the naked lunch

Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch (sometimes referred to as The Naked Lunch) is a novel by William S. Burroughs originally published in 1959.

Having previously written Junkie and Queer this is the third novel written by the beat writer; although only his second to be published. His second novel, Queer, remained unpublished until 1985.

The book was originally published with the title The Naked Lunch in Paris in 1959 by Olympia Press. An American edition by Grove Press followed soon after in 1962. The American edition was titled Naked Lunch and was substantially different from the Olympia Press edition. This is because the Grove Press edition was in fact based on an earlier 1958 manuscript that Allen Ginsberg had in his possession. The article the in the title was never intended by the author, but added by the editors of the Olympia Press 1959 edition. Nonetheless The Naked Lunch remained the title used for the 1968 and 1974 Corgi Books editions, and the novel is often known by the alternative name, especially in the UK where these editions circulated.

Time magazine included the novel in its "''TIME" 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".

David Cronenberg released a film of the same title based upon the novel and other Burroughs writings in 1991.

Plot introduction

The book is written in vignettes and uses the cut-up technique to create some of its structure. It can be argued that this makes the chapters rather erratic and difficult to read for some, although Burroughs himself stated that the chapters are intended to be read in any order. The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from USA to Mexico, eventually ending in Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The vignettes (called 'routines' by Burroughs) are drawn from Burroughs' own experience in these places, and his addiction to drugs (notably heroin and morphine). The way Burroughs has written the novel ensures that the reader only sees part of the picture - as much as he wants to share. It often happens, given this structure, that something mentioned in the book is not explained or elaborated upon until much later. This idea, relating to different perspectives within a larger picture, is itself a theme which runs throughout this book. The novel's mix of taboo fantasies, peculiar creatures (like the predatory Mugwumps), and eccentric personalities all serve to unmask mechanisms and processes of control, and have led to much controversy. By de-centralising plot Burroughs focuses on literal caricatures, satire and parody throughout the novel.

Explanation of the novel's title

Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork. In a June 1960 letter Jack Kerouac wrote to Allen Ginsberg saying he was pleased that Burroughs had credited him with the title but had not recently heard from him. He states in his letter that Ginsberg misread 'Naked Lust' from the manuscript, and only he noticed; that section of the manuscript later became Queer, although the phrase does not appear in either of the two final texts of the novel.

Plot summary

The book follows the adventures of William Lee (aka Lee the Agent) who is the writer of the book - Burroughs' alter ego in the novel - as well as his pen name for Junky. His journey starts in the US where he is fleeing the police, in search of drugs and his next fix. There are short chapters here describing the different characters he travels with and meets along the way.

Eventually he gets to Mexico where he is assigned to Dr. Benway; for what, we are not told; perhaps he is a subject of Benway's more than anything else. We are told all about Benway through his previous doings in Annexia. The plot then moves to a state called Freeland - a form of limbo between the world we know and Interzone - where we learn of 'Islam Inc.' Here, characters who follow Lee into Interzone are introduced; Clem, Carl, Joselito amongst others.

A short section then jumps in space and time to a market place. The Black Meat is sold here and compared to 'Junk', i.e. morphine. The action then moves straight back to the hospital where Benway is fully revealed as a manipulative, uncaring and corrupt monster.

Time and space again shifts the narrative to an undetermined location known as Interzone. Hassan, the villain of the novel and "a notorious liquefactionist," is throwing a violent orgy. AJ crashes the party and wreaks havoc, decapitating people and imitating a pirate. Hassan is enraged and tells AJ never to return, calling him a "factualist bitch" - a term which is explained much later to be a reference to the clashing political factions within Interzone, which include the Liquefactionists and the Factualists. A short descriptive section tells us of Interzone University and the book moves on to an orgy that himself AJ throws - a parody of Hassan's - more comical than aggressive.

The book then shifts back to the market place and a description of some form of government. Characters including the County Clerk, Benway, Dr Berger, Clem and Jody are developed through heavy dialogue and their own sub-stories.

Finally the book starts to explain itself and we are told of the four parties of Interzone, we are then told more stories about AJ, perhaps to allow us to understand what party he represents - the factualists. After finally describing Interzone properly the novel breaks down into sub-stories and heavily cut-up influenced passages.

In a sudden return to reality, two police officers, Hauser and O'Brien, catch up with Lee, who manages to kill both of them. Lee then goes out to a street phone-booth and calls the Narcotics Squad, saying he wants to speak to O'Brien. A Lieutenant Gonzales on the other end of the line claims there's no one in their records called O'Brien. When Lee asks for Hauser instead, the reply is identical; Lee hangs up, and goes on the run once again.

