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Literature: Naked Lunch

My God, how do you summarize the 1959 novel Naked Lunch, the seminal work of beat generation author William S. Burroughs, in mere words?

A dystopian sci-fi meets Dante's Inferno, but experienced by a heroin addict in the 1950s. A carnival of everything middle-class America apparently feared at the time: experimental sexuality, drug abuse, foreigners, interracial relations, 'forbidden sciences', comic books, gang violence and mob rule. A Take That against traditional American values and perceived hypocrisies which reads like a collaboration between Allen Ginsberg and Encyclopedia Dramatica.

Some editions of the book include an author's foreword, where Burroughs explains the title. The phrase "naked lunch" is meant to describe the unvarnished truth about what people do to survive in society. The specific lunch that Burroughs wants to unclothe is the custom of capital punishment. He objects to the fact that many people who endorse capital punishment are still reluctant to pull the switch, throw the first stone, or otherwise take on the moral responsibility for what he considers murder. In a sense, "naked lunch" is the opposite of euphemism. Thus his famous quote, "Let them see what is at the end of that long newspaper spoon." Of course, Burroughs, by his own admission, doesn't remember writing most of the actual text of the book, so the author's foreword could very well be Retcon.

Naked Lunch was very loosely adapted into a film in 1991 by David Cronenberg.


This book provides examples of:

