Review: Naked Lunch

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Author: William S. Burroughs

Release: 1959

Admittedly late to the party, my first introduction to The Naked Lunch was in a hazy lounge trying to make sense of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation (1991) of the same name. For perspective, it wasn’t until much, much later that I made the distinction between David Cronenberg and David Lynch at all – to me they blended together to form ‘that crazy director with the cool hair.’ Perhaps it was a Lunch/Lynch thing?

Having enjoyed the film for what it was, regardless of references or metaphors I (definitely) may have missed, the book had long since been in my ‘To-Read’ list, especially considering the greatness that is Burroughs’ 1953 semi-autobiographical novel Junky. One thing that sticks in my mind about Naked Lunch is a review left underneath the book in a shop in which a staff-review noted simply that the book was “literary LSD”. If that person had ever tried LSD they mustn’t have had a very good time. Not that Naked Lunch isn’t a good time – some passages are laugh out loud funny, which is rare to me – but to compare a ‘trip’ to this book is telling. The extremely graphic depictions of talking assholes, constant consumption of ‘shit’, torture, rampant pedophilia, governmental abuse – the list goes on – is not a fun time on acid I’d imagine.

You can see what the reviewer was getting at, though. Naked Lunch makes for an extremely head-scratching read. The subject matter can change completely from sentence to sentence. I am all for non-linear art, or anything that requires a bit of thinking as opposed to being spoon-fed by Michael Bay, and I can totally respect things that I don’t understand. However, there were parts of Naked Lunch that I simply couldn’t follow or get in to no matter how I tried. It was of no surprise to learn that it was intended to be read in no specific order, which leads me to believe that perhaps there were parts of the book that weren’t exactly meant to be understood by anyone except Burroughs himself. Parts of it read like one giant poem, seemingly lacking any solid base. Although poets and the author himself might disagree.

There are, however chapters, or ‘vignettes’ as they are officially known, that follow more closely the writing style of Junky, which is interesting as these specific parts focused on the central character William Lee, the name in which Burroughs initially released Junky under, as opposed to the many other characters populating the world of Naked Lunch. It was these parts also that reminded me heavily of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), especially the extremely incompetent government departments, and loosely framed vignettes. These parts of the book were much easier to read, however once you start to get a sense of understanding and something to stand on, the reader is just as quickly thrown back in to Interzone madness. Actually, I felt seeing the movie before I had read to the book to be somewhat helpful in a sense. My memory of the specifics of the film is sketchy, but I’d have had a much harder time picturing the bugs and ‘black meat’ had I not seen the movie first, which I’m aware isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally respect William S. Burroughs and everything he’s done – even things I haven’t read/seen/ or even know exist. He’s just one of those guys, one of those artists, who you can’t help but at least respect whether or not you actually like all of their work, or any of their work as the case may be. In no way do I regret reading Naked Lunch, I also think there will come a time when I will re-read it with a more knowledgeable mindset, or at least knowing fully what I am in for now. I’d just be very interested to hear peoples’ opinions on what it means, or have the thousands that cite its influence explain what they thought of it. Since it’s so widely revered, am I stupid for not getting it? I honestly don’t think so. It is the epitome of the novel as art. It doesn’t have to mean anything in particular, but can still be just as beautiful as any Louvre-housed painting.

Naked Lunch is definitely a thinker, and although I was relieved to read the last page, I know that at some point I’ll go back there. It seems to be a reflection of Burroughs’ mind at the time which was evidently sick with ‘junk’, as he calls it – I’d be very surprised if anyone understood Naked Lunch like Burroughs did. Although a lot of the stuff went over my head, it is an incredible display of vocabulary, and craftsmanship. Not understanding it doesn’t have to make it a bad book, in fact it could arguably mean the author is so good that you can’t even comprehend it yet. Defining the term ‘wordsmith’ I am by no means deterred from any of his other works, bring on Queer!

