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Literature / Naked Lunch

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"I can think of at least two things wrong with that title."
Nelson Muntz, after seeing the movie in "Bart on the Road"

Describe Naked Lunch here.

Hoo boy. How do you describe 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 facing the unvarnished truth about what people do to survive in society — "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork" — and the specific lunch that Burroughs wanted to unclothe was the custom of capital punishment. He objected 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 the killing of a human being. 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.
  • 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 to talk?" The long and short of it is that the man atrophies and becomes a barely-sentient support system for his anus.
    • The literally hung boys are described as being put into Iron Lungs. Barring some kind of weird Interzone treatment, an Iron Lung is more-or-less permanent (on top of already becoming quadraplegic from the hanging).
  • Anti-Hero: Our first introduction to AJ is repaying a passerby who saved him from pursuing police is to sneeringly decide he's a homosexual and sets him up to buy fake weed.
  • 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 of its own, as it is the culmination of all of his early work: 'blank insect eyes', 'recall when (I) [event happened]', 'like music down a windy street', 'shitting and pissing in terror', 'No glot. C'lom Fliday'.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The County Clerk remembers a lynching:
    "So they burned the nigger and that ol' boy took his wife and went back up to Texarkana without paying for the gasoline and old Whispering Lou runs the service station couldn't talk about nothing else all Fall: 'These city fellers come down here and burn a nigger and don't even settle up for the gasoline.'
  • 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".
  • Black Comedy: Drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, political corruption, racism, all treated in a disturbingly light-hearted manner.
  • 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 three parties are not all as separate in practice as they are in the abstract.
  • Body Horror: All over the place - Burroughs uses often-fantastical disease and deformity as a metaphor for addiction, lust, and loss of autonomy. Among the most prominent examples are:
    • Bradley the Buyer - originally a heroin dealer whose addiction was the selling and not anything related to drugs, his need for the high of selling heroin to the point of being a stool pigeon for the cops transforms him into an oozing slime who dissolves his victims by enveloping them.
    • The "talking asshole" routine - a man starts to speak through his asshole. Eventually his brain atrophies, his mouth seals over, and he becomes a life support system for his anus.
    • The "complete deanxietized man" - a lobotomized patient transforms into a giant centipede.
    • The "reptiles" - people addicted to the semen of mugwumps. They've atrophied into little more than receptacles for the substance.
    • Willy the Disk, a junkie turned into a living drugs probe for the cops. He's charmingly described as having turned into a warped, ashen nearly-inhuman hunk whose face has been half-rotted from endless drug injections, especially his mouth. It's rotten into a black hole-like orifrice lined with erect hairs - hence, 'Willy the Disk'.
    • A less surreal example is a female prostitute who intentionally keeps lesions open on her arms and legs with a pin so she can drip in heroin without the need for injection via a syringe.
  • Bury Your Gays: But only if they're Camp Gay.
  • Cement Shoes: Alluded to several times in Burroughs's word mosaics.
  • Chez Restaurant: Chez Robert, where "a huge icy gourmet broods over the greatest cuisine in the world."
  • 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.
  • Cordon Bleugh Chef: After the owner of Chez Robert dies, his brother Paul (who has just gotten out of an asylum) takes over and begins... experimenting with the menu. "Imperceptibly the quality of the food declines until he is serving literal garbage, the clients being too intimidated by the reputation of Chez Robert to protest." The sample menu Lee offers begins with "The Clear Camel Piss Soup with boiled Earth Worms" and gets worse from there.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: Naked Lunch begins Burroughs' proud tradition of juxtaposing the hallucinatory horrors of paranoid high-tech dystopias with Mayincatec-esque iconography. This is taken to new levels in his next book, The Soft Machine.
  • Culture Chop Suey: Interzone, although primarily based on Tangiers, seems to incorporate elements of the American Deep South (Cunt Lick County), the South American rainforests (The Upper Baboonsasshole), and socialist Europe (Annexia). There are repeated descriptions of buildings and houses, in a hundred clashing styles, all crammed in next to each other in the City.
