Word Virusby William S. Burroughs
With the publication of Naked Lunch in 1959, William Burroughs abruptly brought international letters into the postmodern age. Beginning with his very early writing (including a chapter from his and Jack Kerouac's never-before-seen collaborative novel), Word Virus follows the arc of Burroughs's remarkable career, from his darkly hilarious "routines" to the… See more details below
With the publication of Naked Lunch in 1959, William Burroughs abruptly brought international letters into the postmodern age. Beginning with his very early writing (including a chapter from his and Jack Kerouac's never-before-seen collaborative novel), Word Virus follows the arc of Burroughs's remarkable career, from his darkly hilarious "routines" to the experimental cut-up novels to Cities of the Red Night and The Cat Inside. Beautifully edited and complemented by James Grauerholz's illuminating biographical essays, Word Virus charts Burroughs's major themes and places the work in the context of the life. It is an excellent tool for the scholar and a delight for the general reader. Throughout a career that spanned half of the twentieth century, William S. Burroughs managed continually to be a visionary among writers. When he died in 1997, the world of letters lost its most elegant outsider.
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Word VirusThe William S. Burroughs Reader
By Williams S. Burroughs
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 1998 The William S. Burroughs Trust
All right reserved.
Chapter Onefrom the adding machine
THE NAME IS BURROUGHS
The name is Bill Burroughs. I am a writer. Let me tell you a few things about my job, what an assignment is like.
You hit Interzone with that grey anonymously ill-intentioned look all writers have.
"You crazy or something walk around alone? Me good guide. What you want Meester?"
"Well uh, I would like to write a bestseller that would be a good book, a book about real people and places ..."
The Guide stopped me. "That's enough Mister. I don't want to read your stinking book. That's a job for the White Reader." The guide's face was a grey screen, hustler faces moved across it. "Your case is difficult frankly. If we put it through channels they will want a big piece in advance. Now I happen to know the best continuity man in the industry, only handles boys he likes. He'll want a piece of you too but he's willing to take it on spec."
People ask what would lead me to write a book like Naked Lunch. One is slowly led along to write a book and this looked good, no trouble with the cast at all and that's half the battle when you can find your characters. The more far-out sex pieces I was just writing for my own amusement. I wouldput them away in an old attic trunk and leave them for a distant boy to find ... "Why Ma this stuff is terrific-and I thought he was just an old book-of-the-month-club corn ball."
Yes I was writing my bestseller ... I finished it with a flourish, fading streets a distant sky, handed it to the publisher and stood there expectantly.
He averted his face ... "I'll let you know later, come around, in fact. Always like to see a writer's digs." He coughed, as if he found my presence suffocating.
A few nights later he visited me in my attic room, leaded glass windows under the slate roof. He did not remove his long black coat or his bowler hat. He dropped my manuscript on a table.
"What are you, a wise guy? We don't have a license on this. The license alone costs more than we could clear." His eyes darted around the room. "What's that over there?" he demanded, pointing to a sea chest.
"It's a sea chest."
"I can see that. What's in it?"
"Oh, nothing much, just some old things I wrote, not to show anybody, quite bad really ..."
"Let's see some of it."
Now, to say that I never intended publication of these pieces would not be altogether honest. They were there, just in case my bestseller fell on the average reader like a bag of sour dough-I've seen it happen, we all have: a book's got everything, topical my God, the scene is present-day Vietnam (Falkland Islands!) seen through a rich variety of characters ... How can it miss? But it does. People just don't buy it. Some say you can put a curse on a book so the reader hates to touch it, or your book simply vanishes in a little swift of disinterest. So I had to cover myself in case somebody had the curse in; after all, I am a professional. I like cool remote Sunday gardens set against a slate-blue mist, and for that set you need the Yankee dollar.
As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.
I can divide my literary production into sets: where, when and under what circumstances produced. The first set is a street of red brick three-story houses with slate roofs, lawns in front and large back yards. In our back yard my father and the gardener, Otto Belue, tended a garden with roses, peonies, iris and a fish pond. The address is 4664 Pershing Avenue and the house is still there.
My first literary endeavor was called "The Autobiography of a Wolf," written after reading The Biography of a Grizzly. In the end this poor old bear, his health failing, deserted by his mate, goes to a valley he knows is full of poison gas. I can see a picture from the book quite clearly, a sepia valley, animal skeletons, the old bear slouching in, all the old broken voices from the family album find that valley where they come at last to die. "They called me the Grey Ghost.... Spent most of my time shaking off the ranchers." The Grey Ghost met death at the hands of a grizzly bear after seven pages, no doubt in revenge for plagiarism.
