On the Occasion of the Publication of The Place of Dead Roads
by William Weiss
Abe Frajndlich, William Burroughs Close-Up, 1984 (© Abe Frajndlich 1984/2013)
William Burroughs smokes Players and manipulates them with a hand that is thin and pale and missing the last terrible joint of the fifth digit. We’re drinking coffee and talking and eating almond pastries around a glass-topped table in a room full of rich, soft couches, objets d’art, books… sun’s in the morning window. His presence is attentive and genuine, though his eyes sometimes sweep about furtively in response to questioning. When he wants to emphasize a point, the orbs fix and stare into you, searching: “Do you understand, dear?”
He is 70. In a league with Swift, Orwell, Huxley. I feel like Sweet Pea applying for a sorceror’s apprentice vacancy.
In 1977 he taught a class in screenplay writing at the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist college in Boulder, Colorado. He taught us all he dared of time, synchronicity and carefully measured self-confession — handfuls of that “unutterable earth.” “Time is that which ends” or “Art, like REM sleep, is a biological necessity” or “The only thing worse than a cop lover is a cop hater” and so on and so on, sitting there, unfathomable, an alien blitzkrieg.
But now we talk about his work with Laurie Anderson on her haunting Mister Heartbreak album… about .357 magnums and 9mm handguns… about the possibility of Soviet missile bases being built on the border if the U.S. abandons Central America… soon we’re into crossbows and machetes… I suggest that a sabre is the ideal weapon for slashing… he reminds me when using mace to be sure of proper pressurization and always spray directly in the face. “Nothing worse than a weapon that fizzles,” he drawls.
It’s his latest book, The Place of Dead Roads, that I’m after, a strange and wonderful novel whose protagonist — Kim Carsons — journeys through time and space exploring possible avenues of mutation and shooting it out with the shits of this planet, who want to keep the Great Illusion rigged for their own diabolical insect purposes. As a western, Roads is tough and dusty, and Kim gunfights his way into your heart. As satire, it is a well-conceived stage where many of Burroughs’ most characteristic reproaches of Western Civilization achieve formidable delirium hilarity.
WEISS: “Sir, I quote from The Place of Dead Roads: ‘When the fog lifts you can see their fucking church sticking up… ‘ You use this image several times in the novel and it reminds me of something out of a John Ford western. Ford would show a church steeple or the shadow of a church upon the Duke’s entry into a town — you know, civilization here. Has Ford had any influence on your work?”
BURROUGHS: “Of course, as soon as you start writing a western, you see, all the old westerns come back, but I can’t think of any particular one… ”
WEISS: “How about Francis Coppola? I remember you saying something about Colonel Kurtz [Apocalypse Now] and how, indulging in extreme experience, he had set up a romantic 19th century time capsule, and that was why the CIA wanted him exterminated with extreme prejudice. I got an idea of homo sapiens actually engineering a reality, a temporal situation.”
BURROUGHS: “Well, you know, there’s nothing very mysterious about that. It happened in the early days of the Vietnam war… it was literally a return to the 19th century colonial configuration. These CIA operatives would go back there and set up their headquarters in the jungle somewhere — set up a center of power. You’ve read Heart of Darkness?”
BURROUGHS: “Set up the same sort of small center of power. As the war got more serious, those people were out.”
WEISS: “So the CIA felt threatened.”
BURROUGHS: “Well, yes. They didn’t want these people kicking around, doing God knows what out there.”
WEISS: “Cinematic techniques are sometimes so obvious in your novels. For instance, the first line of The Wild Boys: ‘The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture… ‘”
BURROUGHS: “Those are alright on the printed page. I make use of supposed cinematographic techniques — techniques that wouldn’t work at all on the screen.”
WEISS: “You once said that you thought you had ideas that would revolutionize the film industry, but they turned out to be not even good ideas. Like mixing black and white and color, and using the same actor for several different characters.”
BURROUGHS: “All those things. A writer doesn’t immediately realize just how different the mediums are. You attempt to write a beautiful film script, forgetting that a film script isn’t supposed to be read. It’s supposed to be put on the screen.”
WEISS: “I know you were wrestling with adapting Junky to the screen.”
BURROUGHS: “Oh well, yes, that went on and on, but nothing has ever come of it. Of course, a film project is never on until it’s on the screen… for example, Midnight Cowboy was kicked around for seven or eight years… ”
WEISS: “That was an excellent film.”
WEISS: “I remember a short interview by Allen Ginsberg wherein you discussed the continuity of your work — Soft Machine and Nova Express overflowing out of Naked Lunch, The Job overlapping The Wild Boys, etc. And I can see that the Venusians are at it again in The Place of Dead Roads, which stylistically and architecturally continues nicely where Cities of the Red Night left off. But besides the works themselves, there is the matter of a ‘continuity’ of characters — we’ve seen that ‘sheep killing dog’ Carsons before. How Carsons is perhaps acquitting his various karmas, book by book, and in the progress of your oeuvre assaulting the last frontier, storming the citadels of heaven. Are the journeys of Carsons, for just one example, a kind of fictionally encoded modus operandi that we, as prisoners of time, should study carefully?”