  • Dr. Feelgood: The County Clerk recounts a conversation with his local pharmacist:
    "'Well,' Doc says, 'there was a feller in here this morning. City feller. Dressed kinda flashy. So he's got him a RX for a mason jar of morphine.... Kinda funny looking prescription writ out on toilet paper.... And I told him straight out: "Mister, I suspect you to be a dope fiend." '
    "'"I got the ingrowing toe nails, Pop. I'm in agony."' he says.
    "'"Well," I says, "I gotta be careful. But so long as you got a legitimate condition and an RX from a certified bona feedy M.D., I'm honored to serve you." '
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The reptiles giving oral to the Mugwumps for a drug that prolongs life.
  • Eagleland: Occasionally comes in for its share of brutal criticism, but two characters worth mentioning are Clem and Jody — a pair of vaudeville comedians turned Soviet agents, whose sole mission is to travel around the Third World on the KGB's dime, sabotaging every country they visit while acting like the worst Type 2 Eagleland stereotypes possible in order to ruin America's reputation.
    Clem and Jody sweep in dressed like The Capitalist in a Communist mural.
  • 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.
  • 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?'"
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Interzone is a dystopian caricature of Tangier, Morocco, albeit with other various influences (see Culture Chop Suey above).
  • Fauxreigner: A few characters in the novel attempt to disguise their ethnic origin, although they often give away the fraud by adopting ludicrous multiethnic 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.
  • French Cuisine Is Haughty: Which makes Chez Robert a perfect target for one of A.J.'s nasty pranks. He instigates a riot by demanding ketchup with his meal (or — accounts vary — by bringing in his own ketchup and dousing the food in it); the owner, chef, and sommelier all burst into a rage and chase him around the room with meat cleavers and broken champagne bottles.
  • 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.
  • Gibraltar: Comes in for mockery, oddly enough. "The Island" is a British colony just across the water from Interzone with a severe monkey-infestation problem (parodying the macaques on Gibraltar). The UK treats it with contempt, and the populace ritually grovel on a yearly basis to remain British territory; as with many British colonies, they've developed their own unique accent, although most of them stringently deny it ("We are Breetish. We haven't got no bloody dealect."). Most of its chief ministers die of shame before completing their term of office; the Expeditor started off as a chief minister who served all five years, then emigrated to Interzone and got plastic surgery to change his face.
  • 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.
  • Heroic Comedic 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).
  • IKEA Erotica: Most of the sexual acts in the novel (at least those that don't involve torture, mutilation, or murder) are described as matter-of-fact, mechanical body functions.
  • The 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, having to make decisions that aren't in their job description, 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.
  • Le Film Artistique: There's one that sounds like a Alejandro Jodorowsky movie, except for all the porn.
  • 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: The orgy in Hassan's Rumpus Room.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lee is an obvious stand-in for Burroughs himself. Andrew Keif is based on Paul Bowles, the author and composer who befriended Burroughs in Tangiers.
  • 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.
    The County Clerk has his office in a huge red brick building known as the Old Court House. Civil cases are, in fact, tried there, the proceeding inexorably dragging out until the contestants die or abandon litigation. This is due to the vast number of records pertaining to absolutely everything, all filed in the wrong place so that no one but the County Clerk and his staff of assistants can find them, and he often spends years in the search. In fact, he is still looking for material relative to a damage suit that was settled out of court in 1910. [...] When suit is brought against anyone in the Zone, his lawyers connive to have the case transferred to the Old Court House. Once this is done, the plaintiff has lost the case, so the only cases that actually go to trial in the Old Court House are those instigated by eccentrics and paranoids who want "a public hearing," which they rarely get since only the most desperate famine of news will bring a reporter to the Old Court House.
