A Review of The Soft Machine
By Joan Didion
There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.
Nonetheless Burroughs is read for “meaning,” for we tend to be uneasy in this country until we can draw from an imaginative work some immediate social application. Ã€ la Recherche du temps perdu as precursor to the Wolfenden Report, Emma Bovary as victim of the Feminine Mystique. And, on another level, William Burroughs as “satirist,” that slipshod catch-all category for anyone who seems unconventional and modish. Burroughs is by no means successful as a “satirist” or as an “allegorist”; both satire and allegory depend upon strict control of the material, and to talk about Burroughs in that vein leads only into cul-de-sacs where Donald Malcolm can complain querulously that if Mr. Burroughs is satirizing capital punishment then Mr. Burroughs must be unaware that the trend on this issue is toward liberalization.
So it goes. First the insistence upon some fairly conventional “meaning,” then the rush to the barricades. Either Burroughs is a prophet or Burroughs is a fraud. Either he must be the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” (Jack Kerouac) or he must be a fabricator of “merest trash” (John Wain). In this stampede to first discern the “message” and then take a stand on it, Burroughs’ limited but very real virtues tend to be overlooked. In a quite literal sense with Burroughs, the medium is the message: the point is not what the voice says but the voice itself, a voice so direct and original and versatile as to disarm close scrutiny of what it is saying. Burroughs is less a writer than a “sound,” and to listen to the lyric may be to miss the beat.
Consider The Soft Machine. Burroughs is uninfected by any trace of humanist sentimentality, and his imagery is that of the most corrosive nightmare, obscene, specifically homosexual, casually savage, peopled by androgynous mutations. Flesh is not flesh but “biologic material,” undifferentiated tissue which metamorphoses, dissolves into mucus, sloughs off, passes into other vessels. Hot crabs hatch out of human spines; police files spurt out bone meal. Although it is easy to read The Soft Machine as a parable of technological suicide, a kind of hallucinatory On the Beach, that reading is not going to get us very far, because Burroughs as a dreamer of didactic dreams is not only distinctly hit-and-miss but quite unremarkable, in point of fact Victorian. It has been some years, after all, since we first heard that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, first stood upon the darkling plain of technology. Read for any such conventional meaning, The Soft Machine has only the dulling effect of a migraine attack, after pain and nausea and unwanted images have battered the nerve synapses until all connections are lost. For the Burroughs repetitiveness blunts response. The particular Burroughs preoccupations atrophy rather than engage the imagination. Ah well, one thinks, eyes glazing, fingers riffling the pages, another orgiastic hanging, all possible switches. It is difficult even to read the book sequentially; to imagine that one will be able to put the book down when the telephone rings and find one’s place a few minutes later is sheer bravura.
In fact the point is not to read the book at all, but somehow to hear the voice in it. The voice in The Soft Machine is talking about time. Some of the book is mock nostalgia, and the title, whatever else it means, seems as well to be a play upon The Time Machine. The voice roves back in time through Mexico, Panama, the Mayan Empire, back through a landscape of pervasive corruption. One city in particular appears and reappears in explicit and extraordinary details: a port city, “stuck in water hyacinths and banana rafts,” a place where jungle has overgrown the parks and diseased armadillos live in the deserted kiosks. Candiru infest the swimming pools; albinos blink in the sun. Although the city is in the here and now, it is terrorized by the Vagrant Ball Players, who seem to have come forward in time from the Mayan period. The Civil Guard tries to placate the Vagrant Ball Players, for they “can sound a Hey Rube Switch brings a million adolescents shattering the customs barriers and frontiers of time, swinging out of the jungle with Tarzan cries, crash landing perilous tin planes and rockets.”
The voice moves not only back but ahead in time, to what seems to be the end of the world. There is an ambiguity here; the last few men left on earth are clearly the survivors of some disaster, but they are also just assuming human shape, just rising from the slime. In short, what the voice in The Soft Machine is doing is giving an hallucinatory reading to Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end” and “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”
This is by no means unintentional. Eliot’s is one of the rhythms into which the voice in The Soft Machine slips deliberately and frequently, sometimes ironically and sometimes not. Sometimes the voice is not Eliot but Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain: “Meanwhile an angle comes dripping down and forms a stalactite in my brain.” Sometimes it is the voice of the Hearst Task Force: “I have just returned from a thousand year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw… It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply — But it belongs to anyone with the courage and know-how to enter — It belongs to you.” Sometimes the voice slips into the peculiar rhythms of the hustler, sometimes into the ritualized diction of blue movies. The voice rattles off elliptical allusions, throws away joke after outrageous joke, shifts gear in mid-sentence, never falters.
It is precisely this voice — complex, subtle, allusive — that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine and about Burroughs. It is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger “satirical” or “black” novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.