One of the great innovators of the 20th century and a founding member of the Beats, William Seward Burroughs II (February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was the avant-garde author of over twenty books, ranging from straightforward and autobiographical (Junky, Queer) to surreal and anarchic (Naked Lunch, and The Nova Trilogy) to nostalgic, solemn and elegiac (The Wild Boys and The Red Night Trilogy). As the titles of his first two books imply, he was both a drug addict and a bisexual, two things he had always been grimly unapologetic about.
His books contain graphic depictions of drug usage and sodomy, which are still shocking even by today's comparably cynical standards. But, subject matter aside, his prose was always inspirational and stunningly original, flowing like poetry even while depicting fecal matter and ejaculation. Frequently taking Refuge in Audacity and always Crossing the Line Twice, Burroughs was called the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift" (author of the misanthropic Gulliver's Travels and the baby-eating fun of A Modest Proposal) by friend and fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and the controversy surrounding his opus Naked Lunch effectively ended literary censorship in America.
Burroughs's "routines", as he called them, are the literary equivalent to a depraved vaudeville act, or by modern sensibility, a raunchy sketch show. Utilizing over-the-top characterization and hilariously opaque scenarios, Burroughs's fiction can change scenes at the drop of the hat, jumping from short, punchy hilarity to weird sex back to short, punchy hilarity. But, humor aside, he always had something completely serious to say. His experiences as a drug addict allowed him to see the complications of life reduced to a grimy skeleton, what he called "The Algebra of Need".
In fact, Junky reads more like an anthropological analysis of drug addiction than a personal memoir, and his follow-up Queer (which wasn't published until many years later) occupies a sort of middle ground. His habit of telling outrageous routines originates in the latter, but it was written out of desperation in the wake of a great personal tragedy which has since become legend: Burroughs shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head during a drunken game of "William Tell". While it was likely just an accident, Burroughs couldn't help but think there was something in his subconscious that drove him to it, and later claimed he was possessed by "The Ugly Spirit".
Despite his personal troubles and the controversy surrounding his work, Burroughs became highly influential and respected by a wide variety of younger artists, most notably the more famous beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After experimenting with the cut-up technique, he almost pioneered the graphic novel form (Alan Moore openly cites Burroughs as a prominent inspiration), but couldn't get the funds because of the expenses of color copying. His works have also served as an important influence on Cyberpunk and New Wave Science Fiction (the Nova Trilogy, as science fiction itself, is considered a sort of prototype of the New Wave). The actual punk scene owes a great deal to Burroughs, as well, with his return to America in 1974 being feted by a large number of punks and related artists (including Patti Smith); the Godfather of Punk Iggy Pop was such a big fan ("Lust for Life" is merely his most obvious example of Burroughs fandom) that when the BBC did a radio biography of Burroughs, he was chosen to present it. And of course, there's his literary heir, Hunter S. Thompson, who was basically Burroughs if he were straight, younger, and focused more on sports writing and other nonfiction. Most Thompson fans have at least a liking for Burroughs, and vice versa.
Burroughs' use of the cut-up technique, surrealist satire and harsh criticism of society made him a countercultural figure starting in The '70s, and he began to be cited as a significant influence by numerous musicians, including Genesis P-Orridge, Ian Curtis, Al Jourgensen, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Kurt Cobain, Roger Waters, Laurie Anderson (for whom he recorded a spoken-word guest vocal for an album), Patti Smith, and others. Burroughs himself later embarked on a spoken word career, collaborating with Ministry, Throbbing Gristle, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain, among others. His last filmed performance was in the video for U2's "Last Night on Earth", in which he pushes a shopping cart with a large spotlight on it and has an extreme closeup of his eyes at the end.
- And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks: Early novel, a late-1940s collaboration with Jack Kerouac that, despite the title, was in fact based upon a real-life murder investigation they had experienced, recently dusted off and published nearly sixty years after being written.
- Junky: originally published by American pulp fiction publisher Ace Books and credited to "William Lee". A relatively straightforward memoir describing his extensive experiences with drugs.
- Queer: Burroughs' second full-length solo novel, but due to content as well as the fact that it was left incomplete after the death of his wife (the mere act of reading the manuscript caused Burroughs incredible pain), it was withheld from publication for some 30 years.
