Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Soft Machine

William S. Burroughs The Soft Machine (1961)
This was, so I gather, Burroughs' first novel published since Naked Lunch had caused everyone to shit themselves with its tales of men's johnsons going in and out of the bottoms of other men, and with it having been written at least in part by glueing random bits of text together. High court judges and the more conservative elements of the literary establishment doubtless asked him to rein it in a bit, maybe think a bit more about what motivates his characters, maybe introduce a few witty catchphrases; but I guess he just decided to go for it, and The Soft Machine has accordingly been described by some bloke on the internet as the Burroughs novel which makes the others seem relaxing.

The body rose presenting an erection, masturbates in front of the Comandante. Penis flesh spreads through his body bursting in orgasm explosions granite cocks ejaculate lava under a black cloud boiling with monster crustaceans. Cold grey undersea eyes and hands touched Carl's body. The Comandante flipped him over with sucker hands and fastened his disk mouth to Carl's asshole.

I guess we've all had days like that. As to what any of it may mean, you should probably just read the thing, but the title is a metaphor for the human body, and some bloke on the internet reckons this is about the infiltration of the human body by hostile, alien elements. I can sort of see it in a structural sense, with a surprising majority of this text having been cut in with unrelated material to form a weird, ugly hybrid; and Burroughs was always obsessed with the notion of malign external forces intruding upon the human mechanism, almost a variant on original sin, rather oddly - language, addiction, information, or at a significantly greater stretch, the ugly spirit which supposedly overtook Burroughs during an innocent game of William Tell with his late wife. How well this idea is communicated by the text is debatable, but I nevertheless found it entirely readable; and it certainly communicates something fairly profound, even if that something isn't obvious. The Mayan Caper presents the most coherent narrative, and I'm tempted to read significance into its appearing close to the centre of the novel as relative calm at the eye of the storm, or possibly the core around which the rest forms, but it probably depends on the angle from which you look at it. Certainly it expresses the theme of language as both virus and modifier of environment in clearer terms than elsewhere in the novel.

I probably prefer my Burroughs a little more coherent than this one, but it's nevertheless worth a look, providing you don't have anything against text which rewires your brain as you read it.

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