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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 424-426
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In this ambitious and deliberately modulated study, Jamie Russell argues that William Burroughs sought to establish a gay male identity in the face of the manifold strictures imposed by the "heterosexual dominant." The result was an uncompromising struggle against social regulation—extravagant in fashion, never without costs. Russell measures both the extravagance and the costs. With clarity and purpose he considers narrative techniques that accent or fragment a sense of identity—the "routines" that seek to barricade the self behind a wall of aggression, the "cut-ups" that cultivate a compelling discontinuity; he bids us examine further the binary assumptions that are forever antipathetic to Burroughs's designs. Concomitantly, Russell depicts the disintegration of self in Queer, the protean violence of the Nova Mob and the Wild Boys, and the unfulfilled promise of The Western Lands.
Russell devotes much of his important first chapter to the milieu of Queer and Naked Lunch. In the preface to Queer, Burroughs contrasts the William Lee of Junkie with the same character in Queer, now verging on schizophrenia. Dismayed that his relationship with Allerton has forced him into what Russell aptly calls "a position of effeminacy," Lee erupts in scatological litanies (routines) that are offensively defensive. Even more helplessly, Lee imagines himself in the bodies of other men. His experience with yagé in the Amazon jungle seems to offer an escape into "complete bisexuality." But the power of the hallucinogen leads Lee "to create increasingly disturbing fantasies of violent domination"—harbingers of a mind-control perpetually threatening in Burroughs's work. Russell attributes Lee's paranoia and eventual dissolution of self to a rigid cultural orthodoxy that refuses "to countenance the possibility of the homosexual male."
The same orthodoxy becomes a state-sponsored apparatus of control in Naked Lunch. Stressing the causal relationship between "the state's deployment of the effeminate paradigm" and schizophrenia, Russell argues effectively that the political-medical establishment robs the gay male of his masculinity and conditions him to acquiesence. The danger to the self is evident in the wide acceptance of "the state-regulated identity of the fag." Burroughs's satirical response to such manipulation is portrayed in the Talking Asshole routine in which (lest we forget) an anus interrupts a ventriloquist's act, shouts that it deserves equal rights, has crying jags, and wants to be kissed "same as any other mouth." According to Russell, the talking anus is "clearly a metaphor of the usurpation of the masculine subject by the feminine." As a feminine indicator, the anus must be "regulated" to avoid the collapse of a "primary, authentic," and masculine self. From the time of Naked Lunch in 1959, the authority of this self becomes "the key to Burroughs' queer project."
The Nova trilogy takes the threat of regulation from the state to the galaxy. [End Page 424] As viral beings, the Nova Mob literally invades the three-dimensional citizens of the Earth. Crucial to thwarting such attacks are the cut-ups, or strategies of linguistic subversion, that provide what Tony Tanner and Robin Lydenberg see as methods of "deconditioning" and "dislocation." Although Russell uses these terms frequently in his argument, he believes Tanner and Lydenberg (along with critics such as Timothy F. Murphy) "consistently overlook the queer thematics of the novels." In his view, the cut-up texts "fantasize the transformation of the regulated gay male self" not only by cutting word-lines and removing syntactic expectations but also by eliminating binary assumptions, thereby ending both psychological and physical regulation. Regaining "bodily freedom" becomes one of the fundamental uses of the cut-ups "as a tool of queer liberation." Burroughs's attraction to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard and Alfred Korzbiski demonstrate a readiness to adapt popular (if not gimmicky) therapeutic strategies to his purposes. Fully aware of the blueprints for self-help offered by Hubbard and Korzbiski, Russell traces the further use of the cut-up method in the Nova trilogy to a kind of purification...