Ian Mathers's Reviews > Exterminator!

Exterminator! by William S. Burroughs
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Jun 21, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: 2011, 2015

I used to have this down as a five star book. I went to reread it, and it was a lot worse than I remembered. Part of this is just context, in more than one way; the first time I read Exterminator! was basically all in one go late at night in a tent while camping. I read it in a (non-literal) fever, gulping the whole thing down. Re-reading it now, which I did over the course of a few days commuting on the subway and bus, I didn't get as caught up in it as before (and before Burroughs or anyone else insinuates that I'm more in the grip of Control now, or something, I should add that I was much more so back then anyway, both in terms of what I did for work and my own personal politics/understanding of the world). Somehow that first time through my brain was able to just shove aside and ignore my abhorrence of all the anti-Semitism, misogyny, rape, child sexualization (it's not like I enjoyed the repeated phrase "young boys need it special" that first time through, but how did I not just spit out the whole book), racism and so on throughout. I guess maybe on some level I bought into the bullshit Burroughs spreads here about "subversive" art (which, honestly, even if some of this was at the time, it's possible to outlive your context, you know?), but I'm sure even then I was aware there's a big gap between censorship and thinking it's fine and dandy to normalize fucking kids. Also, while I did know about Burroughs murdering his wife Joan Vollmer, I didn't know about a lot of the other shit he and Ginsberg got up to. And yes, I think that is a valid part of how I feel about this and Burroughs' other books; another writer's Burroughs references actually prompted me to write about it recently, and I stand by what I say there.

So why two stars? Well, the parts that aren't horrifying for the wrong reasons here are really fucking good! You can't give zero stars here, and Exterminator! is legitimately more worthwhile than books that are just as awful but more poorly written. The bit on the discipline of DE begged to be expanded on, the language is often startlingly vivid (even in the shitty sections, of course) and I was still stopped in my tracks by "Do you begin to see there is no face there in the tarnished mirror?" Nobody's saying Burroughs had to be a saint or only write about nice things to write good books or be worth reading, it's actually a pretty fucking low bar for him to meet. And he doesn't come remotely close to meeting it. I'm not reluctantly pretending I dislike it for external reasons; it's genuinely, authentically cringe inducing and awful.
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Reading Progress

June 21, 2011 – Started Reading
June 21, 2011 – Shelved
June 21, 2011 – Shelved as: 2011
June 18, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015
June 22, 2015 – Finished Reading

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