"Word Virus" contains just a tenth of William S. Burroughs's writings, but it's enough to get a full sense of his career.
By Gary Susman
FEBRUARY 8, 1999:
WORD VIRUS: THE WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS READER. Edited by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg. Grove Press, 576 pages, $27.50.
You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point," wrote William S. Burroughs in the "Atrophied Preface" to his groundbreaking 1959 novel. Having dispensed with such reactionary conventions as plot, characters, and complete sentences, the book was a string of hallucinations, black-comic sketches, and nightmare images of the violation of every possible taboo, held together only by the author's oracular voice and the theme of addiction as an analogue for all human relationships. One could read the book beginning anywhere and take any few pages as a fractal representation of the whole.
In fact, Burroughs, who died in 1997 at age 83, could have made the same observation about his entire body of work. You could cut into it at any point and pull out a representative passage of bleak brilliance. Over the decades, his subject was always, ultimately, the topography of his own consciousness, and his method -- whether in the journalistic straightforwardness of his earliest prose, the deliberately random fragmentation of Naked Lunch and the novels that followed, or the surreal spins on narrative of his late work -- was always pedagogical: instruction on how to frustrate the mechanisms of control that rob us of our freedom.
Which is why the compilation of a Burroughs anthology is at once a simple and a daunting task. At more than 500 pages, the new Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader contains only about a tenth of his published work and is one of any number of possible anthologies that would be similarly emblematic. Some of Burroughs's writings are clearly better than others, and some are undeservedly obscure; what's new to the casual reader may seem overexposed to the hard-core fan. In order to please general readers, fans, and scholars, Word Virus editors James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg, both long-time associates of the author, have set themselves the unenviable assignment of trying to include both the greatest hits and the most relevant excerpts from a lifetime of work (see "Just for Jolly," next page).
Inevitably, they will have failed to include passages close to somebody's heart. (Among those I miss are the author's prediction of human devolution into a "crustacean horror" in Junky and Naked Lunch's "The Algebra of Need," Burroughs's most lucid depiction of human society as a pyramid of exploitative relationships.) Conversely, a few passages that did make the cut are interesting but of dubious necessity. Still, the editors have done a remarkably successful job of collecting the essential passages and assembling them in a larger context that insightfully traces Burroughs's career of stylistic restlessness and thematic constancy.
The primary theme running through both his life and his work was resistance to all threats against personal liberty. For Burroughs, these included not only politics, technology, and drugs, but also language itself. In a passage from The Ticket That Exploded that gives this book its title, he wrote, "The word is now a virus. . . . The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk."
Even in his earliest work, Burroughs was wise to the ways language tended to enforce patterns of thought and to how he might subvert the text. In the most notable of the book's handful of unpublished early rarities, the short excerpt from 1945's And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks -- a novel with chapters written alternately by the 31-year-old Burroughs and his new friend, 23-year-old Jack Kerouac -- Burroughs is already transforming his life into fiction and painting detailed portraits of the underground types whose lives demonstrate an alternative to straight society. Burroughs and Kerouac never published the novel, for the now-apparent reason that it wasn't very good, but in this case and a few others, Grauerholz and Silverberg have decided to favor historical worth over literary merit.
What varied throughout Burroughs's career was his approach to deprogramming language. The early books consciously use the streetwise jargon of their outsider characters, whose elusive definitions leave meaning in play. In Naked Lunch, he discarded most narrative conventions in order to collapse time and simulate chaos. He generated actual randomness in his "cut-up" works of the '60s, in which he would arbitrarily splice phrases from other texts and other authors into his new works. Having taken these Dadaesque experiments as far as they could go, in the last decades of his life he turned to spinning outrageous twists on familiar adventure genres (tales of high-seas piracy, ancient lost cities, Western shootouts), as if to rewrite history and determine the point at which humanity took the wrong path. Having excerpts from every stage of Burroughs's career makes it easier for both newcomers and long-time devotees to trace particular phrases and images that recur throughout the author's mythology, gaining meaning and resonance along the way.
This evolution is laid out clearly by Grauerholz, who was Burroughs's companion and editor for the last 23 years of his life. He presents the pieces more or less chronologically, divided into eight periods, and he has written an introductory essay for each period that helpfully fixes all the works in the context of Burroughs's life. He does, however, make some assertions of questionable accuracy. For instance, Grauerholz places Burroughs, his brother Mort, and Gore Vidal at the same high school in 1930, though Vidal would have been only five then. He also writes that after Burroughs completed his queer-rebellion novel The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead in August 1969, "the following month, as if to confirm that Burroughs had his finger on the pulse of gay futurity, the Stonewall Riots occurred in Greenwich Village." Actually, they occurred in June, two months before Burroughs finished the manuscript.
Also questionable is the book's implicit granting of equal weight to each period. Does the mishmash of essays and sketches Burroughs wrote in the '60s and '70s deserve as much space as the formative years of the '40s and '50s, when Burroughs wrote Junky and Naked Lunch? No, but otherwise the book would miss such obscure gems as "The Beginning Is Also the End," "The American Non-Dream," and "A Word to the Wise Guy," all helpful lessons from the old outlaw to a culture in revolt that was finally catching up to him.
Many of the selections in Word Virus are read by the author in a CD that is included in the book's first printing. These readings are taken from last year's four-CD boxed set The Best of William Burroughs: From Giorno Poetry Systems (Mouth Almighty Records). Listening to Burroughs's canny vaudevillian delivery has always been one of the best ways to get into the satirical intent of his often arcane passages. For those new to Burroughs, the CD, like the book, is an excellent introduction; for fans, both book and CD will serve as fond keepsakes from an old friend.
