Category Archives: William S. Burroughs

Links: A Familiar Story

My first thought when I began reading this article about how literary experimentation has been abandoned in favor of plot was Tom McCarthy‘s C. John Lucas then mentions the book, only to assign it the role of an exception that proves the rule. But isn’t that just as true of William GaddisThe Recognitions, the novel that inspired the article in the first place?

Related: Gravity’s Rainbow was exceptional enough to be rejected by Pulitzer Prize board despite the strong support of the fiction committee. Charles Johnson riffs on that and a few other problems, particularly involving race, with that prize.

Also related: “[R]egardless of the pleasures afforded by novels, was there ever a time when most readers turned to them for a refined aesthetic experience rather than the narrative?”

A fine essay on the unlucky life of writer Allan Seager, author of the much-borrowed short story “The Street.” (via)

Reasons to eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film version of Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

“The top 80% of all published stories in the [Best American Short Stories] 2005 through 2010 as well as notable stories mentioned in the back pages came from the same 42 journals.”

Colson Whitehead: “The terror of figuring out a new genre, of telling a new story, is what makes the job exciting, keeps me from getting bored, and I assume it keeps whoever follows my work from getting bored as well.” (via)

Connecting the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case with Dinaw Mengestu‘s 2010 novel, How to Read the Air. (Lloyd Jones‘ very good forthcoming novel, Hand Me Down World, hits at some similar themes as well.)

Patrick Kurp on the virtues of reading widely.

“[T]he book review will undoubtedly survive. So will screeds against it, which is only fair: our age is one of constant comment, and the book review must take its lumps as stoically as the books in its pages do.”

On William Burroughs‘ ongoing ill will toward Truman Capote. (via)

A novelist-psychologist argues that “the more fiction you read, the better you are… at understanding other people.”

Lastly, if you’re in the D.C. area, tomorrow marks the very first Indie Lit City Summit, an all-day gathering of indie presses, magazines, and other literary folk from the D.C.-Baltimore region to talk shop and share ideas. The keynote speech will be given by Electric Literature‘s Andy Hunter; more info at the website.

Links: Across the Pond

“What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes—which dwarfs that in the UK—has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge.” (via)

The people who organize to ban books are getting better at getting organized.

Andrew Altschul, Hannah Tinti, and Joshua Ferris talk up fiction writing, the internet, small presses, and more.

Relating to Wednesday’s post on how it’s possible to overanalyze metaphors, Nicole Krauss: “Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things.” (via)

Jonathan Lethem settles in to life in California.

Dale Peck has had it with Daniel Mendelsohn.

E.L. Doctorow: “The thing that’s happening with eBooks makes me think of how disposable words are. You press a button, they’re there and you press another button and they’re gone. I can imagine, though, that people reading something they like would want to hold on to it. How can you hold onto an eBook?

A few clips from a forthcoming William S. Burroughs public television documentary.

On Charles Sheldon, the novelist who popularized the question, “What would Jesus do?

“The real fun begins with the third draft”: Charles Johnson on revision.

Michael Cunningham: “When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book. There has been a fixation in American letters on giant books that are usually written by men and that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity.”

“[O]ne reason people speak of wanting to become critics as opposed to reviewers is that they are allowed many more words with which to make big arguments; they are also allowed to put more of themselves into their pieces, since the critic is often a big personality, while the reviewer is often more of a service journalist.”

Richard Powers considers Watson, the supercomputer designed to compete on Jeopardy!.

Katie Chase on her Chicago-set post-9/11 story, “The Sea That Leads to All Seas”: “So much 9/11-related literature takes place, inevitably, in New York, but the effects of 9/11, in a very real and devastating way, reached much further, further even than the second city.”

Speculating on what Jeffrey Eugenides‘ forthcoming novel, The Marriage Plot, will be about.

Toward the end of this Q&A, Mary Gaitskill delivers a killer one-paragraph summary of why The Wire works.

A travel piece on Baltimore framed by Anne Tyler‘s work.

Lastly, links to a few recent pieces of mine: A review of Roger Rosenblatt‘s writing guide/teaching memoir, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, for aarp.org; a review of Barbara Browning‘s The Correspondence Artist for Washington City Paper; a few thoughts on the expansion of the National Book Festival to two days this year, also for City Paper; and a review of Ander Monson‘s excellent book Vanishing Point for the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass.

Naked News

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of William S. BurroughsNaked Lunch. A dedicated Web site celebrates the book and lists some upcoming events related to the anniversary, while AbeBooks has a gallery of the various editions of the novel. The one I own is the Grove paperback edition; I didn’t shipwreck on Naked Lunch, but while I can say I finished it years ago, I can’t say I’ve read it well.

