Sunday, November 22, 2015
The Soft Machine - William S. Burroughs (1966)
I'm having a really hard time reviewing this book, so I'm just going to be completely honest: I got this book in 2006 or 2007, I think, and when I read it, I thought it was better than Naked Lunch. It made more sense to me. However, now after reading it eight years later, it makes less sense to me.
Am I losing my ability to experiment, or appreciate experimental fiction? Not a chance, but sometimes I need an author that's at least going to give me a little hint about what it all means. Burroughs does this in the chapter titled "The Great Mayan Caper," but the rest of the book is a puzzle that I'm not sure many readers will be willing to re-assemble. Rather, the book becomes a sort of poetry (and I would assume this happens in most of his "cut-up" novels) where the story is secondary to the sensory nature of the language, which, oftentimes is uncomfortable and surreal.
It appears that the book is about a technology that allows a person to switch bodies and/or travel through time. Moments of lucidity in this novel are rare, but here is one:
"At the end of the three weeks he indicated the time has come to operate--He arranged us side by side naked on the operating table under floodlights--With a phosphorescent pencil he traced the middle line of our bodies from the cleft under the nose down to the rectum--Then he injected a blue fluid of heavy cold silence as word dust fell from demagnetized patterns--From a remote Polar distance I could see the doctor separate the two halves of our bodies and fitting together a composite being--I came back in other flesh the lookout different, thought and memories of the young Mayan drifting through my brain--" (86)
So in a sense you could say that Being John Malkovich rips off The Soft Machine, but that's really not fair because the film does something entirely different with the concept. Burroughs doesn't seem interested in plot or action--though there certainly are moments sprinkled throughout. On another note his use of the em dash is without parallel. It produces a feeling in the reader that they are not reading a traditional book, but some weird kind of transmission conveying non-quantifiable information.
Of course there will always be critics that consider his work absurdist shock pornography, and one is hard-pressed to defend it as anything more, but at times it does seem to be an allegory rather than an actual sci-fi story:
"Biological parents in most cases are not owners of the property. They act under orders of absentee proprietors to install the indicated stops that punctuate the written life script--With each Property goes a life script--Shuttling between property farmers and script writers, a legion of runners, fixers, guides, agents, brokers, faces insane with purpose, mistakes and confusion pandemic--Like a buyer has a first-class Property and a lousy grade B life script." (154)
So there are moments that can inspire a moment of reflection in the reader, but they are generally few and far between. This is a pretty cold emotionless book that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, so don't pick it up expecting any easy answers.
However, this is a very good book if you want to read it on the CTA and freak everybody out around you. It has a nice, sharp pink cover, and Burroughs's name, for me at least, inspires thoughts of college and mind-exploration and experiments with form and philosophical conversations fueled by chemical indulgences, as does much of the writing of his coterie. But where Kerouac relentlessly grounds his observations in actual events from his past life, Burroughs is content to fuck with you endlessly, almost daring you to give up and start a new book that will remind you that you know what words mean.
In this sense, The Soft Machine is based in the English language, but told in such a way that one must consult other sources to arrive at a reasonable conclusion to draw from it. Most people can say Naked Lunch is about heroin addiction and withdrawal, and the easy response is to say The Soft Machine is about that too, but it feels more focused and less scattershot, if still ultimately confounding.
Increasingly I have needed to consult Wikipedia to supplement my own inadequacies of intelligence with regard to certain books, and no more was this true than here. I suppose after reading this review, one wonders whether I will ever revisit Burroughs, or could even be said to truly "like" him. To the latter ponderance let me respond that I will always hold a special place in my heart for him, and appreciate him greatly, particularly in his more "terrestrial" moments; as to the former, I share the same uncertainty. But in a certain sense that does not matter: the exposure to Burroughs in the first place is what matters (I'm not sure, but I think if I review Nova Express or The Ticket That Exploded, I'll say some very similar things). I think I'd be more likely to check out Junky or The Wild Boys.
For the "cut-up trilogy," at least, the draw of the material is the rare moment of lucidity or profundity. In this sense, the prose is dreamlike, and aims to tap into a different set of of a reader's perceptions. Unfortunately, while the style may be original and bold, if the "cut-up method" is still in vogue, I have not seen an effective use of it, other than to disorient. I think you could say that sometimes David Foster Wallace seemed to be using a different sort of cut-up method (where the language is much more lucid but the sequencing seems almost random), and while I'm sure Burroughs was far from the first writer to experiment with chronological uncertainty/confusion, he has left his mark on the canon of American literature, and will continue to be required reading for future generations of writers.