William Seward Burroughs was one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. Jack Kerouac has called him "the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift," and Norman Mailer went so far as to say he was "the only American writer concievably possessed by genius." The conventional methods of writing were getting old and tiresome, and Burroughs helped to make literature unpredictable and exciting again. Burroughs wanted to create a "literature of risk," in which the writer was an outlaw, or at least an outsider, in the midst of society and most "acceptable" writers.
Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri. Burroughs himself, in the introduction to a reprint of Junky, that he was an unpopular child. As an adolescent, he often grew romantically attached to his male friends, and he was fascinated by guns, drugs, and crime.
After graduating from Harvard, where he majored in English, Burroughs moved to New York and became part of the underground drug scene. He became friends with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who were then students at Columbia University. Eventually, the two young writers convinced Burroughs to write about his own life. His first book, Junky, was published as half of a "two-books-in-one" pulp paperback. Burroughs never considered himself a writer until he accidentally shot his wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, in the head while doing his "William Tell act." After this incident, Burroughs believed himself to be possessed by an invader, the "Ugly Spirit," and his only escape from this affliction was to "write his way out," explains his editor James Grauerholz.
Early in Burroughs career, his writing was straight narrative prose. His first book, Junky, recounted in semi-autobiographical form the day to day life of a heroin addict. Though the book is acclaimed for its straightforward, deadpan storytelling quality, its significance is more political than literary.
Burroughs greatest contributions to literature would not be evident until the publication of books such as Naked Lunch. The book stirred up much more controversy than Junky. Junky was controversial due to its drug themes (as evidenced by the lurid subtitle "Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict"); Naked Lunch was banned in many places due to sexual content and its biting political satire.
Naked Lunch, which was first published in 1959, also introduced a new style to Burroughs writing. The cool, implacable narrator of Junky was no longer present in the writing. Burroughs took on numerous characters and personalities witihin the course of the book, shifting from on to the next without warning. "I am not American Express," Burroughs explains in the "Atrophied Preface" section, "If one of my people is seen in New York walking around in citizen clothes and next sentence Timbuktu putting down lad talk on a gazelle-eyed youth, we can assume that he (the party non-resident of Timbuktu) transported himself there by the usual methods of communication."
When the author switches from one character to the next, writing patterns also change. Not just dialogue, but the narrating and thought patterns of the character change. One moment the sinister and learned Doctor Benway may be making a speech, the next a semi-literate field worker may be thinking in stunted English. Additionally, Burroughs spliced in his "routines." These were sometimes small skits or humerous anecdotes. Rather than progressing from the beginning to end as the plot unfolds, the chapters were in a random order as well. They were published in whatever order he send them to the publisher, says Burroughs' editor James Grauerholtz in Word Virus.
"There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing... I am a recording instrument...I do not presume to impose 'story' 'plot' 'continuity'..." Burroughs says. "You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point," meaning that it doesn't matter whether you read it from beginning to end, end to beginning, or in any order at all. Burroughs later posed the paradox: "How random is random?"
Rather than usual prose style and punctuation, Burroughs manipulated the language to suit his purposes. He would sometimes capitalize whole phrases for effect or stop in the middle of a sentence. Rather than commas or periods, the bulk of the punctuation in the book consists of ellipses. This allowed one thought to trail off into another, sometimes seemingly unrelated, thought, producing what has been called a "mosaic effect." The ellipses and often very compounded sentence structures, allowed Burroughs to use more poetic devices than most prose allows. Despite the radical nature of the writing, the most significant writing of Burroughs' career would not be started until later that year.
In 1959, Brion Gysin, an artist friend of Burroughs, accidentally discovered the technique that would change the direction of Burroughs' writing once again. Gysin was cutting a matte for a painting when he noticed that the text of the sliced newspaper beneath the matte fell together in interesting patterns. He later demonstrated the process to Burroughs, who thought it was an important and revolutionary new approach to writing. Burroughs saw the similarity between this and the juxtaposition technique he had been using in Naked Lunch, and immediately began cutting up trunks full of his prose.
Though Gysin is given most of the credit for discovering cutups, Burroughs acknowledges similar experiments used by Tristan Tzara, T. S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos.
In 1960, the first cutup book, Minutes to Go, was published. It was a collaboration among Burroughs, Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, and Gregory Corso. Immediately afterwards, Burroughs and Gysin's collaborative cutup effort The Exterminator was also published in San Francisco.
In the 1960s, Burroughs and Gysin experimented with cutups in various mediums, including prose, tape recordings, and film. Their next book, Third Mind, was published. The book collected cutups and collages dating from '60-'78, and a manifesto on the cutup method. They also made three films with the English film maker Anthony Balch: Towers Open Fire, Cutups, and Bill and Tony.
