Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'Naked Lunch'

'Your Favorite Book Sucks' is an ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun, so please play nice.


Imagine sitting down at a classy restaurant and the waiter slides a juicy steak in front of you. Several of your friends had recommended this place, so you can hardly cut the meat fast enough to get that medium-rare beauty into your mouth. But as soon at it hits your tongue, it’s bitter. And tough. Stringy with tendons. Dirt crunches between your molars as your gag reflex makes your stomach heave.

Sweat beads on your forehead, but you keep chewing because you remember that several food critics have described this as one of the most important steaks of the twentieth century. But after a few minutes of hopeless chomping, you lean over your plate and spit out the slimy wad of flesh. You cut off pieces from different ends of the steak hoping for something palatable, but it’s all the same—maybe even a little worse. Hours later, as you look down at a plate of chewed-up meat, you realize you should’ve bought the steak second-hand off Amazon and saved a few bucks.

Burroughs reminds me of a deranged vagrant shouting at pigeons in the park—while his slurred diatribe might make sense to himself, everyone else should just keep walking and try not to make eye contact.

That was my experience reading Naked Lunch. Rarely do I need to psyche myself up to read, but I consistently frowned at the prospect of having to slog through another chapter of self-indulgent tripe. As an author, Burroughs reminds me of a deranged vagrant shouting at pigeons in the park—while his slurred diatribe might make sense to himself, everyone else should just keep walking and try not to make eye contact. 

Never have I felt so violated after reading a book—and I pride myself on being open-minded. Creepy, prostitute sex? Sure. Shooting heroin into your eyeballs and killing people who turn into insects? Why not. As long as there's some tangible point to what you're trying to say, then say it. There's not a lot that'll shock me, but even my warped mind started to beg for mercy after just a few chapters of Burroughs's aimless, drug-fueled nightmares. And still, having reached its 50th anniversary a few years back, Naked Lunch is still lauded by critics as a masterpiece. (Interestingly, some of the highest-ranked reviews on Amazon admitted things like, "I didn't get some of it," or "You'll have to read it 6-8 times and you still might not understand it," which makes me wonder: if someone tells a joke and nobody but the person who told it gets the punchline, it is still a joke?)

But I’ll give credit where it’s due—this book created a landmark obscenity case that helped to abolish literary censorship in America. (In fact, the “restored text” edition of this book has a chapter on the sordid legal history of the work, and that was easily my favorite chapter to read.) When Naked Lunch was first published, the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed it “undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit," judged it as non-mailable under certain legal provisions, and locked away thousands of copies of the book. But this historical and cultural significance doesn’t mean the book is anything more than 300 pages of drug abuse.

I won't complain about the lack of narrative thread or stream-of-consciousness writing style either, as I feel the book warns you about those problems from the start. Characters appear out of nowhere, transform into other characters, and then disappear entirely. The author can go pages where each sentence has nothing to do with the last, habitually punctuating with ellipses (which, as an indication of trailing off, is the perfect fit for Burroughs). Since nothing is linear, this is closer to a collection of short stories than a proper novel, and you can hop around through the chapters with no net loss of understanding—and again, that's not my problem either. These hurdles are right on the warning label, so they aren't damnable offenses. Experiment with styles till you go blind, for all I care.

My beef is with nearly the entire Beat Generation as a movement. As a genre of writing, it feels like a rationalization for the indulgent, hedonistic lifestyle adopted by a few literate drug addicts. Almost 99% of what Burroughs describes in this book would land him in federal prison, but once it was written down it somehow qualified as praisable. It seems like Beat Lit gained traction largely for its gonzo, obscene-for-the-sake-of-itself reputation that rubbed the law the wrong way, and then, with this "bad boy" persona, wormed its way into the American literary canon. Again, you can be gonzo and obscene, but your drug-filled rants have to mean something.

Hunter S. Thompson did something similar with drug abuse and excess in his work, but the main difference between the two is that Thompson had a tangible thesis tying his work together. Both authors seem to yell, "Fuck the system," but Burroughs is so full of heroin that you can't understand what he's saying. I'm not advocating that work be dumbed down so everyone can easily understand it, but if you're the only one laughing at your jokes... you might need to modify your routine.

So there you have it. I love to be proven wrong, so if you have an explanation as to why Naked Lunch doesn't suck, I'd be happy to hear about it in the comments section.

