Lazy Week/85% of “The Recognitions”/“Naked Lunch”/“The Unfortunates”/Creators who are Assholes

I didn’t do a lot of reading this week. It happens sometimes, and I don’t really beat myself up about it. I know some booktube types claim they read for like four hours a day no matter what; normally I spend around 2 or so, give or take. During the early part of the pandemic, I barely read at all. I did play a lot of the video game Stellaris. Hundreds of hours, by Steam’s count. I regret nothing; we all do what we can to get by.

I resumed my normal schedule this week, and am now 85% of the way through “The Recognitions”. I wish I had some new insights or whatever to share about the book, but I do not; it remains its semi-obtuse, sometimes funny, sometimes sad nature. It did introduce a lengthy section where two characters change names, and that took me a while to iron out. I suspect I’ll be done with it sometime soon. 

Also, apropos of nothing, I started a re-read of “Naked Lunch”, a book I haven’t looked at since college. I have no idea what brought William S. Burroughs to the forefront of my mind. I suspect it has something to do with buying a friend a copy of “The Unfortunates” as a birthday present. If you haven’t heard of it, “The Unfortunates” is a book by BS Johnson which comes in a small box. It’s a set of pamphlets, and aside from ones labeled FIRST and LAST, they can be read in any order. The nature of the book reminded me of Burroughs’ experiments with texts, using ‘cut-up’ and ‘fold in’ methods to write… er… Burroughs stuff. 

Naked Lunch is rightly regarded as a masterpiece; it’s part fever dream, part treatise on addiction, part collection of horrifying images, and despite its deliberately fragmented nature, hangs together in a way that it really shouldn’t. 

Burroughs was also, to put it mildly, kind of an asshole. A Harvard graduate who came from a wealthy family, and in fact lived off an allowance for a significant chunk of his life, he dabbled with drugs, became addicted, and eventually shot his wife to death in a drunken/high stunt. (Playing “William Tell” with a gun). He fled to escape prosecution. When on his reading tours, he had people score drugs for him; their willingness to do so aside, it no doubt placed them in danger. There are a ton of stories about Burroughs and scrapes with the law, a direct result of his various addictions. 

There’s no doubt that his heavy drug use, moving about, and ‘unencumbered’ lifestyle play a huge role in his mythos. He hobnobbed with various celebrities (mostly musical ones) who shared an interest in ‘the transgressive’, or were tourists in it. R.E.M. recorded a song with him for the X-Files soundtrack, for example. I have vague memories of reading some of his later writing, and thinking he’d ran out of gas, but he still continued to receive critical praise from the majority of people who reviewed his work, and I may have been burned out on ‘beat’ writing in general by the time I got to them, so I’m not going to offer too much of an opinion on his entire body of work. 

What we do with creators who are assholes in one way or another is an ongoing debate, and a difficult one. People have reacted in horror, for example, as JK Rowling has come out as a staunch anti-trans activist. Some of these people grew up with and loved her writing; and there’s a genuine, personal sense of betrayal when someone who has created something you enjoy turns out to be a bigot. As a metal fan, this is a depressingly common occurrence. You’ll learn that the bass player for a band you like has played in some sort of dodgy side project with either overt or incredibly unsubtle racist tones, and ugh. 

Burroughs, to my knowledge, was not a racist, but it is interesting to me how glossed over or even glamorized the rough parts of his life are. Even his Wikipedia page makes a kind of weird apologia for him : “Ginsberg said that Vollmer [his wife] had seemed possibly suicidal in the weeks leading up to her death, and he suggested that this may have been a factor in her willingness to take part in the risky William Tell stunt”. This may be true, but the fact that Burroughs performed ‘the stunt’ in the first place has little to do with her state of mind.

And yet, here I am, engaging with his art. An article about Burroughs’ last house postulates that he’s become less known as a writer and more as a sort of generic counterculture figure, which in a way makes sense to me. His books are not really all that easy to read. But I am not certain his life should be viewed as easy to read either. 

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