Perhaps it would’ve helped if I’d heard Burroughs reading from the novel first. As a story in the Lawrence Journal-World explains, that’s one of the ways Burroughs novices find their way into the book. “After they hear his voice, most people claim there is an internal breakthrough and they can read his work,” says James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime companion in Lawrence, Kansas, where the author died in 1997. Burroughs’ first reading of Naked Lunch was, in fact, a recording. The late poet Harold Norse explains in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel:

In 1959 Burroughs had accepted an invitation to read sections of Naked Lunch at the Mistral Bookshop [in Paris]. [Poet Gregory] Corso and I completed the program. When the day arrived Burroughs didn’t appear. He was junk-sick. He sent a tape of his reading from the opening pages of the novel. The tiny audience, mesmerized by the deep, hypnotic voice and black humor, sat spellbound. This was his first reading; it was entirely appropriate that a disembodied voice should create the hallucinatory climate of fear, horror, and fun.

The Journal-World story notes that the anniversary has increased the number of looky-loos arriving at Burroughs’ home in Lawrence. Its current resident, Tom King, explains:

“This summer has to be a record. I used to get five or 10 people a week. Now it’s that many just on the weekend. They drive by very slowly a couple of times — like a shark — then they’ll pull up, get out and take a picture standing in front of the house.”

King — who never actually met Burroughs — has also encountered people rummaging through his back yard.

“There’s an old typewriter in the back, and stealing the keys seems to be a popular sport,” he says.

Below, a bit of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch. I don’t know its provenance, but as Grauerholz promises, Burroughs’ reading definitely brings out the book’s humor:

Harold Norse, 1916-2009

Update, June 14: Harold Norse obituaries from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle

Harold Norse, a poet, experimental novelist, and memoirist who associated with the Beat writers of the 60s and the gay liberation writers of the 70s, died June 8 in San Francisco. He was 92. In 2000 I spent a lot of time hanging out in Norse’s house on Albion Street in the Mission District, as he talked about his life and his relationship with members of Act Up San Francisco, a group of disreputable HIV deniers. In the story I ended up writing, he said he figured he had about five years left. I’m glad that he got four more than he anticipated.

It was a pleasure spending all that time in Norse’s living room, in part because he made my job so easy—he had so many good stories to tell about so many well-known authors, and he was eager to tell them. He’d hand me a copy of the June 1978 issue of Hustler, the one with the infamous “meat grinder” cover, and eagerly point to the short story of his inside. He’d tell me about this one time with W.H. Auden. This one time with Allen Ginsburg. This one time with Tennessee Williams. He was eager to talk about himself but never came off as pushy about being heard. There was a certain sadness to his existence—he lived alone, apparently was visited by friends only intermittently, and it could feel isolating in that odd little cottage on Albion Street in which he lived. (It was off the street, and you had to go through a sunken, viaduct-like walkway to get to it.) But it wasn’t the kind of misery you’d think would envelop an 80-something man living alone. Just a kind of fortress of solitude. As he told me himself, “I always said—and it was a stupid thing that I lived by—‘I won’t lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.’ So in a way I buried myself.”

We didn’t talk much after that story came out. Shortly after the piece was published he gave a well-attended reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. I’d helped bring more than ten people to a poetry event; my job was done. When his dishy 1989 autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel was republished in 2002, putting his work back in print for the first time years, I dropped him a line congratulating him, and we exchanged a few more e-mails. After that, I mainly just wondered what would become of his work and his reputation. A wide-ranging collection of his poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force, came out in 2003, but to little attention, and I don’t know whatever happened to that collection of his correspondence with Charles Bukowski, the book that Norse was certain would reposition him as a major American writer.

That won’t happen, even if the book does appear. Bukowski is still a cult writer, if a well-known one, and Norse had the problem of straddling so many eras in literature that he was hard to classify; he could translate Latin 19th Century Italian poetry, he was mentored by William Carlos Williams, he hung out with the Beats, he became a leading gay poet—and dealt with both the respect and ghettoization that came along with that. The man was complicated, in literary terms if not personal ones. But the correspondence is a fun read, and I’m cranky at the moment that the binder holding copies of it, which Norse gave to me while I was working on the piece, apparently hasn’t survived one of my recent moves. Poetry isn’t my bailiwick, and I can’t speak with any real authority about Norse’s work’s ability to endure. “I Am Not a Man,” one of his best-loved poems, strikes me as a overly sentimental, suitable for framing in America’s more ponytail-infested apartments, but I very much like “At the Cafe Trieste,” in which the weight of centuries of literature bear down on him in a coffee shop, and “You Must Have Been a Sensational Baby,” a portrait of pure lust.

