The extraordinary life of William S. Burroughs

140203_r24576_p233Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:

“Virtually all of Burroughs’s writing was done when he was high on something,” Miles writes. The drugs help account for the hollowness of his voices, which jabber, joke, and rant like ghosts in a cave. He had no voice of his own, but a fantastic ear and verbal recall. His prose is a palimpsest of echoes, ranging from Eliot’s “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (lines like “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium” are Burroughsian before the fact) to Raymond Chandler’s marmoreal wisecracks and Herbert Huncke’s jive. I suspect that few readers have made it all the way through the cut-up novels, but anyone dipping into them may come away humming phrases. His palpable influence on J. G. Ballard, William Gibson, and Kathy Acker is only the most obvious effect of the kind of inspiration that makes a young writer drop a book and grab a pen, wishing to emulate so sensational a sound. It’s a cold thrill. While always comic, Burroughs is rarely funny, unless you’re as tickled as he was by such recurrent delights as boys in orgasm as they are executed by hanging.

Some critics, including Miles, have tried to gussy up Burroughs’s antinomian morality as Swiftian satire. Burroughs, however, wages literary war not on perceptible real-world targets but against suggestions that anyone is responsible for anything. Though never cruel in his personal conduct, he was, in principle, exasperated with values of constraint. A little of “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” goes a long way for many readers, including me. But there’s no gainsaying a splendor as berserk as that of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. When you have read Burroughs, at whatever length suffices for you, one flank of your imagination of human possibility will be covered for good and all.

more here.

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