Banned Book Club: Naked Lunch

Title: Naked Lunch

Published: 1959

Author: William Burroughs

Challenge status: Naked Lunch is #73 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #39 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Labeled as obscenity in Boston, MA Superior Court (1965), the following year the decision was reversed by the State Supreme Court. The book was originally published in Paris (1959), but a U.S. version wasn’t published until 1962, purportedly due to concern over U.S. obscenity laws – Naked Lunch was one of the most recent books to be tried as obscenity. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of the Boston trial Mailer & Ginsberg are interviewed/deposed. Sounds like the California case (the book was also censored in Los Angeles) ended up getting overturned w/out going to trial. In Australia, it was banned by Customs after an imported copy was seized and labeled as  ‘hard-core pornography’ (Port Adelaide, 1960); it was released from the prohibited list in 1973.

First line: ”I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch and uptown A train…Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me.”


Welp, so, how to describe this without “spoiling” any of it? Let’s start with this: Naked Lunch is the most disgusting book I’ve ever read. I’m trying to decide if it’s also the most disturbing. Difficult to say, I’ve read a lot of disturbing books.

What does that mean? Reading it is kind of like having a really graphic, vivid nightmare of drowning, and as you struggle to wake up, someone is firmly holding you under. I can see what all the fuss was about with the censors, if ever there was a book that needed a trigger warning, it’s this one. I wasn’t looking forward to it, having several years watched quite a bit of a movie adaptