Review: Naked Lunch


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!