William S. Burroughs has become an icon of counterculture and cult fiction. His works were devoted to subverting stereotypes, mainstream cultural patterns and political and ideological impositions. As the quotation below suggests, the author’s charismatic though impenetrable figure has become so fused with his fiction in recent criticism that it is difficult separate the two in any analysis of Burroughs’s work: Cliches and myths abound when it comes to William S. Burroughs.
Exotic uncle to the Beats, he was also a Harvard-educated, gun-toting, wife-slaying, queer junkie American ex-pat sex-tourist who manufactured unreadable cut-up novels (‘that’s not writing, it’s plumbing’: Samuel Beckett, in Harris, p. 158) and whose grumpy face peers lugubriously out from Peter Blake’s pop-art sleeve for Sergeant Pepper. Read his letters and there he is again: a pragmatic, misanthropic voice, chapter-Dashiell Hammett, chapter-Jonathan Swift, complaining about being grifted by his Beat houseguests and playing a sometimes desperate epistolary footsie with Allen Ginsberg (p.157).
Around these chapters (Brighton), at a time when there was still an independent academic bookshop, Burroughs’ texts were routinely the ones stolen, which must be some kind of accolade. Old Bull Lee (Kerouac’s Burroughs cipher from On The Road) is, in short, a real counter-cultural icon . As this quotation suggests, William S. Burroughs was a rogue figure par excellence, his life and art dedicated at exposing the lugubrious shaded side of the spectacular capitalist American society. His friends were the Beats – Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac.
His artistic exposure was drastically diminished by his (allegedly accidentally) having murdered his wife as well as by the ostentatiously queer, macabre and sado-masochistic tales present in his works. This delayed public appreciation did not, however, prevent Burroughs from writing in his own, (yet) unclassifiable style. It is especially in his trilogies – The Nova Express and The Red Night – that Burroughs took the task to expose and subvert the society dominated by manipulation, mind-control, the society in which appearance has become reality.
The science-fictional mold in which the author chose to envelop his writings represents a way of testing the signs of the “virus epidemic” to their extreme, to speculate and lay bare all the aspects which might appear “unreal” if tested against a more realistic scenario. This paper will argue that William Burroughs’s fiction is directed at subverting and deconstructing the dominant social order and mainstream conventions and social practices.
In such novels as The Western Lands (1987), The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962) or The Nova Express (1964) the author constructs full-fledged literary outlaws – gangsters, conmen, etc. – in order to epitomize the forceful and illegitimate ways in which ideas, opinions or the entire reality can be imposed on the ostracized other. Therefore, William Burroughs’ novels also offer a reflection of American capitalist society and its unorthodox power relations.
The paper will be structured in two parts approaching this theme in Burroughs’ work from two different viewpoints: on the one hand, the spectacular nature of the society the author constructs and, on the other hand, the function of cities and space in his novels. The specular/spectacular character of Burroughs’ work will be analyzed in light of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. In his article on Burroughs, Frederick M.
Dolan argues that in the writer’s novels, all the rogue figures “control others by mastering the art of producing vivid and convincing representations, exploiting the naive, metaphysical urge to believe that when language appears most meaningful, it has because it has established a referential relationship to the world” . This is precisely what the “society of the spectacle” is attempting to achieve by superimposing the show of capitalist order on everyday reality.
The second theme under investigation in this analysis of Burroughs’ counter-cultural deconstruction will be the author’s subversion of space, namely, the significance of the city as the stage for the deployment of undemocratic power relations. The city is an important figure in Burroughs’s fiction and space appears to define a trajectory through which the author maps the signposts of contemporary man’s suppression.
Such novels as Junky, The Naked Lunch, The Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express or The Western Lands are constructed around this idea of the city. In this respect, Burroughs’s fiction partakes of the postmodernist aesthetics and its emphasis on space, as Frederic Jameson argued. Such cities as New York, Mexico City, Tangier, London, Paris, Lima or even his home-town St. Louis become the stagings of complex power relations, and the theatres of characters obsessed with mind-control, manipulation, blinding and delusions.