Just for jollyIn a typical bit of perverse humor, a dying William S. Burroughs wanted to name the anthology of his work after a purported quotation by Jack the Ripper. "William had this idea that the book should be called Just for Jolly, which came out of some Jack the Ripper book he was reading and was the response to the question posed to Jack the Ripper, 'Why'd you do it?' 'Just for jolly,' " recalls Ira Silverberg, who conceived and co-edited the anthology with James Grauerholz, Burroughs's literary executor and long-time companion.
Instead, Silverberg and Grauerholz came up with Word Virus, a career-summing title that alluded to Burroughs's vision of language as an invading, thought-corrupting organism and to his lifelong battle to turn language on itself. Says Silverberg, "Eventually, William said, 'Fine,' " and approved the manuscript one week before he died in August 1997, at 83.
Silverberg, 36, had known Burroughs "my entire adult life," had once served as his publicist, and in his capacity as editor in chief at Grove Press relished the opportunity to return Burroughs to the imprint that had published his most seminal work, starting with Naked Lunch. In compiling Word Virus, which contains about a tenth of what the Beat godfather published during his lifetime, Silverberg says he and Grauerholz balanced excerpts that were fans' favorites with lesser-known -- and sometimes lesser-quality -- but thematically representative work (notably, the previously unpublished And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a very early collaboration by Burroughs and Jack Kerouac). Says Silverberg, "The objective was to create a book that would give a new reader a taste of what the body of work was like, and to give a more studied reader a map of the work as seen through certain concerns William had, stylistic changes that took place, to create a continuity of vision through theme and character. It was a really difficult task. James knows William's work better than anyone in the world. He can read it aloud from memory. The challenge for him was what not to put in. For me, who knows the work but not in a scholarly way, I wanted to take the William I knew and loved and get it out there. I wound up looking for the best possible work, and James wound up looking at my selections and creating the connective tissue that ran through the book.
"It is a 'best of,' but it's also work that best represents his literary, political, spiritual concerns. That was the task, to keep the flow alive, so that by the end of the book, you'd realize, 'Shit! This man changed as the years went on. This man was actually a bit softer, to the extent that he was looking for solace at the end of his life' -- but be able to reflect back on earlier work and see those concerns manifest themselves in a different way. The reason we included a chapter of Hippos is that that work is in many ways a prequel to Junky and Queer. It is the very beginning of what was the hard-boiled style of those years. In retrospect, it is perhaps some of the most immature work William ever wrote, but we felt it was really important to show the trajectory of where he was going."
Indeed, the book shows that Burroughs spent most of his life railing against all forms of thought-control and prophesying doom in a sly cackle, but it also shows that, unlike most satirists, he mellowed with age. Silverberg says that Burroughs confounded the expectations of those who knew him only through his explosive early books like Naked Lunch or his notorious personal life of drugs and guns, which came together tragically when the author accidentally killed his wife, Joan, during a drunken game of William Tell. "The mythology of William Burroughs is so much greater than the truth of William Burroughs. Having known William intimately as a friend my entire adult life -- yes, he was this great writer and this incredible visionary and this wonderful influence on the culture at large, but he was actually a terribly sweet man who was walking around with emotional baggage that, toward the end of his life, he wanted to reckon with. That's why the introduction to Queer [which Burroughs wrote at age 72] is in there, which is one of the most important pieces of personal writing William ever did in his life, dealing with the death of Joan. But again, if you look at the books, especially the Red Night trilogy, you see the beginning of William looking for a way out. He was always looking for a way to transcend the human condition, and as he got older, it was about reckoning before transcendence. That was one of the most important parts of editing this book for both of us, to show he was human, he was frail the way we're all frail emotionally, that he was not hard and cold and mechanical. He was a far more complicated human being and a far more complicated writer than he was thought to be.
"At the end of his life, he wasn't bitter at all. He was very happy. He enjoyed a brilliant retirement for a man who had really suffered for years and years and really dealt with poverty. That's another myth, the Burroughs millions. [Burroughs's grandfather invented the adding machine.] The family sold the stock years ago, and the small trust fund he lived on ran out when he was rather young. At the end of his life, he found more financial success. I remember Allen Ginsberg always coming back from his trips to [Burroughs's home] saying, 'God, I wish I had it as easy as Bill.' William had a very leisurely schedule. He'd putter around, do some work in the garden, do some painting and some writing. Allen had one of these schedules where he was working from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. It was great for William."
Burroughs wrote until the last day of his life, leaving behind a journal of his final year called Last Words that Silverberg hopes to publish within the next couple of years. Notes Silverberg, "At the end of his life, he wasn't even using a typewriter. He was writing by hand [arthritis made typing painful]. He never worked on a computer and had no interest in a computer. He didn't give a shit. He was very old-fashioned in his way."
Yet Burroughs long ago foresaw the Internet, and he continues to provoke responses in fans' newsgroups and Web pages. Silverberg, a casual reader of such postings, says, "The thing that intrigued me the most is how many women leave messages. There's still this myth that Burroughs is a boys' writer, that the element of misogyny that some say exists in his work -- I question if it's true misogyny or if there were just certain routines that were blown out of proportion. It just proves that the work hits more people than ever.
Gary Susman is a contributing writer to the Phoenix.
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