Saturday, October 25, 2008

Queer - William S. Burroughs

Amongst the Beats, you may find several reviews of Kerouac and Burroughs here, now and in the future, but probably not of Ginsberg. Don't get me wrong--I love Ginsberg--it's just I don't usually go for books of poetry. Poetry, for me, is best enjoyed with strong alcohol and a performance-friendly audience, neither of which I have significant access to at the moment. Enter Queer. Popular Burroughs biographical standards include mention of the difference between his early writing (Junky and Queer), his transitional work (Naked Lunch), and his settling into a motif (The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded). Oeuvre rule: I have read Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and Interzone. Interzone is closer to the significantly more straightforward prose of Queer (or Junky, even if I haven't read it yet). And I actually preferred The Soft Machine to Naked Lunch because it seemed to be "going somewhere," as far as the "cut-up method" can. Queer is more satisfying than Interzone if you are interested in reading a story with a beginning, middle, and end, though it is atraditional in other ways.

One surprising thing about Queer that I didn't know: It was written in 1953, shortly after Junky, but not published until 1985. In the lengthy introduction (roughly 1/8 the length of the novel itself, which might even be called a "novella") Burroughs is disarmingly naked on several counts:

"My motivations to write Queer were more complex, and are not clear to me at the present time. Why should I wish to chronicle so carefully these extremely painful and unpleasant and lacerating memories? While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous ventures along these lines by writing my experience down." (xiv)

Also when he recounts the unearthing process:

"When I started to write this companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer's block like a straitjacket: 'I glance at the manuscript of Queer and I feel I simply can't read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded. --Painful to an extent I find it difficult to read, let alone to write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.' The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting of my wife, Joan, in September 1951." (xvii-xviii)

The novel does not contain any self-loathing or apologies for homosexuality. There are a few random instances of the protagonist, Lee, meeting other males that are uninterested in pursuing their relationship beyond a general friendship, but there are very few depictions of outright homophobia. In the introduction, Burroughs writes that Lee is off junk, freshly sexualized, and in search of an appropriate object. He finds it in the person of Eugene Allerton, who is probably not queer, but who succumbs to Lee's advances for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. Most intriguing are the first few scenes when Lee meets Allerton, and the way in which he hopes to reveal that he wants to "make it" with him. The closest moment approaching bitter self-examination occurs in Lee's confession to Allerton:

"'A curse. Been in our family for generations. The Lees have always been perverts. I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands--the lymph glands that is, of course--when the baneful word seared my reeling brain: I was a homosexual. I thought of the painted, simpering female impersonators I had seen in a Baltimore night club. Could it be possible that I was one of those subhuman things? I walked the streets in a daze, like a man with a light concussion--just a minute, Doctor Kildare, this isn't your script. I might have well destroyed myself, ending an existence which seemed to offer nothing but grotesque misery and humiliation. Nobler, I thought, to die a man than live on, a sex monster. It was a wise old queen--Bobo, we called her--who taught me that I had a duty to live and to bear my burden proudly for all to see, to conquer prejudice and ignorance and hate with knowledge and sincerity and love. Whenever you are threatened by a hostile presence, you emit a thick cloud of love like an octopus squirts out ink.'" (39-40)

Passages like these push the novel into more classic territory than the majority of Burroughs work, which will never gain recognition beyond its cult literary following. The "cut-up method" is too much to take. It's not the same kind of reading people are used to doing. It doesn't make logical sense. It has no sense of "profluence." Queer should be read before the rest of Burroughs work to gain a sense of his philosophy.

Eventually, the novel becomes an adventure story, with Lee inviting Allerton on a trip to the jungles of South America in search of yage or ayahausca or Bannisteria caapi, a plant which contains a drug which supposedly enhances telepathic communication and makes mind control possible. Lee speaks about how the Russians and the Americans have probably already obtained the plant and have used it on their populaces for their societal aims. He hopes to use it to "have his way" with Allerton so that they can move beyond their predetermined schedule of "twice a week." This is the second half of the novel, and the first half is mostly about Lee going to various bars in Mexico City (much of the time, the Ship Ahoy, where Allerton hangs out with his friend Mary, playing chess), drinking and talking to various friends and eventually getting closer to Allerton, until a perceived split happens, with Allerton trying to avoid him more often than not, finally succumbing to the trip when Lee promises to pay for him all the way. The second half of the novel is stronger than the first, but on the whole this is a major work that is frequently overlooked, and is much more emotional and affecting than Burroughs later literary experiments. If one were to design a curriculum for a Queer Lit course, this volume would be a must.

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