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Naked Lunch @ 50

Anniversary Essays

Edied by Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen

Publication Year: 2009

An illustrated, international collection of original essays that combines academic analysis and personal response, to mark the 50th anniversary of William Burroughs’ landmark novel.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. xi-xiii

It is a book unlike any other. Famous, infamous, derided, and banned but also recognized as a work of genius. For fifty years, it has tantalized, shocked, baffled, and inspired. It simultaneously holds a significant place in postmodern literature while retaining its iconic, underground allure, resisting diverse critical attempts to define and explain it. It is an aberrant concoction, stylistically brilliant and structurally disorienting, obscene and blasphemous and yet...


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pp. xv-xvi

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In Defense of Perversity: Diary Entry, 1958

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pp. 1-3

In a bastard standardized conformist sick society, perversity becomes a force of liberation. Horror and degradation for the professors, guardians of Morality, it is a drop of Holy Spirit, a ray of salvation. One has to hit on the very head. The time has come when the action of the silent wisdom, when the truth takes a form of anarchy, and exaggeration, and negation. This subconscious...

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dossier ONE

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pp. 4-13

We’re in Paris, rue Git-le-Coeur, on the trail of Naked Lunch—looking for clues, checking out the key sites half a century down the line. Oliver frames another shot, attempting to homage a fifty-year-old photograph—but the figure in that picture, William Burroughs, has definitively quit the scene, walking away like his hero John Dillinger in Naked Lunch—“Don’t ever look back, kid . . .” (190). Still, that’s what we’re driven to do, though...

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The Beginnings of “Naked Lunch, an Endless Novel”

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pp. 14-25

The mythology began to circulate and to seduce even before the book itself, starting with Allen Ginsberg’s famous dedication to Howl and Other Poems in October 1956. From this point on, an image of Naked Lunch would always precede the real thing and, for the image-hungry, replace it altogether. Simultaneously, this is an appalling irony and part and parcel of Burroughs’ great work, which is both the genuine article—a one-off, not-to-be-missed revelation of such toxic brilliance and convulsive beauty that it stains the mind and stirs...

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“Room for One More”: The Invitation to Naked Lunch

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pp. 26-35

Some lunches are “by invitation only.” Although William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is not so formal or exclusive, an invitation is nonetheless provided in the form of the introductory essay: “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness.” Of course, as Burroughs himself observes, readers “can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point” (187), and while the cutting metaphor is appropriate to the culinary...

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dossier TWO

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pp. 36-42

H. G. Wells’ malevolent, havoc-wreaking creation becomes that feared and fascinating monstrosity which leaks phantasmatically through the media. James Hillman: “The invisible becomes ‘alien’ [. . .] Our modern passages are so narrow and with such low ceilings, the invisibles must twist themselves into freakish shapes in order to come through” (109)....

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William S. Burroughs as “Good Ol’ Boy”: Naked Lunch in East Texas

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pp. 43-55

I’m on the Naked Lunch inter-American highway, just outside of Houston, Texas, driving North on I-45 towards the New Waverly exit, the same exit Billy Burroughs would take to his “ranch” in Pine Valley, ten miles from Coldspring, Texas, the seat of San Jacinto County and home of Naked Lunch’s “County Clerk.” This is just one stop on the Naked Lunch highway, which begins in Mexico City, crosses Texas into Louisiana, and terminates in New Orleans...

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Tangier and the Making of Naked Lunch

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pp. 56-64

There would be no Naked Lunch, at least not in the form we know it, without Burroughs’ sojourn in Tangier from 1954 to 1958. The historical/geographical context of the novel’s making has itself been a key, but often problematic, aspect of the text’s creation and its reception. This juncture, half a century after the novel’s original publication, offers a new horizon from which...

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“The natives are getting uppity”: Tangier and Naked Lunch

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pp. 65-72

If Naked Lunch were published today, fifty years after its original publication, and William S. Burroughs were still alive, rather than inciting calls for censorship over its lurid depictions of sex, it would probably inspire a mufti to declare a fatwa for Burroughs’ immediate silencing. Although we tend to view Burroughs in the West as a radical voice against hegemonic control systems, it is possible today to see Naked Lunch as reifying certain imperialistic narratives. In Culture and Imperialism (1994), Edward Said, referring to conventional Western...

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“Paris is about the last place . . . ”: William Burroughs In and Out of Paris and Tangier, 1958–60

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pp. 73-83

William Burroughs arrived in Paris in early 1958. He was in a sour and discontented mood. His first experiences of the city had been to note how expensive it was, especially compared to Tangier where he had been based since 1954, and that its citizens were cold, bad-tempered, and hard to know. “I hear on all sides hair-rising stories of the Paris prices. No rooms etc.” Burroughs...