BURROUGHS: “I would say, in general, that for anyone who wants to get out of time, any kind of art is useful. That’s what art is all about. That’s what it’s for, to get you out of time… Shakespeare, Conrad… some writers are much more attuned to space… well, for example, there’s much more in Conrad than there is in Maugham. In Maugham there’s almost no space perspective.”
WEISS: “Yes, you mention Maugham in The Place of Dead Roads. Are you speaking of, in a sense, a kind of sacramental reality that can be recalled?”
BURROUGHS: “No. I would say our destiny, if we’re going anywhere, by and large our spiritual destiny is in space — and there are dreams, myth and art, writing, painting, film, sculpture — any form of art… ”
Kim knows that the first step toward space exploration is to examine the human artifact with biologic alterations in mind that will render our H.A. (Human Artifact) more suitable for space conditions and space travel… We are like water creatures looking up at the land and air wondering how we can survive in that alien medium… Kim reads all the science fiction he can find, and he is stunned to discover in all these writings the underlying assumption that there will be no basic changes involved in space travel.
My God, here they are light-years from the Earth, watching cricket and baseball on Vision Screens (can you imagine taking their stupid pastimes light-years into space?). Yes, sir, the fish said, I’m going to shove a little aquarium up onto the land, got everything I need in it.
–from the Place of Dead Roads
Abe Frajndlich, William Burroughs Seated, 1984 (© Abe Frajndlich 1984/2013)
WEISS: “The photograph that appears on the cover of The Place of Dead Roads is interesting. How did you go about choosing it? For some reason I’m reminded of Charles Gatewood‘s mannequin pistoleer on the inside cover of Sidetripping.”
BURROUGHS: “Now, the photograph, that was a picture taken in black and white of Pima Indians, taken about 1884. Photographer unknown — at least not credited. From the archives of the Colorado Historical Society. We tinted it. It’s a very good picture and I’m surprised it doesn’t have a credit. Whoever it was, the picture is very carefully posed.”
WEISS: “I was reading the latest issue of Smithsonian, and I thought that Kim Carsons might like to know that the American artist James Whistler once shot a dog for no other reason than that the animal had placed itself badly in relationship to the landscape. He also once remarked that his nature needed enemies.
BURROUGHS: “Well yes, the less dogs I have around the better. I don’t like dogs. I don’t like the noise they make.”
WEISS: “They’re very very territorial and they’re very vocal about their territoriality.”
BURROUGHS: “Well no, excuse me, but that’s what they’re for. The principal service a dog performs, besides hunting, is to give notice of approach. They can tell someone’s coming from 300 yards away. I’ve seen in Morocco that’s what they’re used for… to let you know someone’s coming. A friend of mine got a dog… a German shepherd. He had it a month and it bit three of his friends and killed one of his cats. I’d rather take my chances on burglary than have a dog around… apparently something awful happens to a dog when they’re domesticated.”
“Cut ’em loose,” Kim tells the driver. The driver leans down with a knife and the dogs leap out running.
Boy gets one from behind with the shotgun. The driver nails another with a spine shot. They are crawling around screaming and dragging their broken hindquarters. But the third dog doubles back and leaps for Kim’s throat. Kim throws up his left arm and the dog grabs him just below the wrist and Kim blasts the stock-killing beast with his .44 an inch from the left side, singeing off a patch of hair, blowing dog heart out of the other side with scrambled lungs and spareribs. Just as the dog spirit is on the way out, the dog clamps down hard for a fraction of a second before he drops off stone dead.
Kim massages his arm.
“Fucker nearly broke my wrist.”
“It was a brave dog. Un perro bravo.”
— from The Place of Dead Roads
WEISS: “The exposure of control systems is a central element in your work. Now, Annie Dillard has said that narrative collage is well-adapted to a universe where time and space have come to be defined by quantum mechanics, and I think of your cut-ups and mosaics — you know, sort of short-circuiting the old determinist whining con of ‘behavior is a function of the stimulus’ and ‘for every action there is an opposite but equal reaction.’ I was wondering whether you had considered that the physicists are the high priests of our reality. That the dissolution of the control systems implicit in the old Newtonian ordered language that is accomplished by cut-up is a natural manifestation of a universe with new rules. The collapse of the old order being inevitable, of course, according to the ‘bigger picture’… ”
BURROUGHS: “Well, of course, the physicists are way, way ahead of social scientists, all those very imprecise — they aren’t sciences, you know. Then you get a field theory, like Einstein’s… Probably there is something beyond it, but we certainly haven’t got anything yet… ”
WEISS: “No Unified Field Theory… ”
BURROUGHS: “He (Einstein) came as near as possible to making a statement about the basic nature of the universe: that it is impossible to exceed the speed of light… Of course, they’re much closer to really talking about something, like the Principle of Uncertainty. The fact that by measuring something you alter its properties… ”
WEISS: “Heisenberg… the quantum mechanical view of the universe suggests a much more precise description of human behavior than Skinnerism or determinism.”