There was something called Carl Cranbury in Egypt that never got off the ground.... Carl Cranbury frozen back there on yellow lined paper, his hand an inch from his blue steel automatic. In this set I also wrote westerns, gangster stories, and haunted houses. I was quite sure that I wanted to be a writer.
When I was twelve we moved to a five-acre place on Price Road and I attended the John Burroughs School which is just down the road. This period was mostly crime and gangster stories. I was fascinated by gangsters and like most boys at that time I wanted to be one because I would feel so much safer with my loyal guns around me. I never quite found the sensitive old lady English teacher who molded my future career. I wrote at that time Edgar Allan Poe things, like old men in forgotten places, very flowery and sentimental too, that flavor of high school prose. I can taste it still, like chicken croquettes and canned peas in the school dining room. I wrote bloody westerns too, and would leave enigmatic skeletons lying around in barns for me to muse over ...
"Tom was quick but Joe was quicker. He turned the gun on his unfaithful wife then upon himself, fell dead in a pool of blood and lay there drawing flies. The vultures came later ... especially the eyes were alike, a dead blue opaqueness." I wrote a lot of hangings: "Hardened old sinner that he was, he still experienced a shudder as he looked back at the three bodies twisting on ropes, etched against the beautiful red sunset." These stories were read aloud in class. I remember one story written by another boy who later lost his mind, dementia praecox they called it: "The captain tried to swim but the water was too deep and he went down screaming, 'Help, help, I am drowning.'"
And one story, oh very mysterious ... an old man in his curtained nineteen-twenties Spanish library chances on a forgotten volume and there written in letters of gold the single word "ATHENA." ... "That question will haunt him until the house shall crumble to ruins and his books shall moulder away."
At the age of fourteen I read a book called You Can't Win, being the life story of a second-story man. And I met the Johnson Family. A world of hobo jungles, usually by the river, where the bums and hobos and rod-riding pete men gathered to cook meals, drink canned heat, and shoot the snow ... black smoke on the hip behind a Chink laundry in Montana. The Sanctimonious Kid: "This is a crooked game, kid, but you have to think straight. Be as positive yourself as you like, but no positive clothes. You dress like every John Citizen or we part company, kid." He was hanged in Australia for the murder of a constable.
And Salt Chunk Mary: "Mary had all the no's and none of them ever meant Yes. She received and did business in the kitchen. Mary kept an iron pot of salt chunk and a blue coffee pot always on the woodstove. You eat first and then you talk business, your gear slopped out on the kitchen table, her eyes old, unbluffed, unreadable. She named a price, heavy and cold as a cop's blackjack on a winter night. She didn't name another. She kept her money in a sugar bowl but nobody thought about that. Her cold grey eyes would have seen the thought and maybe something goes wrong on the next day, Johnny Law just happens by or Johnny Citizen comes up with a load of double-ought buckshot into your soft and tenders. It wouldn't pay to get gay with Mary. She was a saint to the Johnson Family, always good for a plate of salt chunk. One time Gimpy Gates, an old rod-riding pete man, killed a bum in a jungle for calling Salt Chunk Mary an old fat cow. The old yegg looked at him across the fire, his eyes cold as gunmetal ... 'You were a good bum, but you're dogmeat now.' He fired three times. The bum fell forward, his hands clutching coals, and his hair catching fire. Well, the bulls pick up Gates and show him the body: 'There's the poor devil you killed, and you'll swing for it.' The old yegg looked at them coldly. He held out his hand, gnarled from years of safe-cracking, two fingers blown off by the 'soup'. 'If I killed him, there's the finger pulled the trigger and there's the tendon pulled the finger.' The old yegg had beaten them at their own game."
This inspired me to write some crime stories ... "'Here's to crime!' he shouted and raised a glass of champagne, but he crumpled like a pricked balloon as the heavy hand of Detective Sergeant Murphy fell on his shoulder." ... "Joe Maguire regarded the flushed face of the dealer with disfavor. 'A coke bird,' he decided. 'Better cut him off the payroll; get coked up and shoot a good client.'"
