William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

4
Burroughs' Naked Lunch

Mary McCarthy

L ast summer at the International Writers' Conference in Edinburgh, I said I thought the national novel, like the nation-state, was dying and that a new kind of novel, based on statelessness, was beginning to be written. This novel had a high, aerial point of view and a plot of perpetual motion. Two experiences, that of exile and that of jet-propelled mass tourism, provided the subject matter for a new kind of story. There is no novel, yet, that I know of, about mass tourism, but somebody will certainly write it. Of the novel based on statelessness, I gave as examples William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Lolita. Burroughs, I explained, is not literally a political exile, but the drug addicts he describes are continually on the move, and life in the United States, with its present narcotics laws, is untenable for the addict if he does not want to spend it in jail (in the same way, the confirmed homosexual is a chronic refugee, ordered to move on by the Venetian police, the Capri police, the mayor of Provincetown, the mayor of Nantucket). Had I read it at the time, I might have added Günter Grass' The Tin Drum to the list: here the point of view, instead of being high, is very low-- that of a dwarf; the hero and narrator is a displaced person, born in the Free City of Danzig, of a Polish mother (who is not really a Pole but a member of a minority within Poland) and an uncertain father, who may be a German grocer or a Polish postal employee. In any case, I said that in thinking over the novels of the last few years, I was struck by the fact that the only ones that had not simply given me pleasure but interested me had been those of Burroughs and Nabokov. The others, even when well done ( Compton-Burnett), seemed almost regional.

____________________
Mary McCarthy, "Burroughs' Naked Lunch," from The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays ( New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1970): 42-53. [Originally published in New York Review of Books 1.1 ( 1963): 4-5.] Copyright © 1963 by Mary McCarthy. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., and the estate of Mary McCarthy.

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