by Michael Moorcock
A Review, Written under the Pseudonym “James Colvin,” of The Naked Lunch
Mary McCarthy has said of Burroughs and The Naked Lunch “This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction — the others are entertainment… In him, as in Swift, there is a kind of soured Utopianism.” Although this suggests that she is not all that familiar with modern SF, she has a good point and Burroughs’ genius of course towers over the talents of the majority of our SF writers. Even those who object to his subject matter and literary innovations must admit that his ability to handle the English language is greater than any of his contemporaries.
Not since Joyce has there been a writer of such power and richness, and never before has there been purely imaginative writing of such wildness and intelligence. Burroughs is a satirist — his most obvious talents lie in this direction. More savage and puritanical than Swift or Eliot, more sweeping in his attacks, he is a cosmic satirist, taking a rise not only out of the human race but also out of Time and Space. He lets no one and nothing — physical or metaphysical — off lightly. Although often compared with Rabelais, he is much closer to Swift in that he lacks the magnanimity of Rabelais — there is no gentle fun in The Naked Lunch. If Swift wrote the first SF tale, then Burroughs has produced the ultimate one — choosing a wider selection of targets, dealing with them with a fierceness of attack, an intensity of vision, a mastery of language that inspires horror at a picture of life which is at once distorted and more truthful than anything else in literature.
The book covers such a wide range of subjects and ideas that it can be interpreted on dozens of different levels. JG Ballard sees Burroughs as fashioning from “our dreams and nightmares the first authentic mythology of the age of Cape Canaveral, Hiroshima and Belsen. His novels are the terminal documents of the mid-twentieth century, scabrous, scarifying, a progress report from an inmate in the cosmic madhouse” (New Worlds 142). On the other hand Irving Wardle (The Observer, 22nd November, 1964) thinks that “the essence of the book is in its record of the addict’s life — the daily pursuit of dope, the voluptuously savoured moment of the fix, and the apocalyptic fantasies it releases for which Burroughs draws on a large medical vocabulary as a brilliant extension of emotional language.” Anthony Burgess does not agree — “Burroughs is demonstrating that his difficult subject can only be expressed through the static (that is neither didactic nor pornographic) shaping of the imagination” (The Guardian, 20th November, 1964) — and so on and so on. Those who admire Burroughs cannot always agree on why they like him — he has so much to offer that The Naked Lunch can be read many times before all its levels and implications become clear. This is partially its appeal for me — to know that I can enjoy it once, begin it again immediately I have finished it and find more to enjoy.
The reader who likes a book with a “beginning, a middle and an end” need not be in the least alarmed by The Naked Lunch. I am much more inclined towards the conventional novel myself. I certainly do not welcome novelty for novelty’s sake, nor obscenity for obscenity’s sake — I find most of the fiction produced under the label of “beat” and “avant-garde” boring and pretentious, disguising bad, undisciplined writing under a superficial cloak of equally bad and undisciplined “experimental” styles. Just as the Buck Rogers brigade of SF writers bring SF into disrepute, so do these so-called experimental writers bring the handful of genuine innovators into disrepute. The simple fact with Burroughs is that he can write. He can write better than anyone else at work today. He has an ear for dialogue, an eye for reality, an ability to conjure up phantasmagoric visions that immediately capture the imagination, a powerful, uncompromising style that rips away our comforting delusions and displays the warts and the sores that can fester in the human mind. Not a pleasant vision at first, yet we are soon captured by Burroughs’s deadpan style which aids us to look upon the horrors without revulsion, and take, instead, a cool, objective look at perversion in all its states and forms — mental, physical and spiritual.
Burroughs’s Black Utopias are more horrifying, more relevant and more convincing than any that have appeared to date in SF. His State of Interzone, dominated by the coolly grotesque figure of Doctor “Cancer is my first love” Benway makes the worlds of Huxley and Orwell seem like paradise in comparison. Its nearest equivalent is the world of [Bernard Wolfe’s] Limbo ’90.
Dr Benway had been called in as an advisor to the Freeland Republic, a place given over to free love and continual bathing. The citizens are well adjusted, cooperative, honest, tolerant and above all clean. But the invoking of Benway indicates all is not well behind that hygienic façade: Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control. I have not seen Benway since his precipitate departure from Annexia, where his assignment had been TD — Total Demoralisation. Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under certain limited and special circumstance, the use of torture.
“I deplore brutality,” he said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skilfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realise that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”
Annexia is somewhat like the world of The Trial — though Burroughs tends to be rather more explicit and specific than ever Kafka was.
Interzone is not only a State, it is a state of time and mind:
Panorama of the City of Interzone. Opening bars of East St Louis Toodleoo … at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street … The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian — races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realised pass through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of the body) across the Pacific in outrigger canoe to Easter Island. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.
Minarets, palms, mountains, jungle … A sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in the grass, play cryptic games. Not a locked door in the City. Anyone comes into your room at any time. The Chief of Police is a Chinese who picks his teeth and listens to denunciations presented by a lunatic. Every now and then the Chinese takes the tooth-pick out of his mouth and looks at the end of it. Hipsters with smooth copper-coloured faces lounge in doorways twisting shrunken heads on gold chains, their faces blank with an insect’s unseeing calm … High mountain flutes, jazz and bebop, one-stringed Mongol instruments, gypsy xylophones, African drums, Arab bagpipes … The City is visited by epidemics of violence, and the untended dead are eaten by vultures in the streets. Albinos blink in the sun … People eaten by unknown diseases watch the passerby with evil, knowing eyes.
Other inhabitants of Interzone are “servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states…”, etc., etc. These descriptions of Interzone are amongst the most powerful in the book.
Benway’s sidekick is Dr Schafer “The Lobotomy Kid”:
SCHAFER: “I tell you I can’t escape a feeling… well, of evil about this.”
BENWAY: “Balderdash, my boy… We’re scientists… Pure scientists. Disinterested research and damned be him who cries, ‘Hold, too much!’ Such people are no better than party poops.”
In The Naked Lunch we have left for ever the mythological worlds of Winston Churchill, Mickey Mouse and Ernest Hemingway, have gone past the worlds of the Beatles and James Bond, and have entered the world of the present, seen as indication of Things To Come for, whereas most SF is speculation, The Naked Lunch is visionary — and this contributes to its fascination. Anyone attracted to SF by its more serious elements will find The Naked Lunch rewarding. The novel costs 42s and is published by John Calder.