Home » Arts & Life

OLM Favorites: The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit

By (December 1, 2017) One Comment

The Soft MachineBurroughs

By William S. Burroughs
Grove, 1961, reissued in 2014

The Ticket That Exploded

By William S. Burroughs
Grove, 1962, reissued in 2014

Nova Express

By William S. Burroughs
Grove, 1964, reissued in 2014

Call Me Burroughs: A Life

By Barry Miles
Twelve, 2014


As in all great narratives, when William S. Burroughs killed his wife, it was a culmination both unexpected and inevitable.

He was born privileged in 1914. His grandfather invented the cylinder that made the adding machine work, and while the family didn’t enjoy the extravagant wealth that might have provided, he was raised in upper-crust St. Louis by a hopelessly distant father and a fawning mother. He went to private schools, graduated from Harvard, and began a peripatetic adulthood. He had brief stints in a variety of ill-suited social roles: student of medicine in Vienna, army infantryman, junior copywriter, and citrus farmer. His only success was as an exterminator in Chicago, where he got to kill insects, which he’d hated since childhood, and where he developed a respect for the resilience of the bedbug.

What he really wanted to be was a criminal. In 1943, he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in New York and formed the Beat troika, setting himself apart from the two by his advanced age (he was 29, Kerouac 21, Ginsberg 17), his fully-formed intellect, and his seminal influences; Ginsberg had Whitman, Kerouac had Neal Casady, and Burroughs had Jack Black, whose autobiography You Can’t Win had deeply affected him as a boy. Black was a thief, hobo, and opium addict who consorted with characters with names like Salt Chunk Mary and Foot and a Half George. In this community, Burroughs saw a comradeship and freedom of self that was impossible in the stifling bourgeois world he was born into. When he wrote his first two books, Junky and Queer, he would emulate Black’s technique, a dry, straightforward recounting of a frequently outrageous life:

This man was known as Irish. At one time he had worked for Dutch Schultz, but big-time racketeers will not keep junkies on the payroll as they are supposed to be unreliable. So Irish was out. Now he peddled from time to time and ‘worked the hole’ (rolling drunks on subways and in cars) when he couldn’t make connections to peddle. One night, Irish got nailed in the subway for jostling. He hanged himself in the Tombs.

while the romanticizing of the outlaw, and a penchant for colorful names in lieu of character development, were affectations he would carry to various extremes for the rest of his life.

But yet to be a writer, he became a hapless crook, an outlaw constantly bailed out by his parents, who supplemented his escapades with a monthly allowance he would receive until he was fifty. He was a petty dope-and-gun peddler, whose more grandiose schemes – to blow up a Brink’s truck, to hold up a Turkish bath – came nowhere near fruition.  In photos, he’s lanky, frail, cadaverous even in his youth, and anyone who’s seen film of him lowering into a chair for a reading, or heard his grinding, laconic drawl, might find it difficult to imagine him at a trot, let alone committing strong-arm crime. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he overcompensated with guns.

Through Kerouac he met Joan Vollmer, who became his common-law wife. As every previous attempt at convention – soldier, agronomist, working stiff – had played out as farce, it’s tempting to view Burroughs’ marriage as a satire of 1950s American stability, a sitcom for the mentally ill which would eventually cast him as the morphine-addicted, prescription-forging, aspiring marijuana farmer. Joan played the Benzedrine-addicted mother and their son Billy and Joan’s daughter from her first marriage, Julie, potty-trained in the kitchenware Joan used to cook the family meals.

By the time of Joan’s killing, the Burroughs clan was living in Mexico, the parents cultivating their addictions, the children accruing trauma, when one night at a bar Burroughs told Joan it was time for their William Tell routine. To risk stating the obvious, it was a terrible idea, especially since Burroughs had a shaky history with both gun safety and emulating folk heroics; as a young man, he’d snipped off the tip of a finger with poultry shears in a Van Gogh gesture to an unrequited love, and he’d already been responsible for one accidental discharge while at Harvard, when he pointed an “unloaded” gun at classmate Richard Stern, who ducked away a moment before Burroughs blew a hole in the wall behind his head. But as rational thought was not a trait either shared, they commenced with the display. Joan put a shot glass atop her head, Burroughs took aim, and killed her.