Image of Naked Lunch, 50th Anniversary Edition
Author: William S. Burroughs
Price:
Publisher: Grove Press (2009)
Binding: Hardcover, 299 pages

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Comments

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading September 24, 2012 - 4:20pm

Ah, to look over the dune and see the ocean while those at your side complain of the sand.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing September 24, 2012 - 4:49pm

Rich junkies excel at everything.

But really, I've always thought the Beats were overrated. Nevertheless, I think he was the most interesting of that group. I've only read excerpts from this particular book.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading 11/22/63 By Stephen King September 24, 2012 - 4:53pm

WSb was a better icon than writer.

Phil Watt's picture
Phil Watt from Santa Barbara/Goleta, CA is reading On becoming a novelist - John Gardner September 24, 2012 - 5:39pm

It's not your cup of tea. That's understandable. For those of us that were swept up by the Beats at some point, Burroughs was following the same vein as Rimbaud. His path to poetic enlightenment involved a "long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses."

Nowadays nothing is shocking.

JonGingerich's picture
JonGingerich from New York City is reading Tenth of December by George Saunders. September 24, 2012 - 5:54pm

To offer a second opinion:

While I ultimately agree that "Naked Lunch" is an overrated novel and one guaranteed to induce episodes of eye-rolling for any reader over, say, twenty — I think a more careful examination of this book is deserved, at the very least for its historical worth (which you mention), but even more so for its armory of literary devices, which I must (somewhat begrudgingly) admit not only warrant merit but epitomized groundbreaking at the time in which the book was released.

Norman Mailer referred to "Naked Lunch" as a “vision of how mankind would act if man was totally divorced from eternity.” I think that’s something worth discussing here. It’s no coincidence that the chapters of "Naked Lunch" work like a television. You can pick up the story wherever you’d like; missing a section or reading the sections outside its presented chronology will not alter the reader’s perceptions at all. Moreover, it’s no accident that the characters depicted inside this hardbound “television” are noticeably, grossly, deliberately inhuman. They seem less than the insects in the scene you mention: they're practically inanimate objects. So the question is: why? Why is the human body repeatedly reduced to primordial sacks of blood and shit, something akin to a mass-produced product in a modern marketplace fueled on the empty promises of advertising hype? I’m begging an obvious question here: Burroughs is offering a parable of the great, modern anesthetic.

In case you still don't see where I'm going with this: I don’t know about you, but "Naked Lunch" didn’t disturb me nearly as much as, say, "Blood Meridian," or even "American Psycho." And the reason why it didn’t shake me was because the book engenders a deliberately removed relationship between the reader and its host of characters: people in the book are assembled to be immediately discarded. The world of the grotesque ala Burroughs is a markedly different one than say, Flannery O’Connor’s. The latter author illustrates classically awful people doing harm to real, good people with whom we have a vested emotional stake. Burroughs’ grotesque is like watching a colony of ants devour another colony of ants. We see the violence in great detail, but we are somehow able to walk away relatively unscathed because we’ve been conditioned by the medium to feel nothing. You know, just like TV.

Burroughs’ "consumers" (nee, the reader) remain safely harbored from the images
vis-à-vis the constructs of a narrative where our fleeting needs to be entertained supercede our deepest emotions: we don’t flinch when the characters’ necks are broken, when they burned, cut up, hanged and sodomized, surgeries performed with toilet plungers, etc. Burroughs says this best himself (in my copy, on page 22) when he states that “Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets.” If there is one area in this book Burroughs took great pains to expound upon it was his cunning ability to remove all characters from the human experience when our proclivities want desperately to place them there. And it’s for this reason that ‘Naked Lunch’ is actually a lot "safer" than the everyday Burroughs fan might like to admit. Contrary to what has to be a wearingly common criticism for the last fifty years, this book is not demoralizing at all. It’s not “shocking." In fact, it’s actually quite a moralistic undertaking. This book is a warning: ‘Naked Lunch’ is what it would be like to live in a world devoid of human feeling or emotion — and the modern world is well on its way to manifesting that dangerous reality.

My principle complaint with this book is that it suffers from its own deliberately debilitating design. Just like TV, “Naked Lunch" relies on a presupposed mentality and moral set of its readers to which it can engage, revolve around and predictably "shock." It presumes the predictable prudishness of its audience so it can react to it with, essentially, with equally predictable, high-fallootin' fart jokes. In the course of doing so, my principle concern is that this tactic loses more than it gains: by orbiting the narrative around a presumed axis of pre-enlightenment prudes, you're delivering all the expected 180-degree reactions to it, and expected content, of course, is cliché.

