Naked Lunch

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I have read Naked Lunch. At least that is what I tell my beatnik friends down at Starbucks. I haven’t seen the film though. Here is my review:

William Burroughs shot his wife. David Cronenberg shot William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch. There is an extreme zeugma of sorts at work here. Can you dig it? If you can, you are ready to take the next step. Namely, to the paragraph immediately following the present one.

How was that transition for you? Did you experience a powerful sense of non-sequitur? Or did you glide over the vertiginous vacuum of inter-paragraph whiteness as Puff Daddy glides over the crystalline seas of the Pacific rim in his pimped-out yacht? How does it feel to encounter, at the very level of the text, the insane displacement and discontinuity of the twentieth-century – the age of the atom bomb, the music video and the Weetabix-induced self-lobotomy? Does it shake you to the very core of your selfhood. No, don’t answer with words of all things: your arrogant pre-postmodern signmaking is no good here. Your currency has no currency here sir. Try the laundry down the road.

That is the kind of harsh yeomanry you might have expected up until a decade ago. Thankfully we no longer live in the confusing twentieth century. No, friends, we made it! These are the golden days, the halcyon years of the twenty-first century: an Augustan age in which everything makes perfect sense, war has fallen away from the planet like dandruff from the head of Ben Affleck, and transcendental truth is discoverable in even the tiniest and wispiest of words. Yes!

Consequently Naked Lunch cannot help but present itself to our futuristic eyes as a curious piece of antiquarian jetsam. A telephone turns into a penis. ‘What were those mid-century folk like!’ A man talks to a milkshake-drinking mugwump. ‘Is that really how they lived, ma?’ ‘Yes son, exactly like that’. Narrative fragments into flippant little pieces. ‘But what happens in the end, ma?’ ‘The end happened a long time ago son, try not to think about it too much’.

David Cronenberg is now of course deceased, after a VHS-tape bit him and gave him a fatal dose of tetanus. But in his short life he filmed more than 100 unfilmable novels, including Crash (the Ballard version and the Oscar-winning version), The Da Vinci Code, Cool Runnings, American Beauty, and The Arm-Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. Many of these books remained unfilmable even after Cronenberg filmed them, such was his achievement. Indeed, we have no way of knowing whether Cronenberg filmed them at all, as no-one actually went to see them at the cinema or bought the DVDs. But paradoxes such as these were the bread and butter of the twentieth century. The people of that whimsical period drank up cognitive dissonance with their mother’s milk (through Cronenbergian breast impants – let’s leave that history lesson for another day). How strange they look now, those pallid spectres of yesteryear.

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3 Responses to “Naked Lunch”

  1. Banjo Fett Says:

    They let beatniks in at Starbucks now? Huh.

    I still think Cronenburg’s finest moment was playing Ol’ Buttonface in Ronnie Barker’s Nightbreed. That and Rabid, which was a zombie film with armpit penis-implants.

    They used to say Naked Lunch was an un-filmable novel (whoever ‘they’ are – probably burger van owners and supermarket checkout operatives). Then ‘they’ said similar things about Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic. Still, Zack Snyder did a decent job of that.

    I wonder what Snyder’s stab at one of Burroughs’ more ephemeral jobbies might look like. Let’s say ‘Soft Machine’ for fun and frolics. Probably lots of slow-mo Mugwump spurtery and insect-copter chases. Not to mention every rock song ever made that features the words ‘soft’ or ‘machine’.

  2. johnlebaptiste Says:

    You’ve read Soft Machine? I’m impressed sir. I started reading The Ticket that Exploded, and was genuinely enjoying it until it started giving a murderous mugwump of a migraine. For someone who makes a habit out of not seeing things, I do feel a bit like a bit of a failure for never having finished it.

    It wouldn’t be a massive jump for Snyder though. He’s already tackled deformity and massive gay orgies in 300.

  3. Banjo Fett Says:

    I have read Soft Machine but it was about ten years ago. I remember it being hard-going, even for Burroughs. He really went to town on the cut-ups – a technique which I might try on a review.

    Speaking of massive gay orgies, my favourite Burroughs book is probably Queer, which is pretty much a diary, like Junky. I’ve got his Last Words, too, but it’s not exactly ‘feel-good’ reading. It’s basically a death diary. Like: Tuesday – nearly dead, coughed up some foul shit. Wednesday – fell over, broke ankle. Nearly dead. Thursday – William Burroughs is dead. Thanks for reading.

    And I never finished The Place of Dead Roads, which is also heavy going. I don’t think there’s any shame in not managing to plough through some of Burroughs’ later work. Even reading Naked Lunch is an achievement, but reviewing the film of the book (that you’ve not seen) is something very special indeed.

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