- Interzone: A collection of early routines that show Burroughs stylistic progression from his realistic works to the uncompromising surrealism of his later work. Sometimes referred to as an early version of Naked Lunch, many of the stories were published piecemeal before the collection was finally released in 1989.
- The Yage Letters: a hodgepodge of Burroughs routines and letters to and from his onetime boyfriend Allen Ginsberg regarding the search for a plant with psychedelic properties. The first of a number of books that collected correspondence between the two writers, and the only one with an actual theme.
- Naked Lunch: Burroughs' most famous work, a collection of farcical sketches that unmask the horrors lurking beneath the calm veneer of modern life. To date the only Burroughs novel to be translated (albeit very loosely) into a feature film. The book triggered a major court battle over literary censorship in America which is chronicled in most editions of the book.
- The Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express): A Space Opera about a group of extraterrestrial terrorists called the 'Nova Mob' who want to ignite the earth into an exploding supernova by creating insoluble conflicts. They can only be stopped by the Nova Police, who understand their methods and know that "Nobody, on any planet, wants to see a police officer". Thought to be nigh unreadable because of Burrough's extensive use of the 'cut-up' technique, which involves cutting up a page of text into four pieces and re-arranging them to create new text. Although contrary to the claims of bewildered skeptics, the observant reader, if patient, can see a fairly reliable pattern emerge. Usually, a chapter will start out fairly straightforward, with normal prose and everything, then after the bulk of the story is told, the reader will become aware that they're reading the same story, only "cut-up" and may become aware of new connotations and subtleties not noticed in the original. Passages will sometimes descend into strings of seemingly random cut-up images. If taken into account that this was Burroughs' attempt to introduce the montage technique of film into literature, some of the more incoherent passages will begin to make a lot more sense. The Soft Machine also uses a great deal of "leftover" material from early drafts of Naked Lunch.
- Dead Fingers Talk: Burroughs took the texts of the Nova Trilogy and combined bits and pieces to create a new narrative which was as hard to follow as the original books. Arguably the rarest of Burroughs' full-length novels owing to it having rarely been reprinted.
- The Wild Boys: Homoerotic fantasy in which savage teenage boys in nothing but rainbow colored jockstraps and roller blades destroy western civilization. Notable for being Burroughs' first attempt to return to a straightforward narrative since 'Queer', while managing to retain several scenes of kaleidoscopic free-association free for all, in the 'Penny Arcade Peep Show' sections. That aside, it's actually quite accessible and a great way to experiences Burroughs' savage satire if Naked Lunch is proving too difficult.
- Port of Saints: a time-travel tale described as an "erotic fantasy" by one of his biographers, and featuring characters from a number of past works. Something of a sequel to The Wild Boys.
- The Third Mind: a collaboration with poet/painter Bryon Gysin, a long-time friend, in which the cut-up technique is discussed at length.
- Ah Pook Is Here: Burroughs and Malcolm McNeil's early attempt to elevate the graphic novel into an art form, named after the Mayan God of Death. Although sadly it was never completed due to the costs of color copying at the time (a hindrance Burroughs and Brion Gysin earlier faced when trying to publish The Third Mind), some unfinished panels can be viewed here allowing us to all know exactly what we missed. A plan by Fantagraphics to publish the work a couple years ago fell through, sadly.
- The Red Night Trilogy (Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands): Burroughs's last great work; a psychedelic journey through six irradiated cities from the past that were struck by an asteroid from a red sky. The first chronicles a dual narrative about a psychic detective and some gay pirates, both which tangle together in the first of the six titular cities, Tamaghis. The second book follows a time-traveling old-western shootist, which somehow sets up the third's odyssey through the Egyptian Land of the Dead, culminating in a satisfying conclusion to Burroughs's mythology. Contains frequent references and homages to earlier works and some of the most delicious opinion pieces and elderly scorn ever written, as well as (thankfully) conservative use of the cut-up technique, these last three books can be taken as Burrough's final thesis in regards to his entire career.
- Ghost of a Chance: A short novella that's something of a sequel to the Red Night trilogy, recalling Captain Mission and the Madagascar setting of his utopian pirate colony.
- The Cat Inside: A sombre and somewhat quirky short novel that showcases a lighter, elderly Burroughs and his love of cats.
- My Education: A collection of forty years' worth of dreams, this was Burroughs' last full-length novel, published as a postscript to the Red Night Trilogy.
