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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 14:57   #1
gil
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Default William S Burroughs

Considering the confessed influence of William S. Burroughs upon many modern writers (J G Ballard, William Gibson, Thomas Pynchon, Will Self, Alan Moore), it's surprising he hasn't had much of a press in Palimpsest. It's even more surprising, considering the fact that William Gibson is in that list, that I have never read any of his work until recently.

Wikipedia's bio on him is apparently comprehensive, but I'll just hit a few bullet points here:

o born in 1914 in the USA to the wealthy Burroughs family (though he never had anything to do with his grandfather's company);
o a long-term heroin addict;
o a homosexual;
o was in trouble with the police for not reporting the murder of one of his friends by another;
o went to Harvard;
o shot and killed his girlfriend (and mother of his only son), Joan Vollmer, in a drunken William Tell game - and got away virtually unpunished;
o lived in Mexico, South America, Tangier, Paris, London and elsewhere, often as a fugitive from justice;
o died at age 83 in 1997;

He spent much of his life living on an allowance from his parents, his occasional jobs and drug pushing did not work out for him. Latterly, he became a bit of a celebrity and earned money from lecture and poetry reading tours.

His first books were largely autobiographical, describing the torture and rewards of his drug addiction and his homosexual desires.

After the shooting incident, his output became more experimental, extravagant and outrageous, a tendency that continued until the end of his life.

His associates read like a Who's Who of the rebellious artists society - Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Keith Richards, Kurt Cobain, David Cronenberg.

For some insights, try typing William Burroughs into YouTube search box.

Meanwhile, in the next item, I shall review the book Word Virus (prophetic title for MS). The chapter headings of that book basically outline his written work.
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 14:58   #2
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Default Word Virus - an anthology of William S Burroughs

This meaty anthology of Burroughs work was compiled by James Grauerholz, Burroughs' long-term editor/partner, while Burroughs was still alive, and it is clear that it represents the entire sweep of Burroughs' output.

Early semi-autobiographical novels were conventional in structure, but their content made them very hard to get published.

He also wrote comic anti-establishment essays. This typical example imagines an explosion on a ship
Quote:
Dr. Benway, ship's doctor, drunkenly added two inches to a four-inch incision with one stroke of his scalpel.

"There was a little scar. Doctor," said the nurse, who was peering over his shoulder. "Perhaps the appendix is already out."

"The appendix out!" the doctor shouted. "I'm taking the appendix out! What do you think I'm doing here?"

"Perhaps the appendix is on the left side," said the nurse. "That happens sometimes, you know."

"Can't you be quiet?" said the doctor. "I'm coming to that!" He threw back his elbows in a movement of exasperation. "Stop breathing down my neck!" he yelled. He thrust a red fist at her. "And get me another scalpel. This one has no edge to it."

He lifted the abdominal wall and searched along the incision. "I know where
an appendix is. I studied appendectomy in 1904 at Harvard."

The floor tilted from the force of the explosion. The doctor reeled back and hit the wall. "Sew her up!" he said, peeling off his gloves. "I can't be expected to work under such conditions!"
After the shooting incident, his writing became more extreme. I have heard it trivially described as "heroin-fuelled bum sex". An example:

Quote:
"Step right up ladies and gents to see this character at the risk of all his appendages and extremities and appurtenances will positively shoot himself out of a monster asshole. . . "

An outhouse is carried in on the shoulders of Southern Negroes in dungarees, singing spirituals. "And the walls come tumbling down."

The outhouse falls in a cloud of powdered wood and termites, and the Human Projectile stands there in his black shit suit. A giant rubber asshole in a limestone cliff clicks open and sucks the Human Projectile in like spaghetti. Noise of distant thunder and the Projectile pops out with a great fart, flies a hundred feet through the air into a net supported by four gliders.

His shit suit splits and a round worm emerges and does a belly dance. The worm suit peels off like a condom and the Aztec Youth stands naked with a hard-on in the rising sun, ejaculates bloody crystals with a scream of agony.
There were also experiments with chopping up text with scissors and re-assembling it, and if you're struggling with Ulysses, don't get involved in The Naked Lunch, Nova Express et al.

The final phase was the Red Night trilogy, even more extreme and different, if that is possible.

Here I am, reviewing a book that is, itself, a review of a man's life work. I left the book, having spent months on it, off and on, feeling that I had obtained a clear idea of Burroughs' literary output.

As for my opinion of Burroughs' work itself, it varies between the hard to read, through the impossible to swallow to the deliberately sensationalist. A concept artist in words, and I'm not into concept art.

Last edited by gil; 3rd Jul 2007 at 15:38.
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 15:08   #3
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

The only book of his I've read was The Soft Machine, and I didn't really read that. But then he didn't really write it, just cast it together from apparently random scraps of poetry-prose, or as he would put it, he used his 'cut-up' technique. Pretentious, overrated (when rated at all), unreadable.
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 15:18   #4
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

I tried Naked Lunch many years ago and struggled to be bothered with the strange sentence structures which, at times, made no sense whatsoever.
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 16:21   #5
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

The only thing I know about Burroughs is that Duran Duran took inspiration from his book Wild Boys for their single (and video).
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 16:27   #6
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

And he 'sang' the lyrics to 'T'ain't No Sin' on Tom Waits' 'The Black Rider' album.
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 18:42   #7
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

He also famously got blotto with President Nixon in the Oval Office once, after convincing tricky Dicky that had it not been for his friend Timothy Leary (notorious American thinker, writer, psychologist, and advocate of psychedelic drug use), opposition to the war in Vietnam would actually have been more intense.

Nixon was so impressed that he nearly agreed to a decree banning the playing of recorded music at all public events, on television and at weddings (a pet hate of Burroughs's). Nixon became so convinced of the argument that he was ready to outlaw opera, ballet, mime, puppetry and - bizarrely - dressage, describing them as "un-American".

It was only when Burroughs tried to get his birth month of February renamed, after his mother, as Lauray, that the befuddled Head of State had him thrown out.
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Old 3rd Jul 2007, 21:06   #8
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

Quote:
Originally Posted by amner View Post
He also famously got blotto with President Nixon in the Oval Office once, after convincing tricky Dicky that had it not been for his friend Timothy Leary (notorious American thinker, writer, psychologist, and advocate of psychedelic drug use), opposition to the war in Vietnam would actually have been more intense.

Nixon was so impressed that he nearly agreed to a decree banning the playing of recorded music at all public events, on television and at weddings (a pet hate of Burroughs's). Nixon became so convinced of the argument that he was ready to outlaw opera, ballet, mime, puppetry and - bizarrely - dressage, describing them as "un-American".

It was only when Burroughs tried to get his birth month of February renamed, after his mother, as Lauray, that the befuddled Head of State had him thrown out.

This is hilarious!!!
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Old 5th Jul 2007, 9:58   #9
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

Quote:
Originally Posted by Colyngbourne View Post
The only thing I know about Burroughs is that Duran Duran took inspiration from his book Wild Boys for their single (and video).
And the less said about Steely Dan, the better.

I've only read The Naked Lunch and seen the film; the book I found unreadable, the film unwatchable.

Interesting, though, how some people who have had huge influences on subsequent artists and writers weren't as good as the people they influenced.
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Old 5th Jul 2007, 10:21   #10
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Default Re: William S Burroughs

Quote:
Originally Posted by MikeMk1
Interesting, though, how some people who have had huge influences on subsequent artists and writers weren't as good as the people they influenced.
I'm struggling to think of any other examples of this.

Perhaps sf author E E (Doc) Smith, whose output was sheer space opera, but who inspired the likes of Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, James Blish and Fritz Leiber.
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