The book ends 'No glot... ...C'lom fliday'
(which is Chinese Pidgin English 'No got... come back Friday')

Literary significance and reception

Naked Lunch is considered Burroughs' seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. Extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of often 'obscene' language (something Burroughs recognized and intended), the book was banned in many regions of the United States, and was one of the most recent American books over which an obscenity trial was held. The book was banned by Boston courts in 1962 due to obscenity (notably child murder and acts of pedophilia), but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. This was significant, as it was the last major literary censorship battle in the U.S. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes, as it was found to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.

Sections of the manuscript were published in the spring 1958 edition of the University of Chicago student run publication The Chicago Review. The edition was not well received, and caused the university administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the publication, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors. When the editor Paul Carroll published BIG TABLE Magazine (Issue No. 1, Spring 1959) alongside former 'Chicago Review' editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including "Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch", a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed "undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit" and initially judged it as non mailable under the provisions of .

Upon publication, Grove Press added to the book supplementary material regarding the censorship battle as well as an article written by Burroughs on the topic of drug addiction. In 2002, a "restored text" edition of Naked Lunch was published with some new and previously suppressed material added.

The redeeming literary merit of the work is found in the biting satire and social criticism many of these episodes contain. Burroughs digests the modern American mind and spits out a wild, repulsive parade of images and characters that encapsulate the state of the 20th century. From the seedy abortionist who solicits pregnant women on the street, to the racist County Clerk who represents rural intolerance, to the macho father who buys a prostitute for his fifteen year old son on his birthday, only to discover the kid literally got a "piece of ass", Naked Lunch exposes the under workings of the American experience, and shows the beginnings of a social pathology and hypocrisy that would erupt in the 1960s as a 'culture war'. Burroughs himself found the material disturbing to write, but also a cleansing of his life-long frustrations and unconsciously repressed experiences.

On a more specific level, Naked Lunch protests the death penalty. In Burroughs' Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness, perhaps the most shocking and pornographic section of the book, "The Blue Movies" (appearing in the vignette A.J.'s Annual Party) is deemed "a tract against capital punishment." Within "The Blue Movies," three overtly sexual adolescents take part in hanging one another, wherein Burroughs lewdly mocks by incorporating auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Using believable metaphors representing addiction to such things as, most notably heroin, along with medical practice such as Benway resorting to subway abortions after having his license revoked, and even homosexuality, Burroughs repudiates America's consumerist post-World War II state, and the overall human addiction to control. Unfortunately because of its absurdity and strong drug content, many readers misinterpret Naked Lunch as merely a drug novel written by a delusional addict.

Allusions and references

Allusions in other works

The book contains what is generally considered to be some of Burroughs' most memorable and quoted passages. One of the most quoted is a section (or, to use Burroughs' terminology, a "routine") known as "The Talking Asshole". This story-within-a-story involves a man who teaches his anal orifice to talk, a trick he soon regrets when it develops a personality and mind of its own and eventually takes over the man's body. The man is eventually incapable of doing anything other than consuming and excreting, becoming an "all-purpose blob." Notable recordings and performances of this routine include Frank Zappa reading it during 1978's The Nova Convention (it was recorded and released by Giorno Poetry Systems), by Burroughs himself in his mid-1990s CD Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, and it is quoted virtually verbatim by Peter Weller's character in the film version of Naked Lunch.

Several characters would reappear in many later works, most notably the surgeon Dr. Benway, Clem Snide "the Private Asshole", and Inspector Lee. In 1989, Burroughs published Interzone, a collection of short stories and other writings including a chapter entitled "WORD" that at one time was considered for inclusion in Naked Lunch.

Poet Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs' close friend, refers to Naked Lunch in his introduction to his epic poem "Howl".

Burroughs wrote portions of Naked Lunch (and performed most of the editing) in room #9 of the Hotel el Muniria in Tangier. Today, photos of Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other beat generation poets hang on the walls of the adjoining bar, the Tangerinn.

There have been many references to Naked Lunch in popular culture, the most notable of which are listed below.

