Tuesday, 3 April 2018


William S. Burroughs Queer (1953)
This was originally the second half of Junky owing to a hunch that the first half probably wasn't long enough to count as a novel; so I gather someone changed their mind on that score and this material fell down the back of the sofa, there to remain until the eighties, at which point it was published long after the fact. It's been a while since I read Junky, but there seems to be less arm candy in this one and a bit more man-on-man action, so I suppose Queer is as good a title as any, although homosexuality is part of the furniture rather than an object of specific focus. The narrative is a presumably mostly autobiographical account of Burrough's time in Mexico City, then off to the Amazon in search of ayahuasca, a drug to which he attributes telepathic properties.

Interestingly, Queer reads quite strongly as though occupying an intermediary stage between Junky and Naked Lunch, which of course it does. The cut-up text is still a little way down the road, but here we have rambling conversational asides, anecdotes and routines intruding upon the narrative in a way which prefigures the jarring edits and swerves of later books. Burroughs accounts for some of what the novel is about, or at least what it was intended to do, in his introduction.

While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous adventures along these lines by writing my experience down.

The irony here is that he writes everything but his experience down, meaning that, as he himself acknowledges, Queer jabbers away, touching every subject except for the one at the heart of the book, and which surfaces only briefly in the final chapter.

He was standing in front of the Ship Ahoy. The place looked deserted. He could hear someone crying. He saw his little son, and knelt down and took the child in his arms. The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness, and now he was crying, his body shaking with sobs.

He held little Willy close against his chest. A group of people were standing there in convict suits. Lee wondered what they were doing there and why he was crying.

When Lee woke up, he still felt the deep sadness of his dream. He stretched out a hand towards Allerton, then pulled it back. He turned around to face the wall.

Willy would of course have been his son, William Burroughs Jr., recently deprived of a mother when Bill shot her in the head. Queer was written as Burroughs awaited trial for the shooting - accidental by Burroughs' account, and conceivably so if Queer is any indication. Excepting the example given above, no names are mentioned and nor does it offer any coherent statement, but the sense of longing, regret, disassociation, and flight from something fearful are quite tangible. The worst of it is that, given the short, unhappy life of Burroughs Jr., it seems fair to say that nothing was learned, despite which Queer is a great book.

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