Book Review: The Secret History of Twin Peaks – Mark Frost

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Since Twin Peaks’ finale in June 1991, and sometimes even before that, certain layers had been added (or peeled back to reveal) new mysteries surrounding the world of Twin Peaks. I am talking of things like The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, written by David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer Lynch, or Fire Walk With Me – the initially panned film that explored the last week of Laura Palmer’s life, and even My Life, My Tapes, Agent Cooper’s backstory in the form of anecdotal voice recordings. None of these have actually managed to clear anything up, nor – I imagine  – was their intention.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks, however, manages somehow to do both. At the same time that a lot of things, and their origins, are becoming clear(er), things are happening parallel to these events and explanations that actively create new questions. We know, sort of, where the jade ring came from, but why was Nixon wearing it? And what does this have to do with Roswell? If you know anything about Twin Peaks I’m sure you wouldn’t head in to this book expecting everything laid out in front of you, dumbed down, ready to be ingested. Mark Frost himself noted that apparent discrepancies and inconsistencies between the new book and the show’s timeline, are in fact clues, or ‘mistakes’ made at the hands of he who compiled the dossier, and that there is indeed something to it.

Oh, yes the dossier. The FBI, and law enforcement in general, play an integral part in Twin Peaks so it should come as no surprise that Frost’s new novel is written in epistolary form, the narrator being FBI agent Tamara Pretson (who I’m willing to bet is a character in the upcoming series, perhaps Naomi Watts’ role?). Tamara Preston, or T.P, is given an assignment from the now Deputy Director Gordon Cole (my socks are on fire!) which is to comb through this dossier left at a crime scene and try and find out who wrote it and why. All we know to begin with is that the writer calls himself simply The Archivist. The main purpose of the dossier, it appears, is to keep record and find out a bit more about the town of Twin Peaks, it’s history and surroundings, with an emphasis on the strange things that happen around the town, and in the woods in particular.

Throughout we learn all kinds of new and interesting information, the full story of Ed, Norma, and Nadine, written by Deputy Hawk, the very important history of the Milford brothers, and even what became of Hank Jennings. It goes in to a lot more detail about the whole ‘mill’ fiasco, but serves only to muddy the story further as it appears to be one of the most glaringly obvious inconsistencies. Mark Frost is a smart dude, though, and I am confident in the fact that it was all intentional and will be (somewhat) explained as we are watching the new series. Perhaps someone, aside from the archivist, has maliciously messed with the dossier? When reading I got so swept away in the mythology that I had to remind myself that nothing is as it seems. In the book itself, a point Frost reiterated during a recent Reddit AMA, they make a clear distinction between the words “secret” and “mystery”, hinting at something deeper to do with the book’s title.

Even, to my surprise, we got a little bit of extra Peaks ‘content’ at the end, as the last entry was written in ‘real-time’ and actually takes place just after the events of the show. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but the end of the book is almost as spooky and pertinent as the end of the show. It could easily serve as part of the foundation for the new series.

The book itself is beautiful. Even the feel. The materials make you feel like you are reading something special, and real. The fact that a lot of the events reflected in the book actually took place in history helps with the immersion, and often I truly felt like an agent trying to figure out what the hell is going on. If you didn’t know any better it might serve as an astounding piece of historical journalism, and I’d believe it such are Frost’s skills. The way he weaves true history in to Peaks mythology is wizardry. The care and meticulousness put in to actually putting the book together is palpable, all the secret documents, journal entries, and newspaper clippings (to name a few) all feel authentic and real.

This the perfect addition to any Twin Peaks fan’s collection, and I would argue that it is an essential – ‘the owls are not what they seem’takes on a whole new meaning. Mark Frost has heavily hinted at another similar book to be released soon, rumoured to be detailing the lives of those living in the Twin Peaks universe from 1991- 2016. If it is anything like this book, and I imagine it will be, it’ll be a release-day grab for me definitely. I still don’t know who BOB is, or how Annie’s doing, but Frost’s talents for writing are such that I don’t even mind that this book created more questions than answers. It’s a hard thing to explain to someone who hasn’t read it, but it gives you a lot more food for thought on (some of) the more ambiguous parts of the show, while still keeping with the original mystery. I shall leave with some words of the great Agent Dale Cooper: “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.”  – Make today’s gift the Secret History of Twin Peaks.

