William S. Burroughs The Western Lands (1987)
Burroughs' habit of writing novels without any linear narrative, occasionally dipping into autobiography, technical discussion, or the impressionist word salad of Gysin's cut-up technique, amounting to random sentences pulled out of a hat - all tend to foster a certain texture unique to the work of this author; and a texture of such qualities as to fool the unwary into believing that if you've read one, then you've read them all because, like representatives of unfamiliar nineteenth century races, they all look the same if you're from out of town. Once you get a few of these under your figurative belt however, the differences become apparent in so much as each has a flavour of its own; but that said, Burroughs writing is still such an unorthodox form as to often resist analysis. The Western Lands is something quite different to its predecessors, Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads, and although I can see how these three roughly form a trilogy, I'm not entirely sure why. Where the first two might be loosely regarded as Burroughs appropriating first eighteenth century Caribbean piracy and then the old west as source material, this dips toes into ancient Egypt; although I'm not aware of Burroughs earlier novels being particularly lacking in historical flourishes, but anyway...
The Western Lands is a novel of such scope as to discourage statements like it's about death, or it's about achieving a form of immortality, but for the sake of argument let's assume those two descriptions cover the points that matter; and let's assume this on the grounds that as early as page three we meet author surrogate William Seward Hall trying to write himself out of dying just as earlier authors would once write their way out of debts - more or less in those words. Burroughs would have been in his seventies when he completed The Western Lands, and although much of his oeuvre reveals a pronounced fascination with death, this one goes further than before - or at least further than I remember - into the mechanics of the process and ideas, with less emphasis on the horror. Given Burroughs' view of language, I would guess all the lengthy accounts of poisonous centipedes and the like constitute a magical inoculation of sorts, an attempt to defeat the reaper by becoming the reaper. Perhaps tellingly, the sexual element is significantly less pronounced than in previous works - although Burroughs' sex was always more about liberty and statement than reproduction, but its relative absence nevertheless informs the general focus of the novel, in so much as it has a general focus.
As with his best, The Western Lands is peppered with all manner of wonderfully cutting observations, restatements of the author's views on society, authority, power, and our place therein:
Consider the One God Universe: OGU. The spirit recoils in horror from such a deadly impasse. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. Because He can do everything, He can do nothing, since the act of doing demands opposition. He knows everything, so there is nothing for him to learn. He can't go anywhere, since He is already fucking everywhere, like cowshit in Calcutta.
The OGU is a pre-recorded universe of which He is the recorder. It's a flat, thermodynamic universe, since it has no friction by definition. So He invents friction and conflict, pain, fear, sickness, famine, war, old age and Death.
Like his best, The Western Land instils the reader with an overwhelming impression rather than any one coherent, easily quantified point - although it is in turn made up of many smaller easily quantified points. Inevitably it's also quite a sad book, distinctly the work of someone who had spent his life cheating death, and knew the game to be drawing to a close; and the sadness is thrown some way into relief by unexpected affectionate touches here and there, particularly as he writes about the cats he cared for during his last decade. It's not so thematically solid - if that's quite the right term - as The Place of Dead Roads, its predecessor, but it reveals Burroughs as a very old man who could still surprise his readers with some fresh insight, not least being that behind all the drugs, nude boys, and talking anuses, he was as human as any of us, and certainly more so than all those authority figures he despised with such venom.
So here I am in Kansas with my cats, like the honorary agent for a planet that went out light-years ago. Maybe I am. Who will ever know?