I have a weakness for difficult books. Whenever I read a list of the most difficult books in the English language I have a burning desire to conquer all of them. Sometimes that is a good impulse (like when I decided to read Gravity’s Rainbow) but sometimes it gets me in trouble (like when I inevitably give in and read Finnegans Wake). After seeing Naked Lunch touted multiple times as one of the most difficult works in the English language, I decided to finally give in and read it. After I finished the book I was baffled, disgusted and ultimately disappointed by this dense postmodern novel, and not because it was hard to understand.

Really, a non-linear book does not bother me. In fact, I much prefer non-linear story lines. To me, it reminds me more of how we end up learning about events. Very rarely does somebody sit down and give us a clear “a to b” recounting of events, whether they be historical or personal. Rather, we learn the truth bits and pieces at a time, often out of order, and eventually are able to see the full picture in retrospect.

So the structure of Naked Lunch did not really bother me. Naked Lunch is broken into individual vignettes that are unrelated but technically tied together by a thin plot. What really stopped me from enjoying the book is that everything seemed so disconnected that I could not see any real relevance between parts.  Individual parts were great, especially the hallucinatory cityscape scenes that reminded me a lot of the odder parts of Gravity’s Rainbow (especially the scenes in Peenemunde or the expanding city.) But unlike many other dense postmodern novels, the scenes never seemed to have any significance to the overall plot, they just were weird for the sake of being weird.

naked-lunchThis problem becomes especially clear in the more graphic and disturbing scenes. I do not consider myself overly prudish when it comes to the darker side of life, but Naked Lunch is by far the most disgusting and disturbing book I have ever read. The point of all the terrible scenes is to evoke the feelings of terribleness and horror that are part of modern society, and more precisely the life of a heroin addict. However, they never seemed to have more going on than mere shock value and their effort to disturb the audience.

I will compare Naked Lunch to Ulysses by James Joyce, because both books ended up being banned and required a trial to establish whether or not they were too obscene for the general public. Ulysses has its fair share of questionable scenes (especially Episode 13 with Leopold’s voyeuristic masturbation) but they serve a deeper purpose. In the episode mentioned earlier, the scene establishes the loneliness and isolation of Leopold Bloom. His voyeuristic tendencies are an outward expression of his inward feelings of impotence and loneliness. We learn a lot about Leopold as a person and we are given insight into a part of our own psyche that may be suppressed or hidden. We learn to relate to Leopold. The scenes in Naked Lunch, however, doing nothing more than disturb the audience and never really establish a deeper meaning beyond helping us feel disgusted by our society. This really bothered me. I can stomach disturbing or inappropriate images, but they have to have meaning. Otherwise they are just pornography.

But Naked Lunch is not completely bad. There are some interesting ideas and the writing can be hilarious at times. Like I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed some of the parts, but not enough to enjoy the book as a whole. I will openly admit that I very possibly just “didn’t get it.” The best thing that I got from Naked Lunch is that I can see the influence of William Burroughs on my favorite authors and I was once again convinced that I never want to be a heroin addict (as if I needed more convincing). I cannot recommend this book to anybody. If you want to read it, fine. I may even go back sometime in the future to try to wring a little bit of meaning out of it, but as it stands I was severely disappointed by Naked Lunch.


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