William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: Narrative Structure as Political Dissent

By Darius Dunn


Seeing how unclear the plot of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch is, I won’t waste my time or yours relaying it. However, when discussing the author’s prose disjointed, discordant, and strident are all adjectives I feel comfortable using. It is dissident against the linear narratives of his contemporaries; as, it doesn’t strive for cohesion. Rather, it slinks along, shambling, groping, blurting, like a blind man, mindlessly scat-bopping while stumbling his way through a labyrinth with a deathly precipice at its center, passively hopeful his foot falls land on solid ground, while not regarding the very real threat of total disaster. In addition to the narrator’s confessed despicable qualities, he is a cacophony of broken English, bad metaphors, and characterization painted in infinitesimally small vignettes, which show his eclectic, redeeming charms; although, they unfortunately die as soon as they’ve breached the womb.  All this fallibility makes him the mercurial stuff of the human spirit in a short hand so adept at conveying that notion, that if you blink, you’ll miss it. He is the quintessential model of the failed person, seeking something he can’t identify, longing to obtain that which he can never have; all the while, he strives to become, and yet feels unmade.

If Burroughs’s meant to deconstruct literary stylistics with his prose in Naked Lunch, where does that position him within the ethos of the Beat Generation?

Photo courtesy Pixabay.com

Lacking focused prosaic writing, ignoring the consideration of time, using made up lingo, and the constant glossing he does do demonstrate his dissension from the commonly accepted tropes of literature. Maybe his statement on the form is to show that he is something apart; thus, his art is something apart from the standard fair. Minding the author’s political views (and those of his writing cadre) maybe the cryptic style of his writing suggests that the uninitiated (those cronies, who’ve bought into the capitalist dream of hegemony and its total dominance of society) are not invited into the “underworld”—the place where only authentic personalities are welcome.

                                                                                                                          Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

There may be a target audience for this novel, but, in accordance with Burroughs’s dissent against employing the standard literary tropes, maybe he bucks the notion of even having a target audience. The question then becomes, if he specifies no audience, and codifies his textual output rendering it as inaccessible to readers as possible, is there any message he wishes to convey? Is his attempt at communicating purely nihilistic? Meaning that, there is no reason or purpose in writing anyway, so why make one’s message clear? To quote Morty from Rick and Morty “No one lives on purpose. No one belongs anywhere. Everyone dies.” With this view on the nihilistic way of things, it is easy to accept that this novel was just a shout in the void. An intentionally meaningless blip in an infinite and indifferent universe. Why make his novel adhere to anything pre-established at all? When, it could just be a futile going-through-the-motions, aimed solely at subverting and deconstructing what society accepts as literary work. (Although, this last element would suggests some purpose.)

                                                                                                                              Photo courtesy Pixabay.com

The aesthetics of the classic American or British novel requires it to be incisive, well structured, and to include elements of other documents that have ramified the author’s world view while learning his craft and forming his opinions on the subject. Engaging prose, informative writing, and the transforming ability of prose on those who read it is the goal of every author (excepting Burroughs). So, if not to engage, to inform, to change the readers with emotive scenarios that allow them to cathect into the narrative and receive the payoff on their emotional investment near the end when the dramatic question is answered, why write a novel at all?

What Burroughs does in Naked Lunch is repulse the reader with a slew of unlikable characters. Makes readers feel disgusting emotions rather than ones that lead to catharsis. His disjointed prose doesn’t engage. Essentially, he does everything in his power to dash the traditions of literature, ignoring pastiche and other intertextual conventions: He sets out to create something wholly original by avoiding convention. He may have succeeded in that goal, but in conveying a linear, well-structured novel filled with pathos that leads to emotional discovery (around the same time the main character reaches the climax), he has failed—or maybe failed isn’t the world. Of course, we don’t call things that never lived dead (just think of rocks or clouds). So, if he didn’t fail (which would imply trying at all to meet those aesthetics values) what did he do?

Maybe he just wanted to show his readers and critics that alternative notions on what a novel can be are also correct. If he succeeded in anything, maybe it is the fact that there is always more than one perspective on any topic, and just because you don’t like the perspective of those on the opposing side of the topic, doesn’t mean their view is wrong. This is reminiscent of Jacques Derrida and is notion, Difference.  In it, he argues that finding commonality in the dissenting view (especially when that view is of the minority stake holders in society) is valuable as it generates compassion for subjugated-populations. This is important in a liberal society where egalitarianism is one of the tent poles holding up such ideology. So, maybe what Burroughs was really saying wasn’t found in the thematic statement of the text, or the “Heroes journey,” but in the dissenting structure within the prose itself—a dissent against the popular society’s agreed upon conventions of the novel. To do the novel differently, and still accomplish a publishable and well-studied work, is evidence that his view on the novel is a valid view. Thus, those dissenting perspectives on what it means to be a citizen in a liberal society are equally valid as the official narrative of 1950s American hegemony (or any era for that matter), which constitute those forces against which Burroughs personally dissented. Consequently, this positions his deconstruction of the novel through his work Naked Lunch perfectly within the social dissent notable in all the works of the Beat Generation.

                                                                                                                              Photo courtesy Pixabay.com

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