In which begins a story with end and no end, middle and no middle, beginning and no beginning.
Never has a novel taken me so long to complete as Naked Lunch. I can’t pretend that’s due to the ups and downs of lockdown or the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since starting the book months ago, I haven’t looked forward to reading a single page. For a while I thought it was going to get better, perhaps hoped that it would, but each chapter is the same. Once you’ve read a paragraph or two, you’ve read the whole book.
Burroughs has said the novel can be read in any order, with only a loose thread connecting each passage. It’s this unusual framework, or rather lack of a framework, that makes the book a taxing read. I crave a sense of order from stories, a journey that progresses logically from one moment to the next and develops in character and theme. Most of all, I want to come willingly to the page for enjoyment – not for a test of mental fortitude.
Usually, I’d summarise the plot at this point and give some sense of the key challenges for the lead characters to overcome. I’ve read some reviews that try to pull out what might be considered the vague spine of the novel, but doing so seems to undersell what in reality is a collection of bones found together that would take Quincy years to assemble.
The novel covers the seedy world of the Interzone, where grim characters take part in or observe grim deeds. The State is corrupt, drugged up citizens enjoy depraved orgies and no one seems to have any faith, purpose or redemption. Life goes on, inconsequential and life-changing moments barely distinguishable from each other through the foggy filth of the atmosphere.
Naked Lunch will not be for everyone, it certainly didn’t resonate with me. Yet, it is the most unusual and daring novel I’ve ever read. Despite not enjoying the pages, I beat on against my own current and reached the end. There’s no doubt, Burroughs achieved something remarkable and left arguments that endure six decades after publication. The dark and addicted world of Interzone is, of course, one we must avoid, but also one we must be free to talk about to do so. You get the distinct impression that censorship would be the murkiest crime of all.
Most reviews I’ve found are far more effusive in their praise of Naked Lunch than I can be. Rob Woodard, writing in the Guardian, though seems perhaps closest in that his essay on the novel reads mostly as commemoration rather than celebration. Nobly marking its place in history rather than our hearts.
Woodard also makes an excellent point regarding the novel’s place in time. Though written in the same era as On the Road and Howl, Naked Lunch doesn’t feel like it’s from any time. It exists now, then and into the far future – a feat few writers can achieve.
Naked Lunch is one of Time’s 100 Best Novels.