- Exterminator!: A collection of short stories ("The 'Priest' They Called Him") and poems ("Cold Lost Marbles," "My Legs Señor")
- Blade Runner: A Movie, a novella from which the title of the film Blade Runner was taken.
- The Black Rider, a deconstructed Post Modern Rock Opera version of Der Freischütz created by Robert Wilson. Burroughs wrote the lyrics for the songs, with music by Tom Waits. Waits would later release the songs in the form of an album, with Burroughs singing one track (a cover of the old jazz song "T'Ain't No Sin"). Of the two of them, it's hard to decide whose voice sounds less human.
- Last Words: a collection of diary entries from the final few years of Burroughs' life.
Collecting Burroughs' works can be complex, owing to the fact that he often revised his texts for later reprints (Junky and The Nova Trilogy are two examples). This has continued after his death, with a number of "restored text" versions of his novels being published featuring previously censored or edited material.
Works by William S. Burroughs with their own pages:
Tropes often seen in the works of William S. Burroughs:
- Author Appeal: Certain images and ideas recur obsessively in virtually all of his novels and stories:
- Use of opiates and other drugs
- Homosexual sodomy
- Erotic asphyxiations, especially images of hanged men getting erections or ejaculating when their necks snap
- Every One Is Armed - Burroughs' protagonists are always armed to the teeth and are skilled shootists
- Cats and lemurs appear frequently in Burroughs' later works.
- Pseudoscientific theories galore: Scientology, Orgone, alien abductions, telepathy
- Author Avatar: All of Burroughs' novels feature main character(s) based on the author.
- William Lee is a stand-in for the author in Junkie, Naked Lunch, and the Cut-Up trilogy. In the Nova trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express), Lee is a secret agent fighting an interplanetary conspiracy.
- In his later novels, from the The Wild Boys on, the character Audrey Carsons (aka Kim Carsons) appears as an avatar of William Burroughs in his youth, i.e. a troubled, bookish homosexual social outcast with an interest in firearms and drug use.
- Big Creepy-Crawlies: Burroughs had very strong feelings of disgust towards centipedes and to a lesser extent other venomous arthropods such as scorpions and spiders. They appear prominently in all of his works, turning up particularly frequently in the Nova trilogy.
- Snakes also appear often, but Burroughs seems to regard them more favorably than venomous arthropods, so Snakes Are Sinister is played with and sometimes averted.
- Body Horror: Like all of Burroughs' surreal fiction, the Nova Trilogy contains many scenes depicting diseased, parasitized bodies and grotesque transformations of humans into other than human form. A good example is a character in The Soft Machine whose bones dissolve away, so that his gelatinous, still-living body gets carried around in a tub or a stretcher by his friends.
- Cast Full of Gay: Most of Burroughs' protagonists are homosexual men based on his own personality traits or those of his close friends and former lovers. Especially so in his later works, e.g. The Wild Boys and The Red Night Trilogy.
- Conspiracy Theorist: The Nova trilogy is full of bizarre conspiracy theories involving mind control by the CIA and other government agencies, alien entities, etc.
- Fantastic Drug: In addition to actual drugs like opiates, psychedelics, etc, many of Burroughs' books involve the use of various exotic substances (e.g. the venom of scorpions or centipedes, the flesh and body fluids of various fictitious creatures) as recreational drugs, especially in the Nova Trilogy.
- He-Man Woman Hater: Burroughs' misogyny is evident in all of his books, but especially in The Wild Boys where he first presents his idea of an all-male, all-homosexual utopia as a world where there is no social contact with the opposite sex at all.
- Manly Gay: Burroughs was very open and militant about his homosexuality in later novels such as The Wild Boys, but he despised effeminate gays almost as much as he despised women. His main characters are always tough guys.
- Mega-Corp: Trak Corporation in The Soft Machine is a company that monopolizes almost every aspect of society, from the print press to food and drink to cigarettes. Other sinister monopolies turn up in Burroughs' various other novels as well.
- No Woman's Land: Quite literally in The Wild Boys and several later novels, where the main characters form all-male, all-homosexual utopias where the only role for women is as artificial insemination incubators (eventually, the heroes find a way to reproduce through a magical parthenogenesis that makes even this female role unnecessary).