  • The British science fiction magazine Interzone gets its name from Naked Lunch.
  • The music group Steely Dan takes its name from a dildo mentioned in Naked Lunch.
  • The music group Clem Snide also takes its name from a character in Naked Lunch.
  • The graphic novel Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, contains a fictional science magazine called "Nova Express", the name of which originates in Naked Lunch.
  • The music group Showbread titled one of their songs "Naked Lunch" in their 2006 release Age of Reptiles.
  • The internationally renowned DJ Spooky took his nickname "That Subliminal Kid" from the novel Nova Express.
  • In 1994, the band Bomb The Bass released their album Clear which contains a track called "Bug Powder Dust" featuring beatnik psychedelic rapper Justin Warfield. The lyrics of that song contain a lot of references to characters, places and actions that are part of the book, as did Warfield's 1993 album My Fieldtrip to Planet 9.
  • In 1998, the Austrian DJ/remixer/producer duo Peter Kruder & Richard Dorfmeister released the album The K&D sessions including two remix versions of the Bomb the Bass title "Bug Powder Dust".
  • An episode of the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation includes a character named Dr. Benway.
  • In the 1984 Alex Cox film, Repo Man, there is a hospital scene in which Dr. Benway and Mr. Lee are paged. The two are also paged in a hospital scene in the 1998 film Dark City.
  • The instrumental post-rock band Tortoise included a song entitled "Benway" on their 2001 album Standards.
  • Experimental, blues rock ensemble from Norton, VA, The Benways, showcase Burroughs continuing influence.
  • The post-punk band Joy Division recorded a song on their début album Unknown Pleasures called "Interzone."
  • Numerous recordings of Burroughs reading excerpts from Naked Lunch have been released over the years, as well as a full audio book version issued a few years before his death.
  • The book's name also turns up (apparently at random) in "FLCLimax," the final episode of the anime FLCL, where it is shouted in a rhyming fit ("...Naked Lunch, Hawaiian Punch!") by character Haruhara Haruko.
  • Referred to in the book The Liar by Stephen Fry.
  • In 2006, the British electronic band Klaxons released a track called "Atlantis to Interzone".
  • New York art-rock/avant-garde band, Sonic Youth, released a full version of Dr. Benway's House, on their deluxe edition of 1991's Goo album. An excerpt of the track is featured on William Burroughs' Dead City Radio album.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Bart on the Road", Bart, Milhouse and Nelson sneak into an R-rated movie called "Naked Lunch". When they emerge, disappointed, Nelson points out that he can "think of at least two things wrong with that title."
  • In the album Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, by The Firesign Theatre, one track includes a story where the 1960s counterculture becomes the mainstream, and a bomber pilot drops a load of eight million hardcover copies of Naked Lunch on the last "un-hip" stronghold in the world in Nigeria. The track also features a character named Dr. Benway.
  • Quotes from the film were used on a track on the album Lord of the Harvest from Bootsy Collins under the band name Zillatron. The track was titled "Exterminate".
  • The protagonist of the Stephen Chbosky novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, "Charlie", reads this book at the suggestion of his teacher and mentor, "Bill".
  • The novel Move Under Ground features Burroughs playing William Tell to fight off Lovecraftian creatures called mugwumps, that have been formed by Cthulhu possessing the average people of America.
  • On the Master Ninja I episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel and his robot sidekicks show their newest invention; pop-up books based on classic literature. Crow tries to show his contribution, a pop-up version of Naked Lunch, but no one wants to open it.
  • The Naked Brunch is a popular US radio show on WP 88.7FM airing Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (a normal time range for brunch as opposed to lunch). The four on-air personalities often play classic rock music that surrounded the time of the novel.
  • Burroughs was the favorite author of the late Kurt Cobain.

Film adaptation

Ever since the 1960s, numerous film makers considered how to adapt Naked Lunch for the screen. Antony Balch, who worked with Burroughs on a number of short film projects in 1960s, considered making the film as a musical with Mick Jagger in the leading role, but the project fell through when relationships soured between Balch and Jagger. Others, too, wanted to bring the novel to celluloid, but it was ultimately deemed unfilmable.

It was not until 1991 that Canadian director David Cronenberg took up the challenge. Rather than attempt a straight adaptation of the novel, however, Cronenberg instead took elements from the book and combined them with elements from Burroughs' own life, to create a fiction-biography hybrid and a film about the writing of the book.

Peter Weller starred as William Lee in this film, Lee being the pseudonym Burroughs used when he wrote Junkie. The film incorporates events from Burroughs' own life, including the accidental shooting of his wife (played in the film by Judy Davis), along with routines from Naked Lunch. For example, one scene shows Weller as Lee reciting the "Talking Asshole" routine from the novel, almost verbatim.


Sources, external links, and quotations

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