Sunday, 6 October 2013


William S. Burroughs Exterminator! (1973)

This might count as the first book I ever read by criteria I can't quite define - neither a children's book nor a chuffin' Doctor Who book nor something read for school - not that there's anything wrong with any of those, excepting possibly the second category; but I was fifteen or thereabouts, and Burroughs was getting namechecked left, right and centre by all my favourite industrial grimsters in Sounds music paper, so I headed directly to my local library in Stratford-upon-Avon and found this on the shelf. It was the first time, so far as I recall, that I had picked up a book specifically because I had no fucking clue as to what I would find within, which was somehow immeasurably more exciting than knowing it would be some guy having scrapes and adventures. Despite the fact that my first copy was borrowed from a local library, Exterminator! felt like something inherently dangerous which I probably wasn't supposed to read.

Contrary to claims made of this edition, it was never a novel, but rather a selection of short pieces - one would hesitate to term them stories as that was never really quite what Burroughs did. As such, Exterminator! was, with hindsight, a good place to start. Swearin' Willy's novels were not noticeably any less disjointed, but tended to be held together by recurrent themes, thus potentially leaving the novice never quite sure whether it was all random, or whether it was entirely coherent - as suggested by the aforementioned recurrent themes - just way above his or her head.

Exterminator! dates from a period of Burroughs being particularly interested in writing by means of Brion Gysin's cut-up technique, so much so that even the seemingly regular prose tends to be peppered with extragrammatical interjections of alien text unfettered by much in the way of punctuation. In case it requires explanation, the cut-up technique entails variant texts blended at random in the manner of phrases or even sentences selected from a hat, the creative process being the choice of which resulting narrative collage seems the most appropriate or interesting in terms of whatever the author is trying to achieve. Burroughs regarded this as literature catching up with painting, specifically the collages and juxtaposed images of the Dadaists - a written equivalent of divination by which the mechanism of the universe might be revealed in random patterns. One might argue that anyone could produce a meaningful cut-up, but as with abstract painting and dance music, this is of course bollocks, as Burroughs' visionary texts herein demonstrate, falling somewhere between free poetry and a series of photographs mashed together and forced to make sense. As a whole, the collection feels more like a stroll around an exhibition than a book of short stories, such is the diversity of ideas; of which, by the way, one of my favourites is:

Somewhat reluctantly I put down the magazine and followed her down the hall. Quite an idea. Story of someone reading a story. I had the odd sensation that I myself would wind up in the story and that someone would read about me reading the story in a waiting room somewhere.

Of course, it isn't all self-referential jokes. This being Burroughs, it's also firearms, nude teenage boys on rollerskates, exploding pimples, alcoholism, drugs, corruption, violence, disaster, bottoms, and the inevitable mandrill elected to a prominent governmental position - a veritable circus designed to short circuit common sense, assumptions, and power structures in general. This is where the nature of Burroughs' art becomes clear, that this barrage of apparent nonsense can still make such a bold and obvious statement about society both then and now without having to spell it out; even though he actually does spell it out on one occasion:

The youth rebellion is a worldwide phenomenon that has not been seen before in history. I don't believe they will calm down and be ad execs at thirty as the establishment would like to believe. Millions of young people all over the world are fed up with shallow unworthy authority running on a platform of bullshit.

Sadly this was all before Richard Branson and his ilk, and it is with hindsight slightly depressing to realise that Burroughs was, if anything, an optimist; but even if he overestimated humanity with our general willingness to pull the wool over our own eyes, his targets were at least chosen with sadly timeless accuracy:

What is happening in America today is something that has never happened before in recorded history: Total confrontation. The lies are obvious. The machinery is laid bare. All Americans are being shoved by the deadweight of a broken control machine right in front of each other's faces.

I think this may be why I recall Exterminator! as my first proper book, it being the first thing I read which presented possibilities beyond any I had been led to expect, the first to seriously inspire thought on subjects other than those directly described within its pages. Not only has it stood the test of time, but it has improved with age.

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