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

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

12
Rub Out the Word

Tony Tanner

I t is the possibility of countertactics that has preoccupied Burroughs in his more recent work. He has become interested in methods of deconditioning and decontrol. In one sense the world of Nova Express ( 1964) is like the world of the earlier books, but there is a more positive appearance of a force attempting to counter the virus which is attacking man. The Nova Mob is made up of various criminals much like the liquefying, devouring, assimilating beasts of his earlier work. But there are also the Nova Police who are moving in on the criminals in order to arrest them. Good enough, one might think, except that when they are called in to rectify the dangerous situation caused by the criminals they are by no means reliable in their activities. In his Paris Review interview Burroughs made the point quite clearly: "you've got a bad situation in which the nova mob is about to blow up the planet. So the Heavy Metal Kid calls in the nova police. Once you get them in there, by God, they begin acting like any police. They're always an ambivalent agency. [. . .] For nova police, read technology, if you wish." He clearly concedes that his unique brand of science fiction contains an allegory. And there is a large amount of direct statement in the book. In fact it starts with a long letter full of explicit warnings and admonitions--including the familiar call to "rub out the word forever."

Where Burroughs achieves some of his most striking effects is in the merging of biology and contemporary communication media, just as he merges science and science fiction, nightmare and comic strip, carnival, satire, and sexual aberration. Word and image can penetrate us like a virus because, to take another of the cryptic lines from The Exterminator, "Only Live Animals have Write Door," and just as the virus literally empties the body and fills it with its own replicas, so word and image eat out consciousness, replacing mind with junk. In this book Burroughs has developed his use of metaphors drawn from film to amplify his vision. There are

____________________
Tony Tanner, "Rub Out the Word," City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 ( New York: Harper and Row, 1971): 131-40. Copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., and Jonathan Cape Ltd.

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