  • Accent Relapse: While probably theatrics on Benway's part, he'll sometimes speak in an effeminate, stereotypically gay voice, and at other times speak like an American Southerner. Also: "Benway's voice drifts into my consciousness from no particular place... a disembodied voice that is sometimes loud and clear, sometimes barely audible, like music down a windy street."
    • Also Salvador Hassan O'Leary, who is said to lapse into broken English in times of stress. "His accent at such moments suggests an Italian origin."
  • All Gays Are Promiscuous: In fairness, it's the '50s. Gay culture didn't have the stability to really support monogamy when this was written.
  • Alternate Universe: Interzone is a dystopian caricature of Tangier, Morocco.
  • Anachronic Order: The chapters are arranged in the order in which they came back from the printer; Burroughs and his friends decided that they couldn't really improve on it. Burroughs was famous for doing this 'cut-up' in his other poetry, as well. Except for the section where Lee kills Hauser and O'Brien. It was originally supposed to happen near the beginning, but was moved to the end, creating another contradiction in space and time where Lee is presumably back in America, after having traveled through Mexico and South America into Africa.
  • And I Must Scream: "Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole how to talk?"
  • Arc Words: Certain phrases and descriptions are repeated constantly throughout Burroughs's body of work. Most during his Nova Trilogy and Red Night Trilogy, but Naked Lunch has a few, as it is the culmination of all of his early work; 'blank insect eyes', 'like music down a windy street', 'shitting and pissing in terror', 'No glot. C'lom Fliday'.
  • Ax-Crazy: A.J., who, after crashing Hassan's orgy dressed like a pirate, decapitates middle-aged women while singing 'Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle of Rum'.
  • Banned in China: In 1965, this was the last major work of literature to get unbanned in the American town of Boston (which banned quite a lot of things.)
  • Black Comedy
  • Black and Grey Morality: Even the Factualists, the Interzone political party that Lee supports, are a bunch of psychos. It's just that they don't believe in what the other parties are doing — like melting people (Liquefactionists), cloning themselves (Divisionists), or experimenting with Mind Control (Senders).
    • And even so, the other parties are not all as separate in practice as they are in the abstract.
  • Bury Your Gays: But only if they're Camp Gay.
  • Cement Shoes: Alluded to several times in Burroughs's word mosaics.
  • Clone Degeneration: The Divisionists' replicas need to recharge (through physical — but not necessarily sexual — contact) with their original body or 'mother cell', but are dyed and altered with body molds to disguise the fact that they're replicas.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Behind all the filth and horror, Burroughs is crying.
  • Continuity Nod: The opening pages contain many very brief mentions of characters and events from Burroughs's first two novels, Junky and Queer, such as Bill Gains in someone else's overcoat and Lupita, Lee's Mexico City pusher, seated like an Aztec Earth Goddess. Hell, even the description of the Mugwump eerily recalls a suspicious individual mentioned towards the end of Junky.
  • Crapsack World
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: Naked Lunch begins Burroughs' proud tradition of juxtaposing the horrors of a paranoid futuristic delusions with Aztec and Mayan iconography. This is taken to new levels in his next book, The Soft Machine.
  • Culture Clash: Interzone, although primarily Tangiers, seems to incorporate elements of the American Deep South (Cunt Lick County), the South American rainforests (The Upper Baboonsasshole), and socialist Europe (Annexia).
  • Death by Sex: Orgasm Death is a reoccurring phrase in Burroughs's work, as is the image of a hanged man jizzing in his pants at the moment of death - which has been known to happen in real life, by the way.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The reptiles giving oral to the Mugwumps for a drug that prolongs life.
  • Erotic Asphyxiation: He has a habit of writing scenes where teenage boys very sensually get their necks broken via noose.
  • Erotic Dream: In fact, surreal pseudoporn makes up about a fourth of the book.
  • Everybody Must Get Stoned: The Black Meat and Mugwump fluid, metaphors for the horror of addiction.
  • Fake Brit: A.J., whose British accent 'waned with the British empire'.
  • Fantastic Caste System: The Parties of Interzone.
  • Fantastic Racism: Thanks to the Divisionists. "If some citizen ventures to express a liberal opinion, another citizen invariably snarls: 'What are you? Some stinking nigger's bleached-out replica?'"
  • Fauxreigner: A few characters in the novel attempt to disguise their ethnic origin, although they often give away the fraud by adopting ludicrous multi-ethnic names. Salvador Hassan O'Leary is just the most obvious, but there's a throwaway reference to an Ali Wong Chapultepec.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: William Lee
  • Foreshadowing: Hassan is referred to by several of his many aliases ('The Shoe Store Kid', 'Placenta Juan the Afterbirth Tycoon') before actually appearing.
  • Fur and Loathing: 'Guard in a uniform of human skin...'
  • Genre Roulette: An undercover look at drug culture, raunchy porn, biting social satire, science-fiction and some hard boiled noir thrown in for good measure.
  • A Good Name for a Rock Band: The band Steely Dan got their name from a dildo in this book.
    • The group Clem Snide took theirs from a recurring Burroughs character who appears for the first time in Naked Lunch.
  • Gorn: Lots of it.
  • Heroic Sociopath: A.J. again. He's not actually heroic at all, but he's slightly less evil than most of the other characters (with the exception of Lee himself).
  • Immodest Orgasm: Described as 'like a shooting star'.
  • Inexplicably Identical Individuals: An array of control-room menials pop up at different times and places, all of them referred to simply as The Technician — and most of whom share the same characteristics of working behind the scenes and suffering from indigestion. Of course, this is the kind of book where they actually could all be the same guy...
  • Interspecies Romance: The Mugwump and a blonde boy.
  • It's Not Porn, It's Art: Slashtubitch's opinion on his 'blue movies' and, of course, the book itself as decided by the Supreme Court.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: Whether or not there even is a plot is up for debate. Regardless, every scene reveals something more is going on then we're being told.
  • Kill It with Fire: Bradley the Buyer; suggested for The Complete All-American De-anxietized Man.
  • Large Ham: THE GREAT SLASHTUBITCH!
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Benway, played hilariously straight.
    • Nor is he the only one, judging by the references to Dr. Limpf, Dr. Tetrazzini (who saw surgery as an art form), and 'Fingers' Schaeffer, the Lobotomy Kid.
    • And then there's Doctor Berger, of the Mental Health Hour, who claims proudly to have cured the neuroses of all kinds of patients, from homosexuals to writers. "I got enough health for the whole fuckin world!"
  • Magic Genetics: The Divisionists cut off chunks of their flesh and grow full replicas of themselves in petri dishes.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Usually on the gallows.
  • Mind Screw: Literally at one point ("This brain atrophy already").
  • Multiple Endings: While not present in the book, a short in the Burroughs anthology, Interzone contains a story called The Conspiracy that acts as an alternate ending to the Hauser and O'Brien section. Instead of calling the police station from a desolate payphone, Lee hides at a female acquaintance's apartment for a few days and muses about his fate.
  • Nasty Party: Hassan's Orgy
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lee is an obvious standin for Burroughs himself.
  • No Ending: After a succession of rambling, the book seems to end with an unseen cataclysm.
  • Not So Stoic: Doctor "Fingers" Schaeffer. ("Clarence!! How can you do this to me?? Ingrates!! Every one of them ingrates!")
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The County Clerk, and most of his employees in the Old District Court House.
  • People Puppets: Senders control people by telepathically transmitting their thoughts. This was the inspiration behind another movie by David Cronenberg.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The Freeland Republic, which is "clean and dull my God." An earlier passage in the book implies that Freeland is inspired by Burroughs' experiences in Scandinavia.
  • Police Are Useless: Hauser and O'Brien chase Lee all the way to Interzone (or maybe just around New York, we're not sure) then get killed by pistol fire after Lee shoots up some dope.
  • Properly Paranoid: With all the weird shit running around, it makes perfect sense for Lee to flee the country as fast as he can.
  • Refuge in Audacity: A terror attack at a political conference, wherein the terrorist detonates a grenade he shoved up his own ass.
  • Screw Yourself: "Sex with a replica is strictly forbidden and almost universally practiced."
  • Title Drop: For the sub-section Ordinary Men and Women.
  • Toilet Humor
  • Too Kinky to Torture: Most of the lynching and dismemberment is completely consensual because they're all actors in a very grandiose and pretentious porno movie.
  • Villain Protagonist: A. J. is the intended hero of the book, a 'laughable lovable eccentric' whose track list of pranks include spiking the punch at a Fluoride Society meeting with a vine that melts the gums; spraying himself with bug spray, then releasing a swarm of potent, aphrodisiac insects into the New York Metropolitan, creating a massive orgy; and initiating a riot at a Five Star restaurant that ends with the owner being eaten by famished hogs.
  • Walking the Earth: Essentially what Burroughs did in the fifties, migrating from Chicago to New York to Mexico to South America to Tangiers to London. Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch are all based on these experiences.
  • What Do You Mean, It Wasn't Made on Drugs?: invoked Well, actually, it was. Burroughs claimed, in the original foreword, that he wrote the first draft in a drug-cocktail haze and had no recollection of actually writing it — although he later admitted that he was exaggerating.
  • Word Salad Title: Created accidentally by Burroughs' friends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; while the work was still in progress, Ginsberg was reading aloud from the book (a portion, ironically, that was cut in later drafts), and Kerouac misheard two words and blurted out something like: '"Naked lunch?" What the hell does that mean?'
  • Writer on Board: Burroughs isn't afraid to express his opinions on whatever he wants, usually in the form of condemning farce.
  • Zero-G Spot


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