Home > 1960, 20th Century, American Literature, Burroughs, William > Can an accountant understand Naked Lunch?

Can an accountant understand Naked Lunch?

Reading Naked Lunch was a challenge for my (too?) Cartesian mind. Writing about it is even more challenging.

Burroughs claimed that the title was suggested by Jack Kerouac: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

In the deposition written in 1960 after a successful rehab, Burroughs clinically describes the devastation of body and mind due to drug abuse.

“I lived in one room in the Native Quarter of Tangier. I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction.”

He puts into straightforward words how withdrawal symptoms are painful and how drug becomes the highest need, the one that erases all the others. The image is that of a monkey clamping its arms and legs on the junkie’s back. Addiction is a Sickness and not a vice.

Lee (in fact Burroughs) experiments all kind of drugs taken in all possible ways. It’s very impressive to see there’s no end to the lengths he’ll go to find and take drugs.

Junk is the ideal product… the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.”

Naked Lunch is about Lee’s travels trough his drug-addicted mind. Each chapter is a vision of a crazy but still coherent imaginary world. It is as if Burroughs had swallowed surrealist automatic writing, Kakfa’s universe and Becket’s sense for absurd, digested it and were giving it back through a new kind of writing.

 It’s violent, it’s hypnotic, it’s frightening. Sometimes funny. Definitely disturbing. It’s a complex mix of destruction, death, degradation and yet melted with an incredible yearning for life.

Lee is on and off. NBs are inserted in parenthesis in the deliriums, to give definitions. They remind the reader that Lee has some moments of lucidity, that he is trying to give up drugs.

 As Lee progressively recovers from drug addiction, the stories are more coherent and become more like SF short-stories than like the visions of a twisted mind.

 I read Naked Lunch in French, in a translation by Eric Kahane, which dates back to 1964. It seems a good translation. I bought the Folio paperback edition and I wonder why it is in the SF collection. Are Gulliver’s Travel or The Metamorphosis considered as SF ?

In the end, I am glad I read it because it is a mythical book but I don’t know what I will remember of it, except that it was well written and sane despite its apparent insanity.

But I’m still under the impression I totally failed to understand any of it.

 NB : For French readers : listening to Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine is a perfect way to be in the mood for reading Naked Lunch. Prefer older songs such as Aligator 427, La vierge au dodge.51 or Cabaret Sainte-Lilith and you’ll be good.

  1. June 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

    I read it when I was 16, a good age to read it in many ways. I liked it, but it was hard going and I don’t know what I understood of it (suggesting therefore not that much).

    Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine?

    Are you planning on any Ginsberg? I think he’s a very talented poet, possibly the most talented of the Beat writers generally.


  2. June 14, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine (HFT) is a French singer. His texts look like Naked Lunch. Maybe you can find the songs on http://www.deezer.com if you’re interested. I can translate one for you if you wish.
    You were reading Naked Lunch when you were 16 and I was listening to HFT when I was 14. A good age for both !! Both very dark and obscure

    I am planning to read Ginsberg soon. I have Howl at home. Right now, I need a break from Beat writers. I’ll stick to Bob Dylan for a while.


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