Thursday, December 19, 2013

Junky by William S. Burroughs

I’ve read William S. Burroughs’ debut novel Junky (1952) and Queer (1985) back-to-back because, despite the long period between their respective publications, they were written at more or less the same time and cover broadly the same period of Burroughs’s life. A review of Queer will follow – unfinished and massively flawed and arguably not in a complete enough state to warrant publication, it is still more interesting, from a literary point of view, than Junky. While I’m a big fan of Burroughs and think some of his prose is electrifying, I have to be honest and say I found Junky hard going. I’ve said before, in a review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that the trouble with stories about drugs is that you really have to have been there on the trip for it to be interesting – someone else’s second-hand stoner experiences are just too boring for words. I used to have to put up with a lot of it when I lived in Aberdeen and regularly took the Friday evening train south, along with all the oil rig workers who were fast-tracking themselves to oblivion before they got home to wife and family after a fortnight offshore. It hardened me against any so-called romance around getting yourself off your face on a regular basis.

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.
I see his point, and I can accept it. Nonetheless, he goes on: “The meat of the text of ‘Junky’ is as close as Burroughs could get to a factual account of his own experience of heroin.” And that is the difference, I think. Sartre’s and Camus’s works are undoubtedly fictions, their existential insights premised on an invented narrative in order to permit the investigation of universal truths. Junky examines in uncompromising detail the recent history of the author and that is where its focus truly lies – on that narrow ground of autobiography. Any extrapolation has to be done by the reader, using the reader’s knowledge and intuition and pyschological insight.

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.

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