I was, like, 18, and it was Summer and I was in Junior College and it was hot and the Statistics class was so boring. I found Naked Lunch in the school bookstore, on a lark. Nothing had mesmerized me as much since I discovered T.S. Eliot five years earlier. I read the entire book in less than two days, not pausing even as I attended Statistics. It was just as well, though, that all those strange symbols scrawled on the board floated on my peripheral vision while reading Naked Lunch—the entire book is a revolution in meaning and structure.
Everything takes place in various world hotspots for heroin junkies. Or, it takes place in a weird, surrealist space called Interzone. Or, it takes place in a particularly homophobic psychiatrist’s office. Or, it occurs in Burroughs’ bedroom, as he nodes out on heroin while trying to seduce a 16 year old Arab boy. Symbols weave through the book, compiling connotations and meaning until an entire argot of queer, drug-hazed reality begins to swim before the reader’s eyes.
There are things about Burroughs I don’t advocate, don’t excuse. He’s not above mixing casual racism in with the symbolism (“No glot, clom Fliday” says the ruthless Asian stereotype representing harsh reality). Also, while Burroughs is often a brilliant gender satirist (e.g. a man literally carves flesh from a prostitute’s ass for his son’s “first piece of ass”), there have been fairly cogent critiques of Burroughs’ representation of women.
But I’m mentioning these issues only because Burroughs deserves to be remembered–because Naked Lunch deserves to be remembered–and it’s important to view a transformative work in its full light, not just from a rose-colored perspective. But the genre-busting, gender-busting, taboo-busting, narrative-busting, power of Naked Lunch remains its most salient contribution to history; it was written on the premise that structure and meaning itself can be altered to express the unprivileged, the voiceless. An entire sexuality (and drug culture) silenced by 1950s American hegemony could finally flourish, with Naked Lunch being the exotic flower in the garden of the Beat Generation.
And the Beat Generation, both more sophisticated and more sincere than the ensuing hippies I’d argue, is the backdrop for Naked Lunch. Burroughs was one of the minds Allen Ginsberg was thinking of when the cried out “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” in his Beat classic (and itself upending), “Howl.” Burroughs and Ginsberg were occasional lovers, as a matter of fact, and that is (perhaps) why he martialed the help of Jack Kerouac to piece the mess of clips, vignettes, short stories, painstakingly typed out in between heroin nods, papering the floor of Burroughs’ room.