 

Hunter S. Thompson Episode II – Attack of the Clones

“Ye gods..” is a phrase that I really like to use, although sparingly. You have to be careful when blatantly biting someone. It’s a phrase that I’ve heard Johnny Depp, poseur extraordinaire, use on occasion too. I imagine we both got it from the same guy.

It doesn’t sound quite as cool with a New Zealand accent either, which is another reason I’ve got to use it like it’s running out and we still need what we have left to last the summer. Sounds much better crawling its way out of a throat dry with whiskey and American cigarettes, barely said at all. Dark sunglasses might help, too. I first came upon it reading a bunch of Hunter S. Thompson’s stuff, probably some volume of the Gonzo Papers. It doesn’t really mean anything, it’s more of just an expression, exclamation. When talking about The Rum Diary he (HST) states, “Ye gods, this is me…”, for example.

Hunter S. Thompson is one of those writers, even just one of those ‘guys’, that it’s very cool to be ‘in’ to, apparently. If you don’t own a Fear and Loathing poster have you even tried mushrooms? Everything that fell out of his mouth sounded like prose. Sentences that I’d have to sit in a dark room for weeks on end just to birth, only to never be able to say naturally. He would be over the thought before it’s even left his mouth, very little thinking actually seemed to even go in to it. Most of us have to think before we speak, a sentiment drilled in to us since the very earliest of education. Hunter, on the other hand, could say the most vital, intelligent things apparently without having to have thought at all. Not to mention the weight of all the drugs and alcohol he’d likely be performing under. He was positively Dylan-esque – Dylan at his best, that is.

There are, however, throngs of people that don’t understand the madness that must torture a mind as intellectually superior as Hunter’s. A lot of very clever, highly regarded, artists have killed themselves. I don’t think that burden is nearly as glamorous as the literary and yes, even photographic snapshots would have us believe. But for many 16 year olds just discovering the Fear and Loathing movie (“Aw dude, you’ve never got high and watched Fear and Loathing!?”), this is the place to be. And thus springs the inspiration for the New Years’ journeys and festivals. Instead of Duke and his Attorney blasting through the California/Nevada desert in a red convertible with suitcases full of drugs, spawns of Auckland’s elite pack silver VW Golfs with a few bags of weed, some pills full of chalk and rat-poison, stock their iPods with music their source would have hated, and drive off to Gisborne thinking it’s the same thing. Well, it’s not the same thing. Cue the Snapchat stories filled with piss breaks, and the caption “We can’t stop here…” There’s a famous scene in which Duke and the Attorney get really messed up on some ether and go walkabout. Here’s a sad, sad, true story – I knew some people (seemingly intelligent Uni students) who spent a night huffing CRC because it CONTAINED ether. Contained! Lots of things contain ether. Lots of things contain lots of things, but such is the struggle to be like him.

Most of those guilty will immediately get defensive and claim they aren’t doing that. Watch their faces when you say, “Yeah you’re right, you don’t really read his stuff anyway,do you?”. It’s like asking a robot what happens when Pinocchio says “This is a lie.”, they just can’t compute and then explode. Where else do you get the idea to DO ether? It’s not exactly like South Auckland is dotted with ‘ether houses’ and cops come up with big loads of ether in all the gang raids. The main point is, if the praise that he seems to get on a real, day to day basis, was literary and legitimate, he’d be considered one of the greatest who ever lived.  Instead of inspiring people to read and write, he’s apparently inspiring dumb teenagers to live up to some impossible expectation that is the epitome of drug-decadence, and frankly isn’t even his best work. He’s definitely considered to be ‘up there’ on the literary ladder, but instead of just sharing drugged-out quotes of his over Facebook and pretending you understand, actually give it a go. If you think this one tiny quote is so cool, you are in for a treat because his books are full of them! I believe people simply can’t be bothered. Can’t be bothered with the challenge of anything non-linear, or slightly confronting, which is really sad.

It’s kind of a general issue and arguably stems from the same soil as ‘headline whoring.’ Sharing a story, or facts, simply based on a cheeky, click-baiting headline. It is so wrong and irresponsible and is greatly contributing to the dumbing down of our collective sub-conscious.

“Did you see Company X is trying to get their employees to…”

“No, if you actually read the article it said they were ‘considering’ it, to ‘potentially’ be implemented by 2025.”

