James Frey and William S. Burroughs

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, has been dropped by Riverhead Books. (See the article on CNN.) The success and scandal surrounding the memoir immediately got me thinking about William Burroughs. Obviously, I am not alone. Erica Jong wrote an article in USA Today on the James Frey scandal mentioning William Burroughs. The most conspicuous blurb for the book references William Burroughs: “The most lacerating tale of drug addiction since William S. Burroughs’ Junky.”

My first thought was that Junky was far more ambitious than A Million Little Pieces. It seemed to me that James Frey was content to merely tell a story, true or not. Even in his first novel, Burroughs sought to do much more than merely tell a drug tale. For too long, Junky has been treated as a straightforward, simple drug narrative. For me, Junky was Burroughs’ first attempt to empty out the Word. Junky challenges traditional ideas of the content of the novel in its blurring of fact and fiction and its subject matter. Burroughs parodies the literary history of the drug narrative, the hard-boiled detective novel, pulp fiction, and the academic journal. The Fiftieth Anniversary issue of the definitive Junky with its introduction as well as Oliver Harris’ William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination tell the complex story of Junky‘s creation and content.

As Burroughs’ literary career progressed, this interest in challenging the conventions of narrative heightened. Burroughs continued his blurring of fact and fiction in Queer. In the Yage Letters, Burroughs more radically experimented with the form of the novel by ransacking the novel’s origins with the epistolary format. By Naked Lunch, Burroughs completely exploded the novel in form and content. The cut up and the cut up novels attacked the novel at its most basic level by experimenting with the construction of the sentence, and in some cases, the individual word.

Increasingly, what was packaged as pulp fiction in the 1950’s is being revealed as avant garde by later critics. The seeds of Burroughs’ textual experiments of the 1960’s were planted in deceptively simple pages of Junky. Junky might read like a drug tale, but he had larger, more radical fish to fry.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 7 March 2006.

One thought on “James Frey and William S. Burroughs

  1. Jed;

    I’ve not read Frey’s book and never intend to. William S. Burroughs and his book JUNKY was all about writing.

    Frey, and his ilk are all about marketing – a million little pieces of gold – and nothing to do with writing as you and I appreciate it.

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