Having said that, if you didn't laugh during that chapter with the racist cop, or in that section with the guy whose talking asshole snakes into the bar so it can score a quick fuck — there's something wrong with you.

Oh, and just to be clear: I absolutely hate the beats. Also: I do think Burroughs was a gifted writer, and while I think “Naked Lunch” is sort of a failed experiment, it is an experiment nonetheless of noted historical significance, both in what it did to expand the “constraints” of the novel and what it said about the age in which it was written. If I were to recommend a Burroughs story worth reading, I’d offer up short stories like “The Finger” or later novels like “Cities of the Red Night”. Just my two cents.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones September 24, 2012 - 5:42pm

God Bless You, Dave Reuss. As far as I'm concerned, Naked Lunch is the worst "novel" EVER written.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing September 24, 2012 - 6:12pm

***** to JonG. (Stars, not expletive.)

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading Wide Sargasso Sea September 24, 2012 - 6:36pm

Eww, "Naked Lunch." At least on p. 281 (or whenever) in "American Psycho," you discover it has a point-- a fairly brilliant satiric point, even.

David Jarczewski's picture
David Jarczewski September 24, 2012 - 7:23pm

What? "Hipsters" trying to understand a classic? Give me a break. You probably think like Tom Wolfe that On the Road is just typing. There is more on the page than just words...think of the context of the times. Or are you too busy looking for the "right" skinny jeans and spending $7.00 for a PBR because it's the "cool" beer.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing September 24, 2012 - 7:36pm

Where I live, there aren't any bars cool enough to charge more than $3 for a PBR.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading Wide Sargasso Sea September 24, 2012 - 7:42pm

To respond to the assumptions expressed above about anyone with the temerity and bad taste to agree with Mr. Reuss: I'm no hipster, I'm too old and fat for skinny jeans, I love Kerouac, and I think "Naked Lunch" is just self-indulgent bad writing. I can't speak for the rest of the people you hope will give you a break.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks September 24, 2012 - 7:44pm

Personally, I enjoy the book as a sensory experience, getting lost in the flow of words, which can be very poetic, if not inscrutable. But I don't think it's the greatest thing ever and I can see the point of detractors.

Also, a real hipster would be singing the book's praises, not putting it down, so nice try undercover hipster troll.

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading N0S4A2 by Joe Hill September 24, 2012 - 8:14pm

Josh, "undercover hipster troll" is perfect for my everyday needs and I plan to borrow it for my own personal use. That tells you a lot about the world I live in.

And JonGingrich's comment pretty much sums up why any writer here who hasn't taken his LR class would be a fool to miss it next time it's offered (I'm saying this as a former student, not somebody who contributes to LitReactor). The man's just spewing genius all over the place.

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. September 24, 2012 - 8:55pm

Where I'm from, PBR is the "redneck" drink.
Also, Capote called 'On the Road' "typing." If Wolfe did as well, I am unaware of it.

And a novel is just words on a page. Plus, if a work is only good within a narrowly defined context, is it much good at all?

marmaduke's picture
marmaduke September 25, 2012 - 12:19am

I think its also fair to say that Naked Lunch was not just writen by Burroughs: it was edited together by Kerouac and somebody else.  

Also I don't think that the novel's being a self-indulgent mess makes it a bad novel, that is part of the point of the novel.

Naked Lunch is a window into what life was like for a group of people during a certain time and it does a good job of describing what that was like.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade September 25, 2012 - 2:02am

I thought Naked Lunch awful and admirable. Picked it up used, tried to read it because of its historical reputation, had to put it down. Then pick it up again, only to put it aside again. Then, since it's nonlinear, just picked it up every once in a while to flip through. 

A few laughs, if you just throw out the idea that it's a novel. A few insights, and not the sort to make Burroughs and/or his *lifestyle* seem admirable. But, the thing still compels...but it's no novel in any regard. 

To me, it's a series of sketches. Or, a compilation of testaments from a "way of life" I have no desire to know. And, without the testaments from Naked Lunch, I wouldn't know how f*cked up and morally removed a man like Burroughs could become, living the way he did in the times that he did...

(definitely not a favorite book of mine - more like an ordeal I went through...)

Timothy Downing's picture
Timothy Downing September 25, 2012 - 3:10am

I see Naked Lunch as work of surrealism in the form of a 'novel'- It's experimental- i don't believe it was meant to be regarded as a work for the masses. some get it, some don't- neither are right, neither are wrong. it's like Burroughs filtered his brain into words and then ?vomitted? them onto paper for those that might be interested in connecting to some of the images/voices/thoughts in his head- but the way he sees them- on his terms.