Same thing when people see a quote of his, or see the movie adaptation of one of his books, they take it in and share it like its their own. And this happens with many, many, other respected musicians, authors, and artists in general. Anyone that it is ‘cool’ to like is at great risk of being reduced to a slogan, or a t-shirt. It happened with The Ramones, Black Flag, Sex Pistols and even Che Guevara. Of all the people who use the quotes, the bat country, the ‘drugs always worked for me’, the breakfast routine – the percentage of those who have actually bothered to go further and read anything substantial by him would be very interesting on one hand, and embarrassing on the other. Interesting to me, because I believe it’d truly back up what I’m saying, and embarrassing for a lot of you.

 

Books Are Cool

Books seemed to be really uncool, for a really long time there. I read heaps when I was younger, and pretty well until my age caught up, or until I stopped ‘pushing myself’ depending on who you ask, but I admit I fell in to the ‘books are lame’ category for a time there. Couldn’t say why. The last word was interchangeable, too. Books could be anything – boring, shit, for losers. That sort of thinking is almost baffling looking back.  I don’t know if there is any data on this, but I am highly confident that there is a direct correlation with intelligence and those who read frequently. Actually it’s not that I didn’t like books, it was just that I really, really did not ever think to read one for leisure. Fiction written for young people though truly is generally pretty stale, with a few exceptions.

But then it suddenly came back. Guys and girls all started wearing brown coats, and leather shoes, growing (and grooming!?) mustaches, and carrying around tattered anthologies of George Orwell essays, stopping only to drink coffee and proudly display to everyone that they were indeed part of the ‘intelligentsia’, did you not notice what they were reading?  Or that they were reading at all? I suppose some people felt left out, or stupid, and sought to read thin novels by obscure authors and wear it as a badge, or weapon. Can’t be all bad though, reading became the cool, trippy (for some reason?) thing to do.

The first book I remember really enjoying as anything more than a child was a Kurt Cobain biography, Heavier than Heaven. I didn’t even like Nirvana at the time,although I knew who they were. I would have been 12 years old, everyone in class had to check out a book from the school library and the only ones that really interested me at the time were about music or movies, not really novels, so the first thing I grabbed was Heavier than Heaven. I read the back and looked at the pictures, and had the “oh, it’s that guy” moment. For ages when I was younger I just thought that ‘Kurt Cobain’ was a serial killer. It seemed interesting enough and someone in class started talking to me about it so I held on to it and a few days later I went to the public library and borrowed a Nirvana greatest hits CD – the first time I even realised you could do that – and never returned it. Here was a book about a heroin-shooting, instrument-wrecking, rockstar-millionaire, who literally blew it all away, and I’m allowed to read it. School said so. Actually, my english teacher did give me a shifty look and demanded to know what I was reading when I asked her what ‘carnal knowledge’ meant, with regard to Dave Grohl’s time off on tour. Regardless, that’s a pretty interesting book to a 12 year old.

From there I mainly kept reading books about music, or biographies on musicians, preferably autobiographies. Around that same time I read one about Axl Rose that was similarly fascinating, and one about Jimi Hendrix called Room Full of Mirrors that was written by the same guy that wrote Heavier than Heaven, Charles R. Cross. Who knew, that just because it’s on paper and in between two slightly thicker pieces of card, it didn’t have to be lame/shit/boring, or any of those other words?

Art is kind of one big circle, in that they all compliment each other so when reading books about musicians that you love and respect and they talk about books and authors that they love and respect, you pretty much pay attention. You don’t have to like it, but you definitely want to find out about it. If Kurt Cobain likes Black Sabbath and The Beatles, and I like Black Sabbath and The Beatles, maybe I’ll like some William S. Burroughs stuff too, like he does. I think if you keep it organic you can’t really go wrong. Be open minded, but don’t pretend to like something just because it’s Lou Reed’s favourite. Being dishonest leads to the mustache grooming discussed earlier. At the end of the day, books are just stories, and some people like them on paper, some people like them spoken and filmed, some people like them in a video game. It’s content that really matters, not the medium. Books are honestly pretty cool though, in a similar way to albums, and I’m lucky I read because since I quit smoking I need all the coolness I can get.