In his introduction to Queer, Burroughs wrote,

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

nakedlunchBurroughs was eminently quotable, but this passage has been repeated innumerable times, as it offers the most concise summary of three characteristics crucial to understanding his work – the killing of Joan as an act of liberation, his obsession with resisting the forces he collectively referred to as Control, and a willingness to seize upon any farfetched explanation to absolve himself of personal responsibility. Even among the Beats, who seemed to adopt irresponsibility as an aesthetic (and practiced misogyny in a way that made the Abstract Expressionists look like feminists – one of Kerouac’s tamer acts was to assure Burroughs that “women have poison juices”), Burroughs was remarkably callous to the suffering of others and his role in their fates. But he wasn’t a complete sociopath, and even he knew his act demanded some sort of accountability.

So, how was it that a ferociously misogynistic, drug-addled, shamelessly irresponsible gun-nut could have somehow shot his wife in the head with a low-shooting gun aimed just above her crown?  It was Control, Burroughs’ bête noire, a word which encompasses almost anything that possesses and affects the body and mind, from sex to addiction to linear speech, and enslaves people in narrow, conventional modes of perception and thought. Or results in accidental murder.

Burroughs cared deeply about Joan – the biographies are rife with witnesses’ assurances of the depth of their relationship, and at certain bizarre moments, one can believe that a substantial union might have been forged from intellectual equality, addictions, and telepathy.  But in Call Me Burroughs, Barry Miles’ assertion that “Self-awareness came with recognition of the Ugly Spirit” not only provocatively redefines self-awareness as the realization of whom to blame for your actions, but is all too indicative of the moral pass Burroughs’ admirers are eager to provide. Burroughs was receptive to almost every therapeutic idea of the twentieth century, crackpot or otherwise, and Miles offers a list,

from Scientology to est, ESP, psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box, and Riche’s vegetotherapy.  He practiced the Alexander posture method, studied general semantics, Robert Monroe’s out-of-body seminar, Konstantin Raudrive’s paranormal tape experiments, Major Bruce MacManaway’s Pillar of Light, the Psionic Wishing Machine, and Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Don Juan. He believed in UFOs and Whitley Strieber’s alien abductions and used the “Control” computer in London that answered questions for twelve shillings and sixpence a time. He felt that they all had something of value, but that none of them came near to really helping him.

It’s not difficult to view many of his self-help escapades and philosophies of inner turmoil resulting from invasive external forces as one long elaborate effort to avoid self-awareness, and some of his more complex work as massive acts of evasion. But in one regard, Burroughs was wholly accurate: killing Joan, inadvertently or not, was an act of liberation. Joan’s killing initiated Burroughs’ utter abandonment of convention. He was rid of women and of the charade of domesticity.  Billy Jr. was sent to live with Burroughs’ parents, Joan’s daughter was sent to her grandmothers’, and Burroughs eventually wound up in Tangier, an international zone of tolerance and decadence, where Burroughs found readily available drugs and boys. And his voice.

In Literary Outlaw, Ted Morgan relates that when Kerouac visited Burroughs in 1957, he saw manuscript pages strewn all over Burroughs’ floor, and volunteered to help with the typing.  It soon gave him nightmares, and prompted questions like, “Why are all these young boys being hanged in limestone caves?” to which Burroughs replied,

Don’t ask me […] I get these messages from other planets. I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet.  I’m shitting out my educated Middle-west background once and for all. It’s a matter of catharsis, where I say the most horrible things I can think of.

Burroughs had produced what became known as the Word Hoard, a thousand-page mess of, as Kerouac put it, “scatological homosexual super-violent madness” that embodied the Beats’ capacity for both invention and diarrheic excess. Drawn largely from what Burroughs called routines, they were satirical riffs with outrageous characters that Burroughs had been performing for and with friends since his youth.

milescallmeburroughsThe eventual result was Naked Lunch (Kerouac, in a notable anti-Control act, gave it the name after misreading the phrase “naked lust”), once described by J.G. Ballard as “a comic apocalypse, a roller-coaster ride through hell, a safari to the strangest people on the strangest planet, ourselves,” a description that, for all its flavor, can’t possibly convey the sheer derangement of Burroughs’ obsessions. Burroughs was practically consumed by Control, by the notion that every existing governmental and psychiatric authority was conspiring to manipulate the masses and negate the individual. Free now from any constraints, he jettisoned traditional narrative and gave full rein to his battle.

