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

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

21
Burroughs' Theater of Illusion Cities of the Red Night

Steven Shaviro

Cities of the Red Night, like all of William Burroughs' fiction, is characterized, on one hand, by the narrowness of its obsessive repetitions, and, on the other hand, by an astonishing freedom of invention. Scenes of rape and torture, disease and mutilation, addiction and withdrawal, cynical manipulation and vicarious gratification: all are relentlessly renewed. Yet these repetitions correspond to no coherence of narrative, no integrity of character, no stability of milieu. Each recurrence is also a fresh start, random and unpredictable. Burroughs' theater of illusion comprises nothing more than the action which it depicts. This action is not the representation of an independent reality, nor does it take place in any preexisting scene. Its repeated movement is always one of violation and disintegration, but there is no norm in comparison to which it could be judged a transgression. No ideal is posited, and no law is enunciated. What is repeated obsessively is not any identity of form or content, but only the violence of continual metamorphosis. For Burroughs' discourse encompasses contradictory exigencies of obsession and freedom, replication and mutation, disaster and utopia, satire and celebration, unity and duality, reality and illusion, death and life. Each of these terms is conditioned and contaminated by its supposed opposite.

Consider death. In Cities of the Red Night, the experience of dying is neither authentic nor final. It does not offer release, but only transmutation. The nihilistic will is baffled, as even nothingness turns out to be an unattainable illusion: "This was the basic error of the Transmigrants: you do not get beyond death and conception by reexperience any more than you get beyond heroin by ingesting larger and larger

____________________
Steven Shaviro, "Burroughs' Theater of Illusion: Cities of the Red Night," The Review of Contemporary Fiction 4. 1 ( 1984): 64-74. Copyright © 1984 by The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Reprinted in this volume in revised form by permission.

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