William Burroughs

1985 Zigzag

unpublished feature

WHEN I WAS seventeen I had a strange experience. I read some William Burroughs and didn't like it.

There is a mythology surrounding William Seward Burroughs which can be difficult to penetrate and serves to throw an unwanted (at least by him) cloak of obtuseness around his work. He's had demigod status within the counter culture (for want of a better...) for longer than probably you or I have been alive.

Even to the original Beats; Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso & Co he was regarded as a kind of elder brother, to the nascent hippies of the mid 60s he was a father figure (Burroughs admitted a spiritual kinship which faded as their dream turned sour) and he has been an influence on rock music for about twenty years (a couple of years ago he even 'sang' on a Laurie Anderson lp), while modern people of music such as Sting and Cabaret Voltaire have had their pictures taken with him, the resultant snaps having much of an Grandpa/Grandson taint to then.

But I read some Burroughs and didn't like it. So...


William Burroughs was born in 1916 in St Louis, USA. His family was responsible for inventing an industrial machine although not the adding machine which bears the Burroughs name. The company was sold for a comparatively paltry sum but it did provide WB with a private income for some years.

As a young boy, Burroughs recalls he "wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow Pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.''

Later in life he found writers were not, by definition, rich or famous. The rest, as we know, is more or less true.

After many encounters with the pen, usually an orgy of plagiarism (an art which he didn't quite come appreciate until later), he was sent by his parents to the Los Alamos Ranch School. Los Alamos was the site for the first atomic bomb explosion (Burroughs: "it seemed so right somehow") and was "forced" to became a Boy Scout.

In a diary, he recorded in detail his romantic affections for a fellow scout. The experience of abject terror and misery which ensued when this tome threatened to fall into the wrong hands was to dramatically abate his taste for writing.

"It was not the sex in the diary that embarrassed me, it was the terrible falsity of the emotions expressed.”

By the late 1940s, he was living across the river from New Orleans nursing a heroin habit (his house was described by Jack Kerouac in 'On The Road' somewhat inaccurately according to Burroughs) but fled to Mexico to escape a court appearance following a bust for smack and marijuana.

Knowing that he couldn't return to the USA for five years, he enrolled at Mexico City university to study Mexican and Mayan archaeology (Burroughs has an astounding knowledge and memory for facts on subjects ranging from the arts to science from the arcane to the mundane and uses such widely in his books).

In Mexico he blasted the head off a mouse with a .22 pistol (He's since claimed an interest in “weaponry of all kinds” but it was another shooting which was prove – although it wasn’t perceived as such at the time – a major turning point in Burroughs life.

He had acquired a wife, Joan. After a strange day of dark foreboding and eerie portents they played a game of William Tell. Joan had the apple on her head and Burroughs a .45 in his hand. He missed the apple and shot Joan through the temple.

Burroughs was taken to jail but released after two days, reputedly after a sum off arrived from the US. At that time (if not still) many crimes committed in Mexico be rescinded on receipt of a suitable quantity of dollars.


A novel called 'Junky', written by Burroughs in Mexico, had been published in New York although Burroughs was only able to take up full time writing after arriving in London in I956 and taking Doctor John Dent's apomorphine cure. This ridded Burroughs of his addiction (at least for awhile).

Parts of what was to become 'Naked Lunch' were written in Africa, Scandinavia and Europe. In various forms it was rejected frequently by publishers. Finally one did agree to make the oeuvre public but had to have the finished manuscript within two weeks.

Burroughs spent the spring of 1958 holed up in a seedy Parisian hotel room with Brion Gysin and Sinclair Beiles, gathering and sorting an abundance of paper.

Gysin remembers Burroughs: "thrashing about in an ectoplasmic cloud of smoke... 'Am I an Octopus?' he used to whine as he shuffled through shoals of manuscript with all tentacles waving in the undersea atmosphere.”

Gysin is credited with having 'invented' cut ups (cutting text from the page and re-inserting it) although 'Naked Lunch' was almost unintentionally a cut up work by dint of its final appearance being determined by the order in which material went to the printers ... basically at random.

'Naked Lunch' appeared and subsequently became the book synonymous with Burroughs. While not initially published in Britain, chunks of it turned up in 'Dead Fingers Talk' which, among other things, stirred up the longest running correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement as critics and public ranted, raved and did everything but agree on the values and qualities of the work.