There are many reasons, in form and content, for a reader to be repelled by Naked Lunch.  Despite Burroughs calling it a novel, there is no sustained narrative, but rather a series of vignettes, a prismatic view of need and sickness, amorality, and authoritarian hypocrisy. Burroughs had rejected linear narrative in his life and prose in favor of the necessarily erratic methods of seeking hidden communiqués, perceptions beyond Control mechanisms or its institutions. The book is a succession of visions (reviewers use “nightmare” so frequently, you’d think they were paid per use) of the varieties of Control sickness, a panoply of outrages, a cabaret of psychotic doctors, junkies, aliens, policemen and sodomites whose functions are to inflict cruelties, pandemonium, boredom, and some of the blackest humor in American letters.  There are the motifs, obsessively revisited; never before has so much seed been spilt in the name of literature (the floors in Burroughs’s invented worlds must look like Jackson Pollack canvases), nor has anyone taken the comedic possibilities for anal metamorphosis and abuse to such illogical extremes. For instance, the (in)famous “Talking Asshole” routine from “Ordinary Men and Women”:

Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk? His whole abdomen would move up and down you dig farting out the words. It was unlike anything I ever heard…

This man worked for a carnival you dig, and to start with it was like a novelty ventriloquist act. Real funny, too, at first. He had a number he called ‘The Better ‘Ole’ that was a scream, I tell you. I forget most of it but it was clever. Like, ‘Oh I say, are you still down there, old thing?’…

After a while the ass started talking on its own. He would go in without anything prepared and his ass would ad-lib and toss the gags back at him every time.

Then it developed sort of teeth-like little raspy in-curving hooks and started eating. He thought this was cute at first and built an act around it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start taking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights. It would get drunk, too, and have crying jags nobody loved it and it wanted to be kissed same as any other mouth. Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up, and beating it with his fist, and sticking candles up it, but nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: ‘It’s you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don’t need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit.’

The reader is put in a position of trying to make sense of Burroughs’ dreams. This perhaps applies to all writers of fiction, but few were as direct in presenting their actual dreams, unaltered, for no discernible storytelling purpose. Anyone averse to hearing another person’s dreams may be put off, especially if that person is dreaming of rectal mucous. But there’s revelry in the excess, and in light of Joan’s murder, it’s plain to see in one of Burroughs’ favorite recurring motifs – boys in the hangman’s noose, ejaculating copiously as their necks snap – the appeal, and relevance, of an obliterating, orgasmic death.

Burroughs claimed his main theme as “The sick soul, sick unto death, of the atomic age,” but his key strategy was to portray his personal conundrums as representative of universal dilemmas. His visions of rot, decay, and infestation, of humans as a hopelessly diseased species, could certainly pertain to a specific form of nuclear anxiety; in 1950s B-movies, mutated creatures rose from nature to wreak havoc on the populace, while in Burroughs’ work, they rose from their nods to wreak havoc on the status quo. Both scenarios resulted from aberrations of chemistry, and the sense that his characters are wandering a post-atomic landscape—if not literal, at least of the mind—began with his first novel and would become more accentuated in the four novels that came out of the Word Hoard. But substitute post-Joan for post-atomic, and we start to understand the true landscape that Burroughs found himself wandering through, and the various atrocities he found there.

This was the path leading away from Joan’s death:  his wanderings, as junkie and queer, through America’s oppressive institutions and their representatives, revisiting boyhood tales – adventure stories, hard-boiled detective stories, the picaresque, pulp westerns, traditional contexts of masculine bravado and roguery – and claiming them as settings for his own inventions, rife with fantasies of abuse, betrayal, and sexual mayhem. The great theme of Burroughs work isn’t about man’s sickness with the age he lives in; it’s about a man’s reconciliation with his own imagination, and the extent he would take it to realize his needs.

In 1958, Burroughs left for Paris. The next year, he began utilizing the cut-up technique, shown to him by the artist Bryon Gysin, who had accidentally sliced through newspapers and discovered that re-aligning the segments resulted in bewildering juxtapositions, disjointed syntax that formed mysterious phrases resistant to obvious meaning.  It wasn’t an entirely unprecedented procedure – Tristan Tzara, T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos were just a few who had experimented with random construction and collation – but Burroughs was less concerned with claiming invention than surrendering to effect. He recognized the method and its variant, the fold-in, where a sheet can be folded vertically numerous times, as a means to undermine Control at its base: the word.  He went back to the Word Hoard and brought in outside sources ranging from Shakespeare to pop songs, and started cutting and folding.

softmachineThe resulting trilogy – The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express – form the most expansive expression of Burroughs’ visions and his most impenetrable prose.  He claimed he was “attempting to create a new mythology for the space age,” and to that end he envisioned a struggle between the Nova Mob, consisting of criminals who are physical manifestations of Control forces, and the Nova Police, led by Inspector Lee (Burroughs – William Lee was his pseudonym for Junky, and the name/character also appeared in Naked Lunch), who do battle by undermining Control powers through use of the cut-up.  The Soft Machine introduces the themes of viral influence and control in regards to language and sexuality, and the disruption of “word and image locks” as a means of revolt.  The Ticket That Exploded continues by asserting the pre-eminence of language control over bodily addictions, unleashes the complexities contained in his oft-quoted “Language is a virus from outer space,” and introduces the Nova forces, who continue their conflict in the more linear Nova Express.