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Burroughs: The Beat Hotel Years

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pp. 84-90

Given the cosmic scheme of things, it is quite logical that so many scientific or artistic breakthroughs occur by accident. The discovery of the cut-up method by Brion Gysin in room 15 of the Beat Hotel (9 Rue Git-le-Coeur) and its systematic application to textual production by William Burroughs is but one example of the positive impact such accidents can have.1 Genius—in the arts as well as in science—often consists of letting an accident happen, then exploiting its full, unprogrammed potential. Another such instance is LSD, which Albert Hoffman stumbled upon by “mistake.” Jackson Pollock...

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dossier THREE

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pp. 91-97

“Tarantulas, deep-fried with salt and pepper, are a speciality of the small town of Skuom, about two-hours drive north of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Villagers collect the arachnids from their burrows, taking care to avoid the poisonous fangs (which are trimmed with scissors before cooking begins). The spiders are properly cooked when the legs are crispy but the thorax still retains its moist, gooey, interior texture. The experience of...

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The Danger Zone

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pp. 98-106

You see him sitting there, the man in a narrow snap-brim hat and colorless suit, dunking a small cake into his coffee at a nameless lunch counter. You sit next to him and casually strike up a conversation. Something about his flat Midwestern drawl and incognito eyes draws you in. You talk about what ails. He speaks in steady, dry, matter-of-fact tones. You are impressed with his vast knowledge of pharmaceutical matters. It makes you wonder if he’s some kind...

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I Am No Doctor [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 107-113

I am no doctor, no PhD, no master of this or that, no scientist or journalist, no veteran of any particular front, no literary scholar. I am a poet well outside the academic world of letters with only a few books to show, a songwriter, and occasional recording artist. Thanks to the unparalleled referencing of the Internet, I can be located in obscure recesses, but otherwise you haven’t heard of me. But, then, the world of recording artists is a wasteland, and a book of poetry perhaps the most...

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The Naked Lunch in My Life

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pp. 114-122

In 1960, when I first began to hitchhike up to London on weekends from my provincial art school, I usually stayed on the couch at the communal flat run by John Hopkins, who was then a photographer. Living in one of the rooms was Peter Wollen, who spent each afternoon and evening travelling to distant suburban cinemas to fill in gaps in his study of the cinema. He later wrote Signs and Meaning in the Cinema and became head of the UCLA Film School. One afternoon Peter came in, glanced around the living room, and announced, “This is such...

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A Bombshell in Rhizomatic Slow Motion: The Reception of Naked Lunch in Germany

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pp. 123-132

I remember struggling with my own early writing in the 1950s. Not only did I come out of the cool terror and domesticity of the Adenauer era (equivalent to the “gray flannel” Eisenhower era) but I also experienced the cultural trauma created by Nazism. In Germany, war had been more than the horror of the killing fields, it was the traumatizing experience of spiritual destruction and devastation...

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The Flaming Voice: Naked Lunch in Apartheid South Africa

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pp. 133-141

What was it like to read Naked Lunch in the South Africa of the mid-1980s? What did it mean to a nascent queer stuck in a society that was politically oppressive and socially repressive? The way I have formulated those questions preempts the answers. By the mid-1980s, the apartheid state was ostensibly liberalizing itself while at the same time cracking down ever more heavy-handedly on dissent in any form. It was, we now know, the...

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“The ideal product . . . No sales talk necessary”: The Olympia Press Naked Lunch as Collectible and Book Object

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pp. 142-151

It has been over fifteen years, and I have yet to awaken from The Sickness. I am in reasonably good health with a full bookshelf and an empty wallet. The addiction is book collecting, specifically obtaining all William Burroughs material from 1953 to 1965. Little did I know in 1993 when I purchased a signed copy of The Dead Star (1969), a small broadside stapled in wrappers, that my life would revolve around obtaining books, magazines, posters, and LPs containing Burroughs material. With his illustrious family...

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Naked Lunch: The Cover Story

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pp. 152-159

Proverbially, one is not meant to judge a book by its cover. Yet, publishers, editors, and writers go to great lengths to negotiate its precise parameters. Most people would not admit to buying a book for the cover, but we operate in a world that values first impressions. The Observer’s Rachel Cook in her article, “Allow Us to Judge a Book by Its Cover,” comments, “It is pretty difficult not to get attached to certain covers, nor to resist their siren call through...

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dossier FOUR

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pp. 160-166

A rich man flips a coin to the cold-kicking monstrous addict rolling in filth, like a George Grosz caricature or a Brechtian critique of capitalism—“Mr. Rich-and-Vulgar chews his Havana lewd and nasty” (67). It’s always business as usual in Naked Lunch, whatever other shit is going down. Welcome to...

