We have Allen Ginsberg to blame for Junky seeing the light of day. Ginsberg was Burroughs’s unofficial editor at the time and managed to find a publisher for a novel which, because of its unflinching – and illegal – subject matter was pretty much considered unpublishable. Indeed, for the first edition, Burroughs even used the pseudonym William Lee.
And in fact it is actually surprising that the novel was published in 1952 at all. Those were, after all, dark times in America, when a deeply conservative tone had overtaken state affairs. The big bad Soviet Union would take on the role of the enemy without very comfortably, but there were, too, the enemies within, and junk heads would certainly qualify as that. We’re fortunate, then, to have Junky as a historical record. As that, it is certainly interesting: what Orwell was to British poverty in the 30s, Burroughs was to US narcotics in the 40s, a kind of Junked and Out in Mexico and New Orleans. A social record it is, then, but is it a novel or, more accurately, is it a good novel?
Will Self, in his introduction to the 2002 edition, writes:
By all of which you can take it as stated that in a very important sense I view Burroughs’s ‘Junky’ not to be a book about heroin addiction at all, anymore that I perceive Camus’s ‘The Fall’ (1956) to be about the legal profession, or Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ (1938) to be concerned with the problems of historical research. All three are works in which an alienated protagonist grapples with a world perceived as irretrievably external and irredeemably meaningless.
That is the case for any fiction, you may argue, and I would accept that, but I would also say that there is not as much insightful material in Junky from which the reader might reasonably make such leaps of imagination. Self concludes: “‘Junky’ is not a novel at all, it is a memoir”. I agree. Self avoids any contradiction between that statement and his comparison of the novel with the greats of existentialist fiction by suggesting it is Burroughs’s “janus-like” ability to turn fact into fiction that makes it simultaneously a memoir and a work of fiction: “For Burroughs, with his increasingly fluid view of reality, the confabulation of fact and fiction was inevitable, the separation of life and work impossible.”
Well, it’s a neat theory, and it sounds plausible at first, but does that really hold water? The more one reads that, the more it sounds like something cobbled together to tie together a theory. The bulk of the narrative of Junky doesn’t really work as fiction. The narrative framework as a whole doesn’t work. What we do see, however, are occasional glimpses of the genius in Burroughs that would emerge in future works: the sexuality, the curious obsession with different lifeforms and bodies being “taken over”, the slide into dystopian visions. Those glimpses never develop into anything meaty in Junky: they would, of course, in later works, and for that we must be very grateful.