- Roman à Clef:
- Junky, or depending on the version Junkie, is essentially an account of his life as a drug addict and dealer, but with the names changed, though he didn't much bother with his own, changing it to William Lee, which he also used as an author pseudonym for this book.
- Queer is an autobiographical account of Burroughs' life in Mexico City when he's (temporarily and partially) off heroin and in hopeless, obsessive pursuit of a young man who's primarily heterosexual and thus can't and won't reciprocate Burroughs's amorous and sexual feelings.
- And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, written with Jack Kerouac, was about a mutual friend who murdered a lover.
- Surreal Horror: Much of the Nova trilogy, particularly the first chapters of The Ticket that Exploded and much of The Soft Machine are nightmarish due to their juxtaposition of strange events (often involving murder, torture, rape), non-sequitur sentences, and grotesque creatures. Due to Burroughs' dark sense of humor, many scenes manage to be simultaneously this and Surreal Humor, in the same vein as Naked Lunch.
- Wall of Text: His cut-ups in particular result in long blocks of text with little regard for sentence continuity, punctuation, or any traditional coherence.
- Word-Salad Horror: The stream-of-consciousness writing together with the cut-up collage technique in the Nova Trilogy generates a lot of bizarre sentences and paragraphs, sometimes nonsensical in a funny way, more often in a disturbing or disorienting way.
William S. Burroughs in popular culture
- He can be seen on the album cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
- The band Steely Dan was named after a dildo in Naked Lunch.
- Soft Machine took its name from Burroughs' novel "Soft Machine".
- The term Heavy Metal first appeared in "Soft Machine", where a character is described as "Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid". In "Nova Express" the word "heavy metal" is used as a metaphor for addictive drugs.
- Joy Division's "Interzone" (1979) is adapted from and named after a location in Naked Lunch.
- The title of Blade Runner (though not the plot) was inspired by a 1979 story by him.
- Iggy Pop's Lust for Life is inspired by the experimental novel "The Ticket That Exploded", most notably by mentions of "Johnny Yen" (described by Burroughs as "The Boy-Girl Other Half strip tease God of sexual frustration") and "hypnotizing chickens".
- Patti Smith dedicated her album Wave (1979) to him in the liner notes.
- He has a cameo in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.
- Sonic Youth, John Cale, and others provided musical back-up to Burroughs' 1990 Spoken Word in Music album "Dead City Radio". He also performed on two other spoken word in music albums: Seven Souls (1989) with Material and Spare Ass Annie And Other Tales (1993) with Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy.
- He appears in the music video of "Last Night On Earth" by U2.
- He recites the spoken word piece "Sharkey's Night" on Laurie Anderson's "Mister Heartbreak" (1984). He later appears on screen several times during Anderson's 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, at one point dancing a slow-motion tango with the singer.
- On "Seven Souls (1989)" by Bill Laswell's band Material he recites passages from his novel "The Western Lands".
- "Quick Fix" (1992) was a collaboration with Ministry.
- Kurt Cobain created layers of guitar feedback and distortion to accompany ""The Priest" They Called Him", where Burroughs reads his own eponymous short story on record. The author also introduced Cobain to Lead Belly, which inspired Cobain to sing "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", a cover of Leadbelly's "In The Pines", on MTV Unplugged in New York.
- Songs in the Key of X, a 1996 companion compilation for The X-Files, features an alternate version of R.E.M.'s "Star Me Kitten" with Burroughs on vocals.
- The album Stoned Immaculate (2000) has a track where Burroughs reads poetry by The Doors frontman Jim Morrison, accompanied by the singer yelping and groaning in the background. Both Morrison and Burroughs were dead by the time this album was released.
- Archer reveals Woodhouse was the one who shot Burroughs' wife in Mexico while high on heroin. Malory mentions she paid 100,000 pesos in bribes and contracted some kind of stomach virus to extract Woodhouse.
- John Zorn's "Interzone" (2010) and "Dreamachines" (2013) pay tribute to William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. "Nova Express" (2011) is also inspired by Burroughs' prose.
- Dale Gribble from King of the Hill is based in no small part on William S. Burroughs, though it'd be more accurate to say that Dale is a hybrid of Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson.
- Likewise, Colonel Horace Gentleman from The Venture Brothers is a hybrid of Burroughs and Sean Connery.