  • Of Corsets Funny: The results of a stomach tuck are referred to as a Flesh Corset, but Lee warns us that the sloppier surgeries lead to FC's that are "subject to break and spurt your horrible old guts across the floor."
  • People Puppets: Senders control people by telepathically transmitting their thoughts. This was the inspiration behind another movie by David Cronenberg.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Annexia, based on East Germany and other Soviet satellite states. Noteworthy in that they manage to oppress the hell out of people despite having abolished concentration camps, mass arrests, and most forms of torture; under Dr. Benway's guidance, they have removed every trace of plant life from the cities, installed giant buzzers on apartment buildings that ring the quarter-hour loudly enough to throw people out of their beds in the middle of the night, and rewritten the laws to make it impossible to do anything — from leaving your house without your gigantic portfolio of ID papers to consuming alcohol in the presence of another person — without breaking some regulation and thus subjecting yourself to arrest and interrogation.
    After a few months of this the citizens cowered in corners like neurotic cats.
  • 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.
  • Prima Donna Director: The Great Slashtubitch, except he directs epic porn films.
  • Properly Paranoid: With all the weird shit running around, it makes perfect sense for Lee to flee the country as fast as he can.
  • Rambling Old Man Monologue: The County Clerk is given to these; we're subjected to one that goes on for almost five pages, and only ends because he has to take a restroom break — at which point Lee interrupts desperately to try and get his business handled.
  • 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."
  • Sex Signals Death: 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.
    • In the chapters ''AJ's Annual Party" and "Hassan's Rumpus Room", people are mutilated and hanged during or shortly after having sex.
    • AJ's description of a suspected snitch being given a lethal dose of rat poison and not junk is set up like a voyeuristic burlesque act: an audience pays to watch someone "perform", and AJ's loving depiction of the mole's face as he hits his death throes sounds suspiciously orgiastic.
    "The look in his eyes when it hit - Kid, it was tasty..."
  • Title Drop: For the sub-sections And Start West, Lazarus Go Home, Ordinary Men and Women, The County Clerk, The Exterminator Does A Good Job, and The Algebra of Need.
  • 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.
  • Torture Technician: Doctor Benway, an expert-for-hire in systems of control and repression; although he's very careful to insist that his methods stop short of physical torture except as a last resort, it's clear that psychological torture is his stock in trade. The following quote proceeds an entire passage of how he traumatised an entire small nation into Pavlovian compliance.
    "I deplore brutality. It's inefficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. [...] The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. [...] the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it."
  • Utopia: Parodied In-Universe with the Freeland Republic, which is "clean and dull my God" — although something sinister may be going on behind the scenes, given that the government's hired Benway as a consultant. An earlier passage in the book implies that Freeland is inspired by Burroughs' experiences in Scandinavia:
    ... and what hits you when you get off the Malmö Ferry in (no juice tax on the ferry) Sweden knocks all that cheap, tax free juice right out of you and brings you all the way down: averted eyes and the cemetery in the middle of town (every town in Sweden seems to be built around a cemetery), and nothing to do in the afternoon, not a bar not a movie and I blasted my last stick of Tangier tea and I said, "K.E. let's get right back on that ferry."
  • Villain Protagonist: A.J. is one of the intended heroes of the book, a "laughable, lovable eccentric" whose track list of pranks include showing up at a fancy-dress ball dressed as a condom; spiking the punch at an Anti-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 dying of a rage-induced heart attack and being eaten by famished hogs. We first meet him repaying a fellow junkie who saved him from being arrested by detectives by setting him up to buy fake weed simply because he thinks the junkie looks homosexual.
  • Walking the Earth: Essentially what Burroughs did in the fifties, migrating from Chicago to New York to New Orleans to Texas to Mexico to South America to Tangiers to London to Paris. 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: "Ever make sex in no gravity? Your jissom just floats out in the air like lovely ectoplasm, and female guests are subject to immaculate or at least indirect conception..."