In El Hombre Invisible, his excellent introduction to Burroughs’ techniques and process, Barry Miles notes,

The first cut-ups were poems, and if the cut-up novels are approached as long prose poems, then they become perfectly understandable…texts where meaning is sometimes fugitive, shifting, and where narrative is essentially replaced by a procession of juxtaposed images…used as a way of bringing collage to literature and the images in the books are composed in a cubist manner…  [They are a] model of [Burroughs’] consciousness duplicating the form of his yage hallucinations, and everyday consciousness itself, with its flickering of images and jumps from one mood to another.  Burroughs has also compared them to what the eye sees during a short walk around the block: a view of a person may be truncated by a passing car, images are reflected in shop windows, and all images are cut up and interlaced according to your moving viewpoint.  The central theme of all the books is the fight against control, though it is dealt with in an immensely complicated way.

ticket“Perfectly understandable” is a stretch, but when read as prose poetry, the results are often exhilarating, the complexities of Burroughs’ concepts entrancing and terrifying.  Again, Burroughs offers a chaos of vignettes, linked by reappearing characters, heavy repetition of favored phrases and personal obsessions, not least the recurrence of fountainous emissions, and references to Hassan-I Sabbah, leader of a sect of 11th century Nazari Ismaili assassins, whose maxim “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” became Burroughs’ mantra. And again, anyone who has not already recalibrated their expectations after Naked Lunch will find the trilogy unbearable; the effect can be like listening to a brilliant street person, cocooned in their manias, suddenly belligerent that no one’s listening to them.

The cut-up/fold-in method itself plays a huge role in the trilogy, and at times the novels read like an Anarchist Cookbook for linguists.  In “The Mayan Caper” section, Inspector Lee explains how to utilize the technique for time travel, as he plans to undermine the Mayan priests who use the Mayan calendar to control their masses:

When you skip through a newspaper as most of us do you see a great deal more than you know-In fact you see it all on a subliminal level-Now when I fold today’s paper in with yesterdays’ paper and arrange the pictures to form a time section montage, I am literally moving back to the time when I read yesterday’s paper, that is traveling in time back to yesterday-I did this eight hours a day for three months-I went back as far as the papers went-I dug out old magazine and forgotten novels and letter-I made fold-ins and composites and I did the same with photos-

The next step was carried out in a film studio-I learned to talk and think backward on all levels-This was done by running film and sound track backward-For example a picture of myself eating a full meal was reversed, from satiety back to hunger-First the film was run at normal speed, then in slow-motions-The same procedure was extended to other physiological processes including orgasm-(It was explained to me that I must put aside all sexual prudery and reticence, that sex was perhaps the heaviest anchor holding one in present time.) For three months I worked with the studio-My basic training in time travel was completed and I was now ready to train specifically for the Mayan assignment

Aside from brief interludes like these, where there are discernible events and motivations, the cut-ups are like a blizzard of first impressions and dream logic, a sustained exercise in immediacy that couches wildly divergent explorations of Control, in sex—

Bradly rolled on the floor, a vibrating hammer of laughter shaking flesh from the bones-Scalding urine spurted from his penis-The Other Half swirled in the air above him screaming, face contorted in suffocation as he laughed at the sex words from throat gristle in bloody crystal blobs-His bones were shaking, vibrated to neon-Waves of laughter through his rectum and prostate and testicles giggling out spurts of semen as he rolled with his knees up to his chin-


All the tunes and sound effects of ‘Love’ spit from the recorder permutating sex whine of a sick picture planet: Do you love me?-But i exploded in cosmic laughter-Old acquaintance be forgot?-Oh darling, just a photograph?-Mary i love you i do do you know i love you through?-On my knees i hoped you’d love me too-i would run till i feel the thrill of long ago-Now my inspiration but it won’t last and we’ll be just a photograph-I’ve forgotten you then?  i cant’ sleep, Blue Eyes, if i don’t have you-Do i love her i love you i love you many splendored thing-Can’t even eat-Jelly on my mind back home-‘Twas good bye deep in the true love-We’ll never meet again, darling, in my fashion…

—and how they coalesce, and are sickened, by the word:

The ‘Other Half’ is the word.  The ‘Other Half’ is an organism.  Word is the organism.  The presence of the ‘Other Half’ a separate organism attached to your nervous system on an air line of words can now be demonstrated experimentally.  One of the most common ‘hallucinations’ of subjects during sense withdrawal is the feeling of another body sprawled through the subject’s body at an angle…yes quite an angle it is the ‘Other Half’ worked quite some years on a symbiotic basis.  From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step.  The word is now a virus.  The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell.  It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs.  The word may once have been a healthy neural cell.  It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system….