Naked Lunch doesn't float everyone's boat. Fair enough. But there's more going on here than drug addled- self indulgent tripes. And i believe it accomplished a little more than just creating "a landmark obscenity case that helped to abolish literary censorship in America." Yes, the grotesqueness of some of the routines were written for this purpose. But what about the issues of addiction??

Addiction is an obvious issue in Naked Lunch. Addiction to drugs/sex/money/power- addiction was a problem then and it's even more apparent now. How many people died last year from an overdose to pharmaceutical drugs?? How many soldiers are coming home now mentally/physically fucked from the Iraqui/Afghanistan wars? Soldiers using/becoming addicted to pharmaceutical drugs (in particular, OPIATES, developed in labs funded by corporations) to help them ?rehabilitate? - ?adjust? a war, by the way, that could be argued has some grounding in a nation's dependency on another countries natural resource?? Addiction- whatever the cause or 'drug' of choice- is a horror- so i think he amped it up to communicate this.

What about all the depictions of gay sex? wasn't this taboo then?? Burroughs was homosexual
yet never identified himself as a 'gay' writer or activist. But he pushed the boundaries of what society thought about sex by depicting it in a graphic over the top manner.- Wait, it's been 60 years and this country still has a problem with homosexuality?? Young men labeled 'queer' are strung up to the back of a truck and dragged along a gravel road until they hang to death??? and I'm not even going to get into how other countries feel about it.

What about the language or the way words are handled in Naked Lunch?? Jesus, i can't think of anyone who wants to be a writer that couldn't get something beneficial out the word play in Naked Lunch- or any of Burroughs' works for that matter- Soft Machine? The Ticket That Exploded?? Soft. Machine. Just say it out loud- I dare you not to find it alluring. Or look at that scene where the 3 boys are fucking/ejaculating/hanging themselves- it's a routine that allegedly rallies against the death penalty- i don't recall necessarily "getting" that- but it can be argued for by some. Or others, like myself, who thought it was an amped up routine on sex addiction. How far will you go to get off??

And yes, the book doesn't always make sense- but isn't that like a central trait of surrealism? Or even life itself? fuck, i'll even go so far as to say Naked Lunch was actually an accurate/twisted caricature- a look into the doomed future of america- or even the world. It might've been surrealism then- sure as shit could be considered a little more hyperrealist today. have you turned on the TV recently? A Drug Zombie chewing up the face of a homeless man in Miami? A comic book villain wannabe shooting up innocent bystanders in a movie theater showing a comic book film?? Michael Jackson married Elvis' daughter??? Here comes Honey Boo Boo???? Shit even Honey Boo Boo is like 15 years after the surrealist film GUMMO.

I don't know, dude,I think there's definitely a little more going on here than the rants of a heroin soaked mental patient. I understand if someone doesn't enjoy the book- felt it wasn't their cup of tea- feels maybe that they were burned by their book dealer- but i do feel some of your criticisms against Naked Lunch and in particular Burroughs are a little weak and naive. I mean your main beef with this book was the beat movement?? ok, not ALL the beats were great- but c'mon Burroughs himself never really identified with the beats. his closest friend was Ginsberg- who i think was a substantial poet whether beat or yeats. So you're kinda finding him guilty by association. also, HST and WSB are 2 very different writers. And they both used drugs for different reasons. HST never advocated the use of drugs- but they worked for him. WSB proclaimed drugs as junk.

i don't feel your article was written to Troll. Naked Lunch is a book that tends to polarize- and it should be discussed. And that's all peachy and shit- but i don't think it would hurt to give it a little more thought or maybe a second look. It shouldn't just be... dismissed. i think it's just as relevant now as it was when it was first published.

one last thing- burroughs was self indulgent? Shouldn't artists (whether painters/musicians/writers/filmmakers) be a little self indulgent? Sometimes that can lead to some serious breakthroughs. but thats a whole other discussion.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks September 25, 2012 - 3:53am

PBR is the drink of choice for discerning psychopaths everywhere:

"Heineken? Fuck Heineken! PABST BLUE RIBBON!!!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated September 26, 2013 - 10:00am

If anything I think this was too kind to Naked Lunch, but good for you for coming out and saying what most people don't have the guts too.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing September 25, 2012 - 12:24pm

"Shouldn't artists (whether painters/musicians/writers/filmmakers) be a little self indulgent? Sometimes that can lead to some serious breakthroughs. but thats a whole other discussion."

