Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Place of Dead Roads

William S. Burroughs The Place of Dead Roads (1983)

To start at the beginning, sort of, Genesis P. Orridge is a performance artist, or at least that's as good a description as any. Amongst his more recent and better publicised deeds was a course of gender reassignment and surgical modification aimed towards meeting his wife of the time at a sort of middle ground between male and female. This was, he informed us, pandrogyny, a clever and important new subversive and playful concept challenging our preconceptions and stuff. The term is a fiendishly clever and subversive conflation of the Greek stem pan- meaning all and androgyny which refers to having both male and female characteristics (thus not actually requiring the pan- prefix at all) meaning neither quite entirely like a man nor a lady which playfully challenges our preconceptions. Do you see?

For all his finer qualities, I doubt Genesis P. Orridge can even manage a poo without redefining it in a new subversive context so as to challenge our preconceptions, probably wiping from side to side with pages torn from a Gutenberg Bible, playfully rebranding the deed as coprommunion or something. Still, it takes all sorts...

Three decades ago Genesis P. Orridge was in a band called Throbbing Gristle. I dearly loved and still appreciate their noisy, largely improvised electronic music, possibly having been primed to enjoy such things at the age of six by what the BBC Radiophonic Workshop did for The Sea Devils. In interview, P. Orridge would tend to make frequent reference to beat author William Burroughs as a significant influence, so just like all the other little suckers who would automatically rush out and buy up the entire Nolan Sisters back catalogue on the strength of P. Orridge observing how I'm in the Mood for Dancing is actually a playfully subversive challenge to our preconceptions regarding something or other, I read everything I could find. The upside of this is that I discovered Burroughs, a fascinating and thought-provoking author. More annoying was that once I'd read everything I could find, I noticed Burroughs had become the poster grandfather for humourless wankers in black clothes, which was both off-putting and an uncomfortable reminder of how close I had myself sailed towards becoming a humourless wanker in black clothes.

This, I imagine, is probably why I avoided the man for so long. I pretended I wasn't in when he called around, and I effected an unconvincing oriental accent when he phoned.

Burroughs famously wrote by means of cut-up text, although this should not detract from his already being an extremely competent writer. A cut-up is text derived from a random reordering of the words or phrases on a page, sometimes with a semblance of sense emphasised by means of fresh punctuation. The idea is in some way a literary equivalent of shamanic divination by means of entrails, tea leaves, the flight of birds, or any other effectively random source material which may be seen to reveal a pattern. Cut-ups, Burroughs believed, exposed truths hidden within the text, allowing the future to leak through to the present.

This, by way of example, is a cut-up of the second paragraph:
Probably wiping from Bible, playfully something still. It takes all with pages torn from a deed as coprommunion or side to side doubt. Genesis rebranding the new sorts for all his Gutenberg, manage a poo with to challenge our P. Orridge. Can even subversive context so as finer qualities I without redefining it, preconceptions.

Well, anyway. Whilst Burroughs incorporated cut-ups sparingly in his novels, the narrative as a whole tends to follow the random logic of the technique. Scenes are often short and to the point, heavy on ideas and dark humour, contradictions and non-sequiturs dominating as the story unfolds. If confusing, it's surprisingly engrossing and happily free of the sort of extraneous exposition required by a more obviously linear narrative; and as with anything of seemingly random order, if there's enough of it, a pattern tends to emerge whether intentionally on the part of the author or otherwise.

Written towards the end of Burroughs' life, The Place of Dead Roads reads a little like a loosely autobiographical summation as he prepares for death, although death has always been one of his themes, so that may just be me. It's roughly speaking a nineteenth century western, albeit one which follows its principal character around all the places Burroughs lived - London, Morocco, Paris, a colony on the planet Venus; and there is a sort of narrative logic, or at least more so than in many of his previous works. From this dreamlike succession of events, Burroughs applies his characteristically sharp wit to culture, conditioning, and the carnivorous nature of human society and stupidity and, for all that it makes little sense in linear terms, it hits hard as allegory.

Even if those who often hail Burroughs as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century so frequently turn out to be complete cocks, one shouldn't allow this to cloud judgement of his works, or the strong possibility that he probably
was one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.

For what it's worth, anyone who regarded Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go as a work of substance and insight - as opposed to something distantly tied in to a cancelled kid's TV show - would probably find a lot to enjoy in The Place of Dead Roads.

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