Columns > Published on September 24th, 2012

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.

About the author

Dave Reuss is the managing editor of Outside Bozeman Magazine, the best goddamn regional publication in the Northwest. He also freelances for marketing firms, national magazines, and anyone who pays him enough. When he tells people where he lives, most sincerely ask if he rides a horse to work. He loves cheap beer, oxford commas, and lifting heavy things.

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