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The Book, the Movie, the Legend: Naked Lunch at 50

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pp. 167-176

The reception of Naked Lunch is embedded in the legend of William S. Burroughs as transgressive artist. When Naked Lunch was first published in the United States in 1962 and in England in 1964, its reception was shaped by Burroughs’ status as the shadowy guru of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, both of whom had acknowledged his influence among their underground circle in...

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Still Dirty after All These Years:The Continuing Trials of Naked Lunch

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pp. 177-187

In the early 1970s, William Burroughs’ career was stalled. Although Naked Lunch was acknowledged as a masterpiece and a landmark of literary freedom, his more recent cut-up texts had been skeptically received, and he himself was beginning to feel that the experiments were a dead end. Already in his sixties, bored and lonely in London, he decided to return to the United States. Within days, Allen Ginsberg introduced him to a young Kansan named James Grauerholz, who would become his secretary, business manager, editor, and adviser...

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“Gentlemen I will slop a pearl”:The (Non)Meaning of Naked Lunch

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pp. 188-197

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Naked Lunch’s slow tromp from the avant-garde margins remains the way that still, after fifty years, the book resists full co-option into the American literary mainstream. There are scant similar examples in the permeable realms of modern and postmodern literature that have become as popular as Naked Lunch and yet still remain as thoroughly unmanageable...

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Burroughs’ Visionary Lunch

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pp. 198-206

In September 2005, UNCUT magazine asked a hundred musicians and other artists to send a picture of the work of art from the twentieth century that had most influenced them. Rock musician and Velvet Underground cofounder Lou Reed submitted a photograph of himself holding a copy of Naked Lunch: The Restored Text. In fact, on the back of this edition, he is quoted as saying, “When I read Burroughs, it changed my vision of what you could write about, how you could...

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dossier FIVE

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pp. 207-213

In Abel Ferrara’s vampire movie The Addiction (1995), Christopher Walken asks the heroine, a student writing a doctoral thesis on the nature of evil, “Have you ever read Naked Lunch? . . . You’ll be hungry all the time . . . ” Naked Lunch is a work of vampiric, libidinous orality—slurping on Babe Ruths, devouring...

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Sole Survivor a Raving Maniac

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pp. 214-222

Before cut-ups, there were cuts—fades, zooms, flashbacks. Scenes were repeated, moments emphasized and reemphasized, inserted, juxtaposed, isolated. That’s the magic of the movies. In a world of darkened rooms, these vignettes of absurdly heightened reality could play out, brought together yet connected by nothing more than narrative conventions, and sometimes not even by those. Did the feature and the advertisements and the newsreels and the cartoons and the shorts all run together...

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Random Insect Doom: The Pulp Science Fiction of Naked Lunch

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pp. 223-232

From the very first pages of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs immerses his readers in the world of “old pulp magazines”: narrator William Lee is a junky on the run from “the heat closing in,” assisted in his escape by a “[y]oung, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit” whom Lee quickly recognizes as a “square [who] wants to come on hip” (3). The fruit, conventionally...

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All Consuming Images: DJ Burroughs and Me

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pp. 233-237

One of my favorite writers, William Gibson, has a great phrase—it’s a sample that I trot out every once in a while when I think of how strange the world has become and how strange it’s going to get over the next couple of centuries as technology advances, and we begin to question the very foundations of what it means to be human. In the Economist (23 June 2000), Gibson observed simply...

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Naked Lunch: William S.Burroughs, Bioscientist

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pp. 238-249

It is perhaps true that one cannot, as Burroughs taught us, fake quality writing anymore than you can fake a good meal. As such, most readers who come with an open mind and, yes, “read,” rather than merely consume, Naked Lunch—Burroughs’ early (1959) effervescent novel of experimental verve and poetic genius—recognize, however begrudgingly, the work of a master chef. The cuisine may not be to everyone’s taste, this Naked Lunch, but it is a work of such stunning...

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dossier SIX: A Little Night Music

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pp. 250-261

The pusher hums the melodies of 1930s and 1940s film songs like Smiles, I’m in the Mood for Love, and They Say We’re Too Young to Go Steady. He’s the Pied Piper, a musical soul stealer, hypnotizing young kids with his sweet melodies, while the delicious irony of the lyrics invoked, cynically exploiting romantic yearning as a cover for junk need, must really turn him on. “Melancholy Baby dies from...

Works Cited and Consulted for Dossiers

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pp. 265-267

Illustration Credits

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pp. 269-270


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pp. 271-274


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pp. 275-283

E-ISBN-13: 9780809386734
E-ISBN-10: 0809386739
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809329151
Print-ISBN-10: 0809329158

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 38 b/w halftones
Publication Year: 2009

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Subject Headings

  • Burroughs, William S., 1914-1997. Naked lunch.
  • Burroughs, William S., 1914-1997 -- Anniversaries, etc.
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