Convention was limitation, in all things, especially in language, where the accepted dictates of grammar, or the imperative for direct speech, were inherently oppressive in that we’re taught that specific words relate to specific things and should be expressed in specific patterns.  This nullifies unfettered expression, as this systematic hampering of free association inevitably leads to thought control. To combat the language virus, one had to seek out, or add to, its mutations, as if each new strain contained its own code for new liberties of perception. Like a germaphobe, Burroughs saw the potential for infection everywhere; he heard messages in barking dogs and whirring fans and other dubious places, the way Baconian theorists use ciphers to prove Sir Francis’ authorship in Shakespeare. But the threat, and his mode of attack, were fully considered, and the results read as an inevitably scrambled relaying of incident and a plan of engagement that often sounds like it’s taking place in the fourth dimension:

Start a tapeworm club and exchange body sound tapes.  Feel right into your nabor’s intestines and help him digest his food.  Communication must become total and conscious before we can stop it.

novaIt would be reassuring to note that the three books have a powerful cumulative effect, but most of this evaporates the moment after it’s read, perhaps by design, though that intent would add a whole other level to an already strained enterprise. If Naked Lunch was the catharsis, the establishing of authorial voice, the cut-ups continued Burroughs’ fight on Control’s expanding front, and the force of his long-gestating visions overwhelmed not only Control’s means of expressing them, but of the reader’s ability to keep up with the revolution.  And if Naked Lunch had made it plain that Burroughs had entered some kind of a new dream state, the trilogy gives the impression that he would never leave. With the cut-up method, the negation of linear narrative was taken to the next step, the negation of the linear sentence, and with this new sort of momentum, one of jagged rhythms reliant on repeated, altered phrases, the effect is of someone struggling to recall a fading dream:

The Gods of Time-Money-Junk gather in a heavy blue twilight drifting over bank floors to buy con force an extension of their canceled permits-They stand before The Man at The Typewriter-Calm and gray with inflexible authority he presents The Writ:

‘Say only this should have been obvious from Her Fourth Grade Junk Class-Say only The Angel Profound Lord Of Death-Say I have canceled your permisos through Time-Money-Junk of the earth-Not knowing what is and is not knowing I knew not.  All you junk out in apomorphine-All your time and money our in word dust drifting smoke streets-Dream street of body dissolves in light…’

The Sick Junk God snatches The Writ: ‘Put him in The Ovens-Burn his writing’-He runs down a hospital corridor for The Control Switch-‘He won’t get far.’  A million police and partisans stand quivering electric dogs-antennae light guns drawn-

‘You called The Fuzz-You lousy fink–’

‘They are your police speaking your language-If you must speak you must answer in your language-“”

Stop-Alto-Halt-’ Flashed through all I said a million silver bullets-The Junk God falls-Grey dust of broom swept out by an old junky in backward countries-

A heavy blue twilight drifting forward snatches The Write-Time-Money-Junk gather to buy: ‘Put him in the Ovens-Burn his writing-’

Or, perhaps, to finally eliminate one.

Ginsberg, always Burroughs’ biggest advocate, thought it all too much, and even Burroughs realized the limitations of the technique, if he actually wanted people to read it.  Miles quotes him as saying, “Writers get carried away by a technique and what they can do with it and carry it so far that they lose their readers and I think this happened to some extent in these three books.” He notes that for the British edition of The Soft Machine, Burroughs did a complete rewrite that made the book more accessible without compromising the work.

Burroughs would return to more conventional techniques (although, just about anything would have been more conventional by comparison), and his feverish imagination would power him through The Wild Boys and its sequel, Port of Saints, as well as another trilogy starting with Cities of the Red Night.  In old age, he relinquished some of his struggle against control and convention, starring in Nike commercials and writing a book about the cats in his life.

After his death in 1997, his final journal entry was widely disseminated: “Love?  What is it?  Most natural painkiller what there is.  LOVE.”  Anyone who’d followed his life, work, or thoughts, none of which seemed to give credence to that particular emotion, had to wonder what in the world he was talking about.  His cats, maybe.  Or maybe Burroughs, a man incapable of common affections, finally felt that he’d done his penance, had atoned, in his way, for an abominable act, and allowed himself to rest in the most conventional dream our controlled species has ever concocted.

Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine and a contributing editor at Open Letters.