Monday, 29 August 2016

Last Words

William S. Burroughs Last Words (2000)
Towards the end of his life, Burroughs began to experience difficulty using a typewriter, and so James Grauerholz gave him bound, blank books in which he could write as journals, the end result of which is what we have here. What entries Burroughs wrote were more or less daily, so I was sort of expecting something like:

Today was pretty boring. I didn't do much. I watched a film in the afternoon but I can't remember what it was called. It had that Robert Morley in it, so it was probably an old one. Beans on toast for tea. Phoned Ginsberg but he wasn't in, as fucking usual. I might mow the lawn tomorrow.

Whilst there's an element of diary to this material, it's minimal and mostly written in terms that made sense primarily to Burroughs himself, requiring an appendix which decodes certain innocuous passages as referring to him spending the day shooting a pop video with U2, for one example. So it's some of that, along with rambling ruminations on private theories, observations, memories, short scenes written as fiction, and a lot of cats.

It has been suggested that Burroughs became a crazy cat lady in later years, although with just six cats on the clock, I'd say that makes him a relative amateur - a part-timer, if you will - which I state without judgement as a fellow crazy cat lady supporting a congregation of somewhere between twelve and fifteen depending on the weather and whether or not we're counting strays or other members of the b-team; but then anyone who likes cats, as Burroughs clearly did, is okay by me.

However, reading Last Words as the final journal of a crazy cat lady helps make some sense of it in so much as that this is Burroughs' writing at its most private and personal, and so his weaknesses are revealed here and there; and whilst he was capable of great insight into the human condition, the nature of civilisation, reality and all the rest, he had his flaws even without the whole accidentally shooting her indoors thing. Novels have been played to his strengths, but here we encounter blind spots, his being ill-equipped to grasp, for example, why Carl Sagan regarded belief in things which don't actually exist as unhelpful. Burroughs has always inhabited a magical universe, but here it becomes clear just how attached he was to some of that stuff, and how susceptible he could often be to complete bullshit for the sake of poetry. Of course this doesn't make him a bad person, and in Last Words it seems to render him easier to understand as a fellow human being, or at least enables us - and by us I mean me - to identify with him a little better. Above all, Last Words leaves us with the realisation of how much Burroughs cared, and not just about his cats, but about the world we live in, and how poorly we treat each other. Admittedly this isn't anything new, but the emphasis is different; although that said, it's still very much Burroughs with random swerves in the narrative adding up to something which leaves impressions rather than describing anything in any linear sense.

Last Words is confusing but also quite moving, and it makes me realise how much I miss this guy. I can't believe it's been nearly twenty years.

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