Monday, 9 September 2013


William S. Burroughs Junky (1950)

General or otherwise sweeping statements made about America or American culture can often appear hopelessly off target to those of us who live here, and whose experience is derived from life rather than a newspaper article or what some bloke said on the internet. It's not so much a single country as a massive chunk of continent divided into areas of land of which many may as well be considered countries in their own right. The population is such that any statement of how Americans are this will almost always be rendered meaningless by a silent majority of other other Americans who are that; despite which I'm going to steam right on ahead.

America has an obsession with the rebel, the outsider figure, probably inherited from the colonisation and founding of the United States as two fingers to the English Parliament. American heroes tend to be those who buck the system in some way, or else who work within the system whilst bending rules to get the job done, just like every action thriller cop since about 1972; but, these rebels tend to be commodities just as much as Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean have become evocative and marketable images framed portraits of which lend a certain ambience to your diner, letting customers know that not only are you in business, but also that you ain't fancy, no siree. It's as though America, wishing to distance itself from the stuffy monarchic establishments from which its immigrant populace have fled, can only conceive an organising system in terms of revolution, or at least that which walks, talks, and smells like a revolution; and so even the tallest pillars of the establishment are remembered in terms of outspoken moments, playing a mean saxophone, or resembling some movie star. Marx observed that revolution is permanent, meaning that true revolution is self-aware and hopefully self-correcting. The United States of America therefore ceased to be a revolution in general terms in 1812 after which it became cultural karaoke as a means of political stability achieved through the marketing and defusing of its own revolutionary tendencies - the most vivid expression of this being for me each new sanitised Disney character: he's a chipmunk, and he's looking at you with the crooked smile and raised eyebrow of attitude. He's a wild card and ain't no-one gonna tame this boy, but he still understands that you have to clean your teeth and study hard to get decent grades. This also explains Green Day, I would say.

In America, the truly revolutionary is therefore that which cannot be purchased or sanitised for public consumption - the outré, the unacceptable, the losers, the sheep-killing dogs; which is where William Burroughs came in, I guess, because much as he might have looked pretty good in a suit in a moody black and white photograph, it's happily impossible to separate the man from his legend. Fiercely loyal to his guns, his heroin addiction, his homosexuality, his endless hatred of anything in a uniform, he can never be reclaimed as an entertaining maverick in the terms by which even Charles Bukowski is slowly being drawn back into the machine. He shot his wife by accident, he was an independently wealthy former-Harvard student, and is by at least some of his own testimony, a horrible cunt - all of which we know because above all Burroughs valued truth, no matter how appalling it might seem.

Junky was his first novel, ostensibly a novel about heroin addiction here reissued in restored form, all changes and revisions made by editors and publishers excised. Contrary to the received wisdom, it isn't stylistically radically different to Naked Lunch and the other, more vigorously experimental titles by which he made his reputation. Burroughs' impartial reportage, shocking and surreal imagery, and flights of metaphysical subversion are as much in evidence here as in anything he wrote, the only difference being that the prose is delivered in traditional narrative sequence and lacks the weirder sexual excesses involving farting boys on roller skates and all that good stuff. It's brutal and disturbing - not least for the clinical language by which Burroughs describes his life in New York, New Orleans, and then Mexico City; but it's also absolutely truthful, absolutely indifferent to winning over its readership, and as such is in American cultural terms the absolute antithesis of Michael J. Fox.

The conversations had nightmare flatness, talking dice spilled in the tube metal chairs, human aggregates disintegrating in cosmic inanity, random events in a dying universe where everything is exactly as it appears to be, and no other relation than juxtaposition is possible.

Perhaps the reason why Burroughs took to chopping everything into bits was a further effort at avoiding assimilation, refusing even to play with the same building blocks by which even Mafia idols are revered for their audience identification profiles and sales figures. I'm beginning to get the impression that Burroughs may be more important as an author than previously realised, and with this in mind, Junky really is a very good place to start.

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