There were a few methods of making cutups. In Jennie Skerl's book, William Burroughs, Burroughs explained that "pages are cut up and rearranged to form new combinations of word and image." For example, a page would first be cut into quarters. Then the top right would be paired with the bottom left, and the top left with the bottom right. Then the composite text is read or typed to form the new text.
Burroughs goes on to describe the "fold-in method," a cutup spin-off he used extensively. He would take a page of text, fold it in half, and place it on top of half of another page. Burroughs explains that "the fold-in method extends to writing the flashback used in films, enabling the writer to move backwards and forwards in his time track." He continues to say that "perfectly clear narrative prose can be produced using the fold-in method -- best results are usually obtained by placing pages dealing with similar subject matter in juxtaposition."
Burroughs wrote his Cutup Trilogy in the 1960s: The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Ticket That Exploded (1967). In these books, Burroughs added elements from pop culture, science, technology, classic literature, and science fiction to his already vast amounts of surreal ideas and imagery. He created a mythology based on word as a virus, and a world where the "reality film" is made by "control addicts" in the "Rewrite Offices." Burroughs incorporated these ideas into his trademark pseudo-science of addiction, where everything in life is a drug, everyone is an addict of one form or another, and in the end, even the Self is simply the last drug that we indulge in.
His love/hate relationship with language seemed to extend beyond the page, however. While drugs, sex, and power can control the body, the Word controls the mind. "Word and image locks" and "association blocks" lock the mind into conventional patterns of thinking, speaking, acting, and percieving things: "Modern man has lost the opportunity of silence," Burroughs observes in The Ticket That Exploded. "Try halting your subvocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence," he challenges the reader. "You will encounter an organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. In the beginning was the word. In the beginning of what exactly?"
Therefore, says Skerl, he "found the cutup technique to be the ideal method of presenting books involving space/time travel, (inner) silence, and freedom from the body." The cutup was a random, impersonal experiment using chance and random sources of inspiration and invention, "creating an alteration in consciousness" of the writer and the reader alike.
When Burroughs referred to himself as a "recording instrument" in Naked Lunch, "he wasn't implying," writes Ann Douglas, "that he made no choices, exerted no control over what he wrote, but that he wanted to learn how to register not the prepackaged information he was programmed by the corporate interests or artistic canons to recieve, but what was actually there." Thus, the mechanical juxtaposition of texts did not impose Burroughs' own "association blocks" on the reader. And "all association tracks are obsessional," writes Burroughs.
Jenny Skerl, in her biography William Burroughs, notes that the method is often compared to artwork. Burroughs often presented it as a logical way of extending the artist's collage method or film techniques to writing. The random way it is executed shows similarities action painting, happenings, and aleatory music. Additionally, it has been called a literary version of cubism: the characters and situations seem to be presented from numerous angles at once.
After the Cutup Trilogy, Burroughs wrote his final trilogy, on the Western Lands, which was written in a more accesible style than the Cutup Trilogy, included Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. Burroughs had, for the most part, left the cutups behind, in favor of a space/time travel form of continuity similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhous Five. The reality-as-a-film theme persists, and the books relentlessly carry the reader forward and backward in time and space, just as film emplys flashback sequences.
The L.A. Times called the trilogy "Burroughs' masterpiece," and the books were generally very well recieved. Cities of the Red Night took the reader to three of the six cities of the prehistoric Red Night, says Grauerholz. Ken Kesey called Cities of the Red Night "not only Burroughs' best work,a but a logical and ripening extension of all Burroughs' great work." The Place of Dead Roads reflected Burroughs' utopian visions, set in the Old West, with a central character named Kim Carsons. The Western Lands is set in Ancient Egypt, and has a central theme of immortality. The end of the book seems to parallel the end of Burroughs' fiction writing career: "The Old Writer has come to the end of words, to the end of what can be done with words." He was soon named a Commander in the Society of Arts and Letters.
His late work included memoirs of old friends and collaboraters, journals, letters, and dreams. Burroughs then began devoting his time to performances of his "routines," which were very popular. He had also taken up painting, and spent time touring with his artwork as well. He has also been cited as having a huge influence on music, as evidenced by his reputation as "The Godfather of Punk." He was a friend of Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, and has collaborated with many groups in the rock world: from U2, to Nirvana.
William Burroughs played an important role in the evolution of modern writing, as well as in many other artistic mediums. His radical writing styles, says J.G. Ballard, were an "attempt to go through language to something beyond." One of his main contributions, says J.G. Ballard, was mainly an attack on the bourgeois novel. Burroughs helped to make the world a safer place for experimental writing styles, as well as "unacceptable" subject matter: drugs, crimes, and homosexuality.