Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch is a novel by William S. Burroughs originally published in 1959. The book is structured as a series of loosely-connected vignettes. Burroughs stated that the chapters are intended to be read in any order.

The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the US to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone (international zone, a type of extraterritoriality governed by international law). The vignettes (called ‘routines’) are drawn from Burroughs’ own experience in these places, and his addiction to drugs (heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, ‘Majoun’—a strong marijuana confection—as well as a German opioid, brand name Eukodol, of which he wrote frequently).

The book was originally published with the title ‘The Naked Lunch’ in Paris in by Olympia Press. Because of US obscenity laws, a complete American edition did not follow until 1962. It was titled ‘Naked Lunch’ and was substantially different, because it was based on an earlier 1958 manuscript in Allen Ginsberg’s possession. Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. ‘The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’ In a 1960 letter to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac said he was pleased that Burroughs had credited him with the title. He states that Ginsberg misread ‘Naked Lust’ from the manuscript, and only he noticed; that section of the manuscript later became Queer, although the phrase does not appear in either of the two final texts of that novel.

The book begins with the adventures of William Lee (aka Lee the Agent), who is Burroughs’ alter ego in the novel. His journey starts in the US where he is fleeing the police, in search of his next fix. There are short chapters here describing the different characters he travels with and meets along the way. Eventually he gets to Mexico where he is assigned to Dr. Benway; for what, he is not told. Benway appears and he tells about his previous doings in Annexia (a totalitarian nation) as a ‘Total Demoralizator.’ The story then moves to a state called Freeland — a form of limbo — where we learn of Islam Inc. Here, some new characters are introduced, such as Clem, Carl, and Joselito. A short section then jumps in space and time to a marketplace. The Black Meat is sold here and compared to ‘junk,’ i.e. heroin. The action then moves back to the hospital where Benway is fully revealed as a cruel, manipulative sadist.

Time and space again shifts the narrative to a location known as Interzone. Hassan, one of the notable characters of the book and ‘a notorious liquefactionist,’ is throwing a violent orgy. AJ crashes the party and wreaks havoc, decapitating people and imitating a pirate. Hassan is enraged and tells AJ never to return, calling him a ‘factualist bitch’ – a term which is enlarged much later when the apparently ‘clashing’ political factions within Interzone are described. These include the Liquefactionists, the Senders, the Factualists, and the Divisionists (who occupy ‘a midway position’). A short descriptive section tells us of Interzone University, where a professor and his students are ridiculed; the book moves on to an orgy that AJ himself throws.

The book then shifts back to the market place and a description of the government of Annexia. Characters including the County Clerk, Benway, Dr Berger, Clem and Jody are sketched through heavy dialogue and their own sub-stories. After the description of the four parties of Interzone, we are then told more stories about AJ. After briefly describing Interzone, the novel breaks down into sub-stories and heavily cut-up influenced passages. In a sudden return to what seems to be Lee’s reality, two police officers, Hauser and O’Brien, catch up with Lee, who kills both of them. Lee then goes out to a street phone booth and calls the Narcotics Squad, saying he wants to speak to O’Brien. A Lieutenant Gonzales on the other end of the line claims there’s no one in their records called O’Brien. When Lee asks for Hauser instead, the reply is identical; Lee hangs up, and goes on the run once again. The book then becomes increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, and finally simply stops.

‘Naked Lunch’ is considered Burroughs’ seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. Extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of obscene language (something Burroughs recognized and intended), the book was intially banned in the United States, and several European publishers were harassed. The book was banned in Boston in 1962 due to obscenity (notably child murder and acts of pedophilia), but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes, as it was found to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.

Sections of the manuscript were published in the Spring 1958 edition of Robert Creeley’s ‘Black Mountain Review’ and in the Spring 1958 edition of the University of Chicago student-run publication ‘The Chicago Review.’ The student edition was not well received, and caused the university administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the publication, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors. When the editor Paul Carroll published ‘BIG TABLE Magazine’ alongside former ‘Chicago Review’ editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including ‘Ten Episodes from ‘Naked Lunch,” a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed ‘undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit’ and initially judged it as non-mailable.

When it was finally published in the U.S. in its complete form in 1962 the publishers added to the book supplementary material regarding the censorship battle as well as an article written by Burroughs on the topic of drug addiction. In 2002, a “restored text” edition of Naked Lunch was published with some new and previously suppressed material added. ‘Naked Lunch’ also protests the death penalty. In Burroughs’s ‘Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness,’ ‘The Blue Movies’ (appearing in the vignette ‘A.J.’s Annual Party’), is deemed ‘a tract against capital punishment.’


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