Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Queer by William Burroughs

William Burroughs’s Queer has had a curious existence. It was the second novel he wrote, and in fact he wrote much of it concurrently with his first, Junky. Parts of Queer were, in fact, cannibalised for that novel to bulk it up, which partly explains why Queer is unfinished and does not flow as one might expect. Further, although it was written the early 1950s, it wasn’t published until 1985. One might argue that, such is its unfinished state, it might have been better left unpublished but, whatever state the work is in, there is still much to ponder in it.

Queer could never have been published in the 1950s because of its strong homosexual themes and descriptions. It probably wasn’t until the 1960s, when writers like James Purdy began to write about gay characters without their homosexuality being the main point of the book, that such depictions could be possible in mainstream literature. Burroughs explained that Junky portrays a time when the protagonist (William Lee, a very loosely autobiographical cypher for Burroughs himself) was on heroin, and Queer depicts the time when he is off it. This, he explains, is the reason for the difference in tone and characterisation. In Junky, the (relative, at least) equilibrium wrought by being able to assauge the addiction softened Lee’s character while, in Queer, the desperation brought on by cravings for heroin bring out the worst in him.

The novel may be of most interest on a technical level, showing the development of Burroughs’s style. As with Junky, we do see many of his trademark mannerisms beginning to appear. It doesn’t exactly hang together, in the way that, say, the exoticism of The Wild Boys does, but then it is essentially an unfinished piece so it is pointless to quibble about that. What we do see is a fine character study of Lee, an essentially decent enough man whose life is controlled by his cravings. He is slowly losing control of himself, sliding into a kind of mania. One manifestation of this is the extraordinary ex tempore stories he tells, brutal and fantastic and quite, quite horrible. One extended sequence, as he tells an increasingly offensive story to his baffled guests, all the while knowing what he is doing but completely unable to stop himself, is one of the funniest things I’ve read all year, an absolute masterclass in comic writing.

In the end, it is a pity that Queer was left unfinished. There is much to admire in it, and much to wonder at, and it would have been fascinating to read it in a finished version. Although, perhaps, the rest of Burroughs’ subsequent output gives us exactly that.

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