Laura's Reviews > Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
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's review
Dec 26, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: seminal-texts
Read in December, 2011

. . . so. yeah. Naked Lunch. I have now read it. Or something.

I cannot say I understood it, and so I shall talk about myself. I am in a reading group; been in it for about ten years. It has awesome women, most of which are demographically distinct from me on a variety of metrics; race, religion, generation, income, profession (though it is becoming more lawyerly as the years roll on). Because of my reading group, I had the great joy of explaining “tea bagging” in the John Waters sense of the word, to several African American women of a certain age; an accomplishment I probably rank closer to my law school summa than I should admit. Great people. But the books. Some are good books I would likely never read but for a reading group; I probably never would have read The Maltese Falcon but for the group, and that was an important bit of cultural education I would have missed. Some are sweet, jewel box depictions of an ordinary life. I loath sweet, jewel box depictions of ordinary life. Nails on a blackboard.

There’s also an increasing subset of books that tell an important story (The Help, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Sarah’s Key all jump to mind) but do so by thrusting some reading-group friendly middle class white woman into the narrative and using her as the POV character. And these annoy me because it puts this reading-group friendly Mary Sue into the center of these fascinating, important stories that she may have the right to tell, but not the right to thrust herself into. It’s like historical fan fiction, only with a lot less sex with great historical figures. It makes me grumpy.

So, there’s this book. I can’t claim any great insight about it, but it strikes me that it’s like the negative image of both of the types of books I find tiresome. No middle class, well educated white woman carrying us through this narrative; giving us a point of entry and easy plot exposition, oh no. The POV (I can’t say character; I think there were legion, but I am not sanguine I understood those perspectives the story shifted through) is constantly fragmenting, constantly witnessing horrible things, regularly participating in horrible things, and yet none of it seems to touch him. Or, by extension, me the reader, even as I blink at the page thinking – well, that puts Warren Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein in perspective. Godzilla Bukakke? Pishaw. Nor is there anything in this text as pedestrian and sanitary as tea-bagging. No jewel box depiction of an ordinary life. No coherent narrative at all, and if there was a jewel box, it was made of something that is now soggy and drenched with seminal fluids, effluent, and pus.

(And yes, I recognize, I am doing what I dislike in the books we often read in my reading group; inserting a middle class white woman into all this).

(Note to self; has there been a Mary Sue insertion into this book somewhere in the vast fan fiction universe? Do I dare to google? Or, perhaps, a cross over with the Twelve Labors of Hercules, with a handy river?)

(Oh, that was distressingly counterrevolutionary, wasn’t it? And possibly a violation of my environmentalist street cred. Sigh).

The text I had begins with a brief Massachusetts Supreme Court opinion reversing a trial court’s conclusion that the book was obscene on the less than ringing grounds that while the book is “grossly offensive” and “may appeal to the prurient interest of deviants and those curious about deviants. . . . The record did not show that the book has been ‘commercially exploited for the sake of prurient appeal.”’ Without prejudice to a future challenge should the book be so commercially exploited. “We cannot conceive of a way this book could be so exploited, but if someone does, feel free to re-file,” seemed the unspoken bit.

It reminded not a little of A Scanner Darkly; another book I darkly suspect I did not understand.

So. Yeah. Plus five to crossing a seminal text off the reading list. So there’s that. Can’t say as I understood it. I read every word, and looked up not a few. I flagged only one passage:

“You are agent, mister?”
“I prefer the word. . . vector.”

(182). Yeah. Vector. I think that’s what the prosecutors were afraid of. Perverse and not at all polymorphously; if they hadn’t banned it, I doubt I would have ever read it. First Amendment values, yo. Or something.


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