Undercover: William S. Burroughs—Two Images (05/19/77)

Junky (Penguin, 158 pp., $1.95), the memoirs of a heroin addict, originally appeared in 1953 as Junkie by “William Lee.” Printed back-to-back with the memoirs of a narc, it was William S. Burroughs‘ first book. It is essentially a day-to-day meditation on the possibilities of estrangement; its story is plainly told in an unsettlingly flat tone of voice. It insists always on the ordinary if slowed-down normality of the junkie’s world; it is clinical. The author chooses a life, and he argues without stridency that his life makes sense.

Everything moves according to a predetermined pace here; the most lurid incidents are denied any trace of sensationalism. The result is a work of very remarkable creepiness—a mid-20th-century version of “Bartleby,” that story in which Herman Melville set forth the proposition that the human contacts necessary for temporal salvation are, simply, impossible.

Certain scenes in Junky remain horrifying, more than 20 years after they were written; the difference time makes is that they no longer seem artless.

There is a type person occasionally seen in [junk] neighborhoods who has connections with junk, though he is neither a user nor a seller… His place of origin is the Near East, probably Egypt. He has a large straight nose. His lips are thin and purple-blue like the lips of a penis. The skin is tight and smooth over his face. He is basically obscene beyond any possible vile act or practice. He has the mark of a certain trade or occupation that no longer exists. If junk were gone front the earth, there might still be junkies standing around in junk neighborhoods feeling the lack… So this man walks around in places where he once exercised his obsolete and unthinkable trade. But he is unperturbed

What is his lost trade? Definitely of a servant class and something to do with the dead, though he is not an embalmer. Perhaps he stores something in his body—a substance to prolong life—of which he is periodically milked by his masters.

Burroughs’ latest book, Cobble Stone Gardens (Cherry Valley Editions, 49 pp., $3), is written in the form of a childhood memoir, but it veers off almost immediately into images of pedophilia, murder and dismemberment. The book is dedicated to Burroughs’ parents—“We never know how much we learn/From those who never will return,” Burroughs quotes E.A Robinson—and is illustrated with Burroughs family portraits and photos drawn from the public life of the 1910s and 1920s (Burroughs was born in 1914). Despite the fundamental violence of the book, the lines from Robinson are not used for irony, because Burroughs long ago passed beyond irony, if indeed he ever bothered with it.
burroughsThe prose, inevitably, is far more self-consciously “spontaneous” than that of Junky; waves of hallucination rush across the pages. But the continuity with Burroughs’ first book is there, and, tracing it, we can see that his work, so often understood as a negation of bourgeois life (which it is) is also utopian: a search for a forbidden city of the senses, an attempt either to retrieve that paradise from a past as distant as that adhering to the repulsive Egyptian, or to invent it. The problem is that Burroughs is certain that there is an inverse relationship between his desire for paradise—some final, permanent orgy on the edge of death, or perhaps the very moment of death eternally maintained—and his ability to achieve it. This might be the source of the revulsion that fragments Burroughs’ descriptions of utopia (he hates that Egyptian, but also loves him, would become him if he could): the more palpable Burroughs’ goal, the more acute his understanding that his black paradise is only a sort of primal memory. Thus the need to go back to beginnings, to childhood.

Still, the subversion of childhood in Cobble Stone Gardens is as brutal as Burroughs can make. Like Alice, Burroughs cannot get throuph the door, and rage takes over the story: even if one can see through all the episodes of castrating South American border guards and flesh-eating insects to the little boy who lies somewhere behind them, one also feels that even Burroughs’ return to his childhood is a form of pedophilia: the man eats the child alive.

It is, in the end, the strongest sort of reaffirmation and intensification of the sense of displacement that is at the heart of all of Burroughs’ work. Recalling the Egyptian and his all-but-forgotten trade, Burroughs writes in Cobble Stone Gardens: “Messages in the lost tongue of a vile people cut off in a mountain valley by towering cliffs and a great waterfall. The inhabitants are blond and blue eyed.” This is a complete image, as that of the Egyptian is not: it combines the lure of James Hilton’s Shangri-La with the most ominous parody. And it is this image of childhood that Burroughs is determined to leave us with. As he notes, summing up the passage: “It may be that you are in locations or circumstances that will be dangerous at some future time.”


SELF-HELP

How To Save Your Own Life, a novel by Erica Jong (Holt, Rinehart and Winston). In which the author of Fear of Flying combines the ambitions of Portrait of a Lady with the imaginative power of the classified section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, achieving, finally, a work that in its warmth and sensitivity to human values might even be compared to Mandingo.


Rolling Stone, May 19, 1977


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