I agree with that. Calling something self-indulgent is usually just another way of saying you didn't like it. If the artist indulged himself yet produced something you like, you probably won't call it "self-indulgent." EG - That Yes album is totally self-indulgent, while that Can album is just sick.

Also, the idea of there being one particular "redneck" beer strikes me as funny; it'd be like saying one particular brand of coffee (or whiskey) is "the writer's drink."

Dave Reuss's picture
Dave Reuss from Bozeman is reading Now is the Hour September 25, 2012 - 4:03pm

Ha. I live in Montana, and our cold winters have killed off most of the hipsters. And PBR costs $1.50, just like all the other "sex in a canoe" beers (i.e. fucking near water).

Lou's picture
Lou from AMERIKUH is reading Trainspotting September 26, 2012 - 12:40am

I dunno, I liked it. It wasn't boring, at least. I see where people are feeling like it's pretentious or stupid, but I overall thought it was worth the time, and really not that hard to get through.... Some scenes were more interesting that others, I guess, but the ones that were good really made up for the rest of it. I mean, it has at least enough value that it shouldn't just be brushed off because people think the approach is stupid.

I think it's getting treated like anything else that's really well known or gets talked about a lot, where everyone feels like they need to either love it so they can feel arty or cool, or hate it because they realize that the people squealing about how much they love it are idiots, but somehow not that they're doing the same thing... people react to it in a way that is just as pretentious or stupid as the work in question is supposed to be. There shouldn't really be a mandatory passionate opinion, but there is....I think there's more good to it than bad, but I definitely understand why a lot of people don't like it at all.

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Arrest Us Entries September 26, 2012 - 1:18am

My biggest problem with the beat generation is that they all weren't as drugged up or addicted as advertised. I haven't read Naked Lunch, but it sounds like it's a look into a different world, or a look at the world through someone else's eyes, which I always find enjoyable. However, I understand that sometimes it can be difficult to get passed a certain style of writing.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus September 26, 2012 - 3:28pm

Well done, Dave! Once again you've gotten me to laugh out loud. (NOT "lol" - the worst invention since "keen".)

But I reject the joke theory you propose. Just because nobody laughs doesn't mean a joke's not funny.

It means that the joke teller is a superior being.

--Ed

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading Wide Sargasso Sea September 26, 2012 - 6:49pm

Didn't Ginsberg help edit that thing? Well, I guess it's not totally without redeeming social value. Anyone who can take a word like "slunk" and give me nightmares with it is not a total turd. Close, though. And I guess I do like how the vultures' wings sound. That's about it.

Philip Heckman's picture
Philip Heckman is reading Everything Philip K. Dick published September 26, 2012 - 11:45pm

I believe Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a much better critique of society through the eyes of a junkie, his dealer, and his nemesis, not to mention a much better piece of writing.

Roman Aeon's picture
Roman Aeon September 27, 2012 - 12:31am

The chapters are intended to be read in any order as small "routines" or vignettes of stories. It's non-linear. Burroughs loved the cut up method, so is it suprising that it's nonsensical?

Also, this author isn't the first to be critical of the novel. I googled "How to read Naked Lunch" and it came up with many articles who percieve the novel as "awful."

I hate reading the book but I love it at the same time.

brett_t's picture
brett_t September 27, 2012 - 3:02pm

I think it should go without saying that Burroughs isnt the only one laughing at his jokes...

Penelope Tobar's picture
Penelope Tobar July 5, 2013 - 7:49am

What a shame that people are so closed minded.  Without Burroughs, Acker and Brite where would Selby Jr and Easton Ellis be today?  Footnotes in their supervisor's thesis.

 

deegeeeeeeee's picture
deegeeeeeeee July 22, 2014 - 5:55pm

This is the same logic many of Andy Kaufman's audience has had. People for years had questioned ''What?'' ,clueless as to whz some people considered him a comedian. To those people i say : Just because you don't understand a joke (or book ;) ) doesnt mean it's not a joke. Many proffesional critics have called this book a masterpiece, and there IS a reason to why they are proffesionals. They have read and expirienced a wide range of many books. This book has had many ...different reviews . Some call it garbage and others call it gold. THAT, my friend, is how you know a book is great. Think about it. And, also, think about what you have read in this life of a book in a different perspective. Maybe the problem here is that you have tried to filter and disect it. Maybe it was meant to be soaked up? Try experiencing it instead of trying to understand it.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 25, 2014 - 9:15am

You guys all seem to think we don't get it.  We get it.  It was innovative stream of whatever blah blah blah.  We just didn't like it.