Academic journal article Style

Narrative after Deconstruction: Structure and the Negative Poetics of William Burroughs's 'Cities of the Red Night.'

Academic journal article Style

Narrative after Deconstruction: Structure and the Negative Poetics of William Burroughs's 'Cities of the Red Night.'

Article excerpt

William Burroughs's recent writing poses problems for critics. Traditionally Burroughs is known for a negative poetics that assaults the word and all continuity for the sake of breaking down social controls.(1) His recent writing attempts to balance this negative poetics with a narrative continuity previously foreign to his writing. Burroughs remarked in a recent interview, for example, "I don't think there's any substitute for [narrative structure]. I mean -- people want some sort of story in there. Otherwise they don't read it. What are they going to read? That's the point" (Skerl 11). This shift towards increased narrative cohesion is one that we can observe in most postmodern authors. Thomas Pynchon shifts from the radical discontinuity of Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to the more cohesive style of Vineland (1990); Ishmael Reed moves from absurd parody in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-down (1969) to somewhat more realistic social satire in The Terrible Twos (1986); Kathy Acker quiets some of the radical discontinuity of works like The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973) in her recent In Memoriam to Identity (1990). Burroughs and these other writers can be seen as working through the deconstructive impulse that dominated writing of the 1970s and searching for some way of reintroducing narrative structure without rejecting that deconstruction wholesale. Because Burroughs's writing was, perhaps, more radically deconstructive than any of these other writers, his movement towards a narrative continuity is more pronounced and promises to be particularly revealing. Our challenge is to explain how Burroughs can adopt a narrative structure without renouncing his confrontational, negative poetics.

Burroughs's recent writing is primarily "scenic": that is, it moves away from the linguistic basis of his experimental "cut ups" of the 1960s to concern itself with the dynamics of individual episodes. The Place of Dead Roads (1983), for example, begins and ends with the same scene recast with a different ending and significance. These scenes differ from the often individual comic and stylized pieces of Naked Lunch (1959) in that Burroughs's recent scenes recast the same characters and situations in a variety of combinations, drawing attention to how characters and their goals are structured by their situation and its narrative presentation. Situation also appears as a plot issue in this recent fiction. Characters search for a way of transcending the traditional conceptualization of the human situation. Burroughs speaks, for example, throughout The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands (1987) of the need for humans to "evolve" out of their bodies in order to move beyond the earth into space. Thus, in reading this recent fiction, we need to bring together an understanding of the dynamics of scenes and a consideration of how this scenic structuring reflects the more abstract construction of the human universe. We must account for both the concrete scenes and the abstract values that stand behind them.

This scenic and abstract narrative seems to push us back towards an older structuralist model, in which a narrative balances abstract deep structural values with their manifestation into concrete situations and narrative. At the same time, however, one of Burroughs's principle themes is the danger of universalizing systems that reduce the world to an abstract machine, exactly the complaint raised against narrative structuralism. In other words, Burroughs demands a narrative model that emphasizes the play between surface and depth but rejects the notion that narrative can remain under the control of some deep. "core." Burroughs can be seen as returning to a notion of narrative structure that he has rejected in the past just as current theorists reject structuralists' accounts of narrative in the hopes of reworking this model as the basis of a new narrative form. Thus, in describing Burroughs's narrative we will need both to employ and to critique the structural narrative model that these scenic and abstract repetitions play out. …

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