I did a short story too, with a trick ending about this gangster who goes to a fortune-teller ... "'This man is a criminal,' she thought shrewdly, 'a gangster, perhaps ... he must have made enemies.' 'I see danger,' she said. The man's face twitched-he needed to snow. 'I see a man approaching ... he has a gun ... he lifts the gun ... he-' With an inarticulate cry the man leapt to his feet and whipped out an automatic, spitting death at the fortune-teller ... blood on the crystal ball, and on the table, a severed human hand."
After reading Eugene Aram's Dream-which I committed to memory and recited to the class in sepulchral tones-I wrote a series about murderers who all died of brain fever in a screaming delirium of remorse, and one character in the desert who murdered all his companions-sitting there looking at the dead bodies and wondering why he did it. When the vultures came and ate them he got so much relief he called them "the vultures of gold" and that was the title of my story, The Vultures of Gold, which closed this rather nauseous period.
At fifteen I was sent to the Los Alamos Ranch School for my health, where they later made the first atom bomb. It seemed so right somehow, like the school song ...
Far away and high on the mesa's crest Here's the life that all of us love best Los Allll-amos.
Far away and high on the mesa's crest I was forced to become a Boy Scout, eat everything on my plate, exercise before breakfast, sleep on a porch in zero weather, stay outside all afternoon, ride a sullen, spiteful, recalcitrant horse twice a week and all day on Saturday. We all had to become Boy Scouts and do three hours a week of something called C.W.-Community Work-which was always something vaguely unpleasant and quite useless too, but A.J. said it was each boy's cooperative contribution to the welfare and maintenance of the community. We had to stay outdoors, no matter what, all afternoon-they even timed you in the john. I was always cold, and hated my horse, a sulky strawberry roan. And the C.W. was always hanging over you. There were crew-leaders, you understand, many of them drunk with power-who made life hell for the crew.
This man had conjured up a whole city there. The school was entirely self-sufficient, raised all the food, etcetera. There was a store, a post office, and one of the teachers was even a magistrate. I remember once he got a case which involved shooting a deer out of season and he made the most of it, went on for days. He had founded the school after he quit the Forest Service because some inspirational woman told him "Young man, there is a great constructive job waiting for you and if you don't do it now you will only have to do it later under much more difficult circumstances." So he rubbed a magic lamp of contributions ... "I know what's best for boys," he said, and those Texas oilmen kicked in.
What I liked to do was get in my room against the radiator and play records and read the Little Blue Books put out by Haldeman-Julius, free-thinker and benevolent agnostic ... Remy de Gourmont ... Baudelaire ... Guy de Maupassant ... Anatole France ... and I started writing allegories put in a vaguely Oriental setting, with dapper jewel thieves over the wine, engaged in philosophical discussions I prefer not to remember.
"To observe one's actions with detachment while making them as amusing as possible seems to me ..."
"Very interesting," said the imperturbable detective popping up from behind a potted rubber plant. "You are all under arrest."
I had a bad rep with the other boys ... "burns incense in his room ... reading French books ..." Later at Harvard during summer trips to Europe I started satirical novels about the people I met; one of them begins "'But you see I don't know much about love,' she said coyly, twisting an old-fashioned."
Then I had an English period, gentlemen adventurers and all that ...
"My god, that poor old chief!" He broke down sobbing.
The other looked at him coldly and raised an eyebrow: "Well after all, Reggie, you didn't expect him to give us the emeralds, did you?"
"I don't know what I expected, but not that piranha fish!"
"It was much the easiest and most convenient method."
"I can't stick it, Humphreys. Give me my share. I'm clearing off."
"Why certainly." He took seven magnificent emeralds from the side pocket of his yellow silk suit and placed them on the table. With a quiet smile he pushed four stones to Reggie.
Reggie was touched. "I mean, hang it all, it was your idea, Humphreys, and you did most of the work."
"Yes Reggie, you funked it."
"I am thinking of Jane."
Reggie made a hasty exit, "I can't thank you enough" over his shoulder. Humphreys leaned forward, looking at the three emeralds quizzically.
"You'll be missing your mates, won't you now? ... Ali!"
"A white man has just left. He is carrying four green stones. I want those stones, do you understand Ali?"
"Yes master I understand."
Exit Ali, fingering his kris.
And then I read Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray and Lord Henry gave birth to Lord Cheshire, one of the most unsavory characters in fiction, a mawkishly sentimental Lord Henry ...
Excerpted from Word Virus by Williams S. Burroughs Copyright © 1998 by The William S. Burroughs Trust. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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