When I was sixteen (which is further in the past than I care to admit), I went through a phase in which I intended to read all the books that people said I shouldn’t read. To this day I’m not quite sure who those people were or why they wanted to monitor my to be read pile. My mother wasn’t one of them, she didn’t really pay too much attention to my reading material. She always assumed I was nose deep in gory horror pulp, which she didn’t really approve of, but she didn’t prohibit.
During that sixteenth year I read Story of O by Pauline Réage (pen name of Anne Desclos), The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. From the title of this article, it’s easy to discern which of these books made the longest lasting impact.
When I was searching for a copy of Burroughs’ most famous novel, my library didn’t have it. Oh, it was listed in the card catalog, but it was never actually in the library. Believe me, I looked, I waited, it never materialized in the return bin or the shelves. This was before the internet and Amazon and digital editions. This was the freaking nineties, the early nineties at that. There was internet somewhere, but not at my house. I didn’t even have a computer (I did have a Brother electric typewriter, though, and still do, stored away for posterity). When there was a book I wanted that the Argie Cooper Public Library didn’t have, I utilized their loan-a-book program.
I ordered Story of O from a book club. I borrowed The Satanic Verses from a friend’s mom. Argie Cooper had The Last Temptation of Christ. I was gonna have to ask for a loan for Naked Lunch.
A little background on William S. Burroughs and Naked Lunch for those who may be new to him and his work. Burroughs was a leading figure of the Beat Generation, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (I never could make it through On the Road, it bored me). Burroughs was a longtime heroin addict. He accidentally shot and killed his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1951 during a drunken game of William Tell. Naked Lunch, correct me if I’m wrong, was mostly written in Morocco under the influence of some very heavy drugs, and when it was finally published in 1959, it was promptly banned. Widely banned under obscenity laws. All of that was eventually overturned, Burroughs won his court cases, and the book went on to a healthy influential life.
Naked Lunch, by the early nineties, should be rather mainstream. Steely Dan took their name from a passage in the book. David Cronenberg had loosely adapted the book to the screen in 1991. By 1993 there certainly should be no ill will towards the old book. I was wrong.
When I went to utilize the loan-a-book program, which I had used before to get my hands on some hard to find Anthony Burgess titles, the librarian that assisted me was probably about the age of fifty-nine in the year 1959 when Naked Lunch was published. She was old. Stooped, wrinkled, blue hair. And although I’m sure she had never read a single word of William S. Burroughs, she was either professionally familiar with the book or just turned off by the word ‘naked’.
When I requested to loan a book, the librarian got her pen and form sheet and asked me the title and author. “Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.” She looked at me over her glasses (I think they were round and on a chain, I’m not positive), and she said, “We don’t carry books like that.” She actually looked disgusted.
Being sixteen and full of piss and vinegar, I replied, “That’s why I want to loan it.”
She gave me the pen and request form to complete myself. I said thank you once I handed it back to her. I was honestly afraid she’d throw the request in the trashcan, but she didn’t. The book was there early the next week.
Again, for those who don’t know, and in case terms like naked lunch and heroin addict don’t tip you off, the book was different. That book, for sixteen year old me, was very difficult to understand and to even follow. It was nonlinear, it was stream of consciousness, it was rearranged and shuffled from proper order. It was strange. But it was fascinating. It was unlike anything I had ever read or experienced. Even seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time didn’t affect me the way this book did. The way Burroughs and his words did.
I won’t try to explain Naked Lunch, only to summarize it as a man’s drug-fueled descent into hell. It’s depraved, pornographic, blasphemous, desperate. Some parts may turn your stomach. But there’s also a sad beauty to some of its passages, a feeling of loss, a sense of never having or belonging. Burroughs wrote that the word for word is word. The Word Virus is infectious, and I’ve found his work, this book in particular, to be infectious, for better or worse.
At sixteen, there was a lot I didn’t comprehend in its pages. At age eighteen I bought a copy of the book and when I read it again I understood more. Thus began a ritual of reading Naked Lunch every two years. Each time I understood a little more and as time went on I appreciated the style more. I kept my ritual until about age thirty-four. That’s been a few years ago (not many), and I’m going to read the book again this year. I don’t know how much more of it I will understand, and I’m not sure if I should be afraid to know.