The next few years were spent exploring the potential of the cut up technique. The act of slicing though a page of prose and sticking the bits back together. The montage technique which had existed for 50 years in painting was now being applied by Burroughs to words on a page.

This is one aspect of Burroughs's work which many find hard to comprehend.


Burroughs: “The montage is actually closer to the facts of perception than representational painting. Take a walk down a city street and put down what you have just seen on canvas. You have seen a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments.

"Writing is still confined to the representational straitjacket of the novel ... consciousness is a cut up. Every time you walk down the street or look out of the window, your stream of consciousness is cut by random factors.”

While acknowledging that point, I’m probably not the only person who has felt an accelerated reading rate coming upon me when a page of of cut ups loom ahead. Cut ups can sometimes be an annoying intrusion into a piece of racy and fully dribble-worthy description (I talk here as a qualified slab).

The cut up idea however is vital to Burroughs's creativeness and general toying about with time and space, it's unfortunate though that this facet of his work has become recognised as a trademark.

When I was 27 I had another strange experience. I read some William Burroughs and not only liked it but found myself rolling around on the floor of a London underground train laughing hysterically as fellow passengers grasped their newspapers to their terrified bosoms.

I had discovered Burroughs’s humour: acid wit in the real sense of the phrase, an ability to create scenes and characters that could sizzle through convention and taboo leaving the reader writhing as raw and vivid satire of social convention and behaviour came smoking off the pages.

This was the first of two keys to a code which allowed me to hack in to the Burroughs mainframe. The second was hearing his voice. Burroughs reads his pieces with a voice like the chiming of a great ball. He peels vowels with a deep and resounding drone which, once heard, will be present in the readers head whenever again grappling with his prose.


Burroughs’s most recent books have used the cut up technique to a lesser extent than before. 'Cities Of The Red Night', for example, a novel featuring the alluring investigator Clem Snide (“the name is Clem Williamson Snide, I am a private asshole"). Although, like all of his books, it went through extensive editing and revision by other people.

This has led to accusations that Burroughs didn't write the subsequent 'The Place Of Dead Roads' at all. My fierce phone calls to New York to elicit juice on this story have run up against a wall of deflection seemingly constructed by the array of screaming faggot types (if you'll pardon the expression) which seem par for the New York course. Suffice to say if anybody else could write like that they wouldn't need to do it secretly...


A celebrated London film maker apparently spent a week or so living in the same New York flat as Burroughs. The tale goes that Burroughs spent his entire waking hours fiddling with a coffee machine and responding in deep sonorous grunts when anybody asked him a question.

Only when the general conversation turned to somebody's recent operation did Burroughs speak. He did so for a full hour, revealing a medical knowledge worthy of a professional quack before slipping back into his apparent entropy.

Burroughs has long kept records of his dreams, a copious scrapbook of newspaper clippings and notes on seemingly anything that occurs. His belief, based on a lifetime of experience, is that these things can turn up precognitive references.

Burroughs's recollections of meaningful “randomness” are plentiful: “from my point of view there is no such thing as coincidence...''

Burroughs's books explore intoxication by drugs, drink, sex and power (especially power). A bizarre and outrageous glossary of characters (despite their weirdness, all are recognisably human) skate across his pages as scenes flick in and out as if discovered on the cutting room floor of a low-rent Hollywood studio.

These cavortions of these creatures take place from the dawn of earth history to other worlds; en route they vigorously indulge in all conceivable (and many inconceivable) forms and varieties of copulation.

The quest is to open the mind and find an answer to “How Random is Random?” If there is no such thing as coincidence then there must be a programme, and if there is a programme there must be a programmer – possibly in the employ of the CIA and passing itself off as a cucumber...


Many have taken Burroughs' reluctance to talk about the shooting of Joan, or the manner in which he got off so lightly, as being indicative of his callousness toward people in general and women in particular.

But in the introduction to ‘Queer’ a novel written around the time of the shooting but is now published for the first time, Burroughs writes:

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession and a constant need to escape from Possession, from Control.

"So the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle in which I have no choice except to write my way out.''

If the pineal gland does have a function then William Burroughs has done as much as any writer in stroking it back to life.


PS May I humbly recommend 'The Adding Machine and other Collected Essays' by William Burroughs, published by John Calder, available from good book stores and leading lending libraries. Apply scissors to taste.



mick sinclair

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