BURROUGHS: “Oh absolutely, absolutely… ”
WEISS: “And that’s the context in which I was thinking about your experiments with cut-up and narrative collage.”
BURROUGHS: “Well, it’s Brion Gysin’s idea, of course. It’s a painter’s idea. He said that writing was fifty years behind painting… ”
And there was the dirigible ahead, moored to a tower… The Commander waved to them…
“Well climb aboard, you blokes… We’re all revved up and ready to go… ”
Two Malay servants helped them carry their gear up the ladder and deposited it in their luxurious cabins…
“You understand the Big Picture, old thing. We are retracing our steps in time like a film running backward, breaking the immutable rules of the universe and all that rot… ”
“And about time too.”
Dinner was kulan steaks…
“They are practically extinct, you know,” Tony told him between mouthfuls.
“Bring on the whooping crane,” Kim whooped.
“And a dodo-egg omelette… ”
The Commander laughed heartily and twirled his mustache. Kim stretched luxuriously, savoring the vintage Burgundy like a fifteen-year-old schoolboy on holiday.
Tom shot him a reproving look.
“Well I am going backward, aren’t I”
“Yes, but observe the speed limit.”
–from The Place of Dead Roads
WEISS: “Here’s one for Clem Snide, private asshole [Cities of the Red Night and The Soft Machine… ]. Tell me what you think. Suspect a projection murder — you know, sorcery. Looks like a suicide. Our boy kicks in the door to the overpowering smell of natural gas. Stove on, pilot light out. Windows taped up. Body’s cold. Only clue to foul play is a diary that says for several weeks before his apparent self-snuff the deceased was subject to a recurring nightmare. I quote from the hypothetical diary:
Next to my bed is a door that opens out to a porch. Always leave it open in the summer. Nice moons on my pillow. Only lately before I go to sleep I’ve been hearing this tap tap tap and all I can think of half asleep is some evil insect stinger dragging on my sheets. So I get up and turn on the light and there’s never anything there. I fall asleep and always dream of a spider, a huge fucker with a web like rope over my bed. He works on it for awhile and I feel like shitting my sheets. Then it drops on me and I sit up screaming and the room is light! There’s no light on, but I can see plain as day. I jump out of bed and turn on the real light looking around frantically realizing that I’ve sparked over and’ve been dreaming with open eyes again. I can never get back to sleep after the nightmare…
Abe Frajndlich, William Burroughs’ Hat and Cane, 1984 (© Abe Frajndlich 1984/2013)
“Have you ever dreamed with open eyes, sir? Where does the light come from?”
BURROUGHS: “the light comes from the brain itself, consciousness being an electromagnetic phenomenon… this has happened to me many times.”
WEISS: “You refer to Don Juan in your work occasionally and I’m assuming you’re talking about Carlos Castaneda… ”
BURROUGHS: “Oh, of course. Yes, I’ve read them all. Well worth reading. As to whether Don Juan actually exists or not seems to me an academic question. You take the book as it is. For example, this book In His Image, about cloning. Whether the cloning actually took place or not is not really a vital point. The point is that cloning is well within the reach of modern technology. The interest has been there, the technical data presented. Also, the outcry from the scientists, who are really, by and large, extremely bigoted, extremely naïve when it comes to metaphysics — very imprecise minds.”
WEISS: “In The Place of Dead Roads, when the Wild Fruits committed suicide, they had already been cloned… ”
WEISS: “Do you think there is a transferral of the soul in an operation such as cloning?”
BURROUGHS: “That would seem extremely likely. You see, what animates the body is an electromagnetic field, probably a number of electromagnetic fields, and those can be transferred, given sufficient knowledge, from one place to another, from one body to another. And the more similar the body was, the easier the transfer would be. It would be like (you’ve got science fiction) a crude concept would be transfer of the whole brain from one body to another. We know, more or less, where the ego center is. It’s probably in the mid-brain. So that would be transferred. It’s a very crude modus operandi, because it isn’t just the brain, it’s the whole body involved. If you just transferred the brain, it’s hard to say what sort of position the transferred ego would find itself vis-à-vis its new quarters.”
WEISS: “Is that the Right Center that you mention in The Place of Dead Roads?”
BURROUGHS: “Probably. It’s a possibility.”
WEISS: “So, are the voice and genital replications that you mention in the cloning process that occurs in the novel a way of ensuring that the soul’s transfer will be easier?”
BURROUGHS: “Well, yes, as I said, the closer you can come to replicating the previous receptacle, the more likelihood you will succeed.”
WEISS: “Well I’m certainly as interested in ways to transcend this ‘precarious aqualung existence’ as you are.”
Kim has never doubted the possibility of an afterlife or the existence of gods. In fact he intends to become a god, to shoot his way to immortality, to invent his way, to write his way.
— from The Place of Dead Roads
WEISS: “Forgive my ignorance, but can I ask you what these pins on your lapel represent?”
BURROUGHS: “Yes, this is the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This is the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government. And incidentally, you will be put in jail if you wear that [pointing to the French honor] without being entitled to it. But I can wear this [pointing to the American honor and chuckling] with no fear. The French take this rather seriously. Practically anybody can get into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Very loose.”