I no longer have the Bukowski correspondence, but I do have Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, a sort of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again for the gay and bisexual literary set. Norse may not of have been a self-promoter, but he did have an ego, and the fun of flipping through it again, for me, is to feel that assertiveness again, the persona of the literary traveler who had a grand time hanging out with literary elites, even if he was secretly cataloging their foibles. Does James Baldwin come off badly in the book? Yes. Did James Baldwin write the introduction to the book anyway? That too.

Judge for yourself. Below are a few excerpts from the book on some of the more prominent authors that Norse hung out with.

James Baldwin:

When some young men displayed interest in me Jimmy thrust himself frantically between them and me. Finally, seizing me by the arm, he positioned us before a mirror. “Look at me! Just look! What do you see? I’m queer, ugly, and black! What future can I possibly have?” His desperation was so intense that I felt guilty for being annoyed. “Jimmy, ” I said consolingly, “you’re only twenty-one, you’re very gifted and have lots of friends.” “Friends!” he exploded. “But no lover! And no money! What good it talent without recognition?” “I’m in the same boat,” I said. “Oh, no, baby, we’re in different boats! he cried. “You’re white!” I longed to leave with one of the handsome young men, but after his outburst I felt his situation so keenly that I left with Jimmy. It was like taking care of a sick friend. Besides, he had ruined the party.

William S. Burroughs

He raved, ranted, raged, retched, and groaned. He thrashed about in fits and convulsions. It was a bit much for a rational eighteen-year-old British math student, used to the clositered walls of Corpus Christi College. Yet Ian Sommerville had proven equal to the task of bringing about the junk cure of perhaps the most haunted American literary genius since Poe. Ian became his nurse and companion, lover and collaborator. And so it happened that I was the agent of not only Burroughs’s cure but also the first lasting love affair of his life….

We saw each other more often and he kept urging me to move into the hotel at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur. “For a dollar a day you get a room, gas ring, linen, and cleaning service if you want it,” he drawled. “And you can bring in tricks. Can’t beat it, man.” He passed me a joint. “If Madame likes you,” he added, expelling the smoke.

Jane Bowles:

What was Jane like when I knew her? Certainly unlike anything this post mortem adulation would suggest. I saw not a glamorous legend but a disturbed, ailing woman, desperately unsure of herself. As for wit, there was little evidence of it. She was petulant, fussy, irritable. Bohemian? Suburban seemed a far more apt description.

Charles Bukowski:

We had established a mutual admiration and rapport in our letters. His were explosive with pain and humor, an amazing amalgam of wordplay, ripe, earthy, vulgar,; his language leapt from the page like a van Gogh, galvanic, whirling, immediate, full of raw violence, color, and light; he was an American Dylan Thomas but bolder, cruder, meaner, more daring, not stuck in tradition. He was more savage than Celine, Miller, or Jan Cremer…but he was also gentle.

The man, the drunken writer, would not wear well. He never tired of bragging and boasting, of clamoring for attention. His competitive spirit, arrogance, and macho pose were irritating. When drunk, which was after 5:00 p.m., he had an insulting mockery in his voice; his aim was to crush others. Before fie he was a lamb, literally sheepish with shame and guilt. I believe his hurt eyes got their color from envy and jealousy. He’d shout, “I’m Charles Bukowski. Watch my steam, baby. I’m the king, I’m the greatest!”

Beats: An Accounting

The Brits have funny ideas about American culture if they think that Smokey and the Bandit is somehow part of the Beat legacy. (Hey, why not RV, then? Kenny Rogers’ Six Pack?) But I appreciate the London Times asking—in the wake of the universally scathing reviews of the Jack Kerouac-William S. Burroughs collaboration, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tankswhat useful legacy the Beats actually have. Not much, on the evidence presented here, though the story is pretty fluffy. Still, it gets at a couple of the relevant issues about the Beat influence on American literature and culture, and calls out what is indeed one of the worst Beat lines: Kerouac’s “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

The Independent recently ran a more substantive piece about the genesis of the Kerouac-Burroughs collaboration and its final publication. Which leads me to ask: Are the Brits the only people who care about the Beat legacy anymore?

Coming Soon: Kerouac/Burroughs Collaboration You Won’t Want to Read

The Telegraph notes that in November, Penguin will publish And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a book that Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs wrote in 1945. It’s never been published, but nobody seems particularly enthusiastic about it seeing the light of day, though:

Gerald Nicosia, who wrote Memory Babe, the widely recognised definitive biography of Kerouac, said the pair would find it funny such a juvenile work was seeing the light of day.

“This was one of the first books they wrote… it’s probably pretty bad. But I’m not surprised it is being published now because it’s a sure-fire way of making money,” he said.