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  • New Routine
  • Davis Schneiderman (bio)
Queer: 25th-Anniversary Edition. William S. Burroughs. Edited and Introduced by Oliver Harris. Penguin. 208 pages; paper, $15.00.

Not long after the 1959 publication of his infamous novel now known as Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs wrote his longtime friend, literary agent, and at-times unrequited love Allen Ginsberg about the sequel to Junky: "I really do not want Queer published at this time. It is not representative of what I do now, and no interest except like an artist's poor art school sketches—and as such, I protest."

This is but one of the historical and genetic gems unearthed by Oliver Harris in Queer: 25th-Anniversary Edition, his third major new edition of Burroughs's early work (after new editions of Junky and The Yage Letters). This new Queer also follows naturally on Harris's more scholarly approach to Burroughs's early texts in William S. Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (2003). To slightly oversimplify the collective critical thrust of these efforts, Harris's major contribution has been to selectively undo elements of the Burroughs myth: the heroin-abusing, wife-killing junkie iconoclast who smashes the walls of the reality studio while giving live birth to punk music, heavy metal, and the wailing scowls of Kurt Cobain, Ministry, ad nauseum.

Queer's plot is comparatively thin and relatively straightforward. William Lee, presumably off Junk, living with his wife in Mexico City in order to evade a drug charge in the US, spends his withdrawal period wandering about the local watering holes, eventually convincing Eugene Allerton, a hesitant sexual companion, to embark on a bizarre tour of South American in search of the telepathic vine Ayahuasca, better known to the collective hipster world as yage or yagé.

The rich subtext of this highly isolated novel breaks over the reader in a series of morose passages offering failed contact and sequestered emotion of the "routine" form. The routine is a one-way riff that veers wildly from the main plot, almost like Vaudeville showpieces, expressing a sort of vampire power over the "straight" realist narratives they seek to infect. The routine, more than any other aspect of Queer, more than homosexuality itself as the supposed primary theme, becomes what queers Queer. Accordingly, Lee, perhaps fearful of his re-emerging sexual urges, which were formerly sublimated to a "cold" point of junk addiction, now remerges and marks his inability to sexually connect with other males through these wild excurses.

Even so, it is the routine that also allows Lee to consummate an even tentative connection with Allerton. The former's first successful, albeit temporary, contact with Allerton occurs after the famous "homosexual" routine:

"A curse," said Lee. "Been in our family for generations. The Lees have always been perverts. I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands—the lymph glands that is, of course—when the baneful word seared my reeling brain: homosexual. I was a homosexual. I thought of the painted, simpering female impersonators I had seen in a Baltimore night club. Could it be possible that I was one of those subhuman things?"

The 1985 publication, the first public light for the project, famously closed with a chapter called "Mexico City Return" and opened with an over-cited introduction which reads, as Harris notes, like part of the novel. It's one large routine. If you know anything about Queer beyond the previous passage, it's probably this from the introduction:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and constant need to escape from possession, from Control.... I have had no choice except to write my way out.

The reference to Burroughs's accidental shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in September 1951, becomes for Harris a distraction to the actual production of Queer and the other manuscripts of the period. Harris does not, it bears special note, deny that the horrible event would...


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