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

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

24
'El Hombre Invisible' Robin Lydenberg

[Review of William S. Burroughs' The Western Lands ]

I n Tangier in the 1950s, an exotic outpost for writers and artists and a lively marketplace for drugs and sex, William S. Burroughs was known by the locals as "el hombre invisible," the invisible man. Despite his shadowy presence and conservative dress (he later called it "banker's drag"), Burroughs' life did not long remain obscure. Mythologized in the early fiction of Jack Kerouac, Burroughs became a Beat legend even before he made his mark as a writer. The legend was a paradoxical one. Both Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac credit Burroughs as a "great teacher" who introduced them to modern thought from psychoanalysis to Céline, but he also brought them in touch with the marginal world of outcasts and petty criminals in New York City.

Behind the high drama of the Beat myth and the cultivated anonymity of his actual life, however, Burroughs was composing the routines that would be assembled into his still-outrageous novel, Naked Lunch. When the first excerpts appeared here in 1959, a legal battle began that was fought all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court where Naked Lunch was eventually acquitted of obscenity charges.1

Naked Lunch set off literary as well as legal controversy, and Burroughs' early admirers and defenders--among them Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and John Ciardi--were countered by those who found his depiction of an underworld of drugs, sex, and violence offensive and his narrative innovations unreadable.

While the critics and the courts debated the merits of Naked Lunch, Burroughs had already moved on to more radical stylistic ground with what he called the "cut- up" technique. The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express-- the trilogy of novels in which he employed this difficult and disjointed style--found fewer admirers than Naked Lunch, but many continued to defend Burroughs as a serious artist, a scientist of the word.

Now in his mid-seventies, Burroughs has achieved critical respectability: elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et Lettres; subject of seven books (four in English, two in French,

____________________
Robin Lydenberg, "'El Hombre Invisible,'" The Nation (19 Mar. 1988): 387-89. Copyright © 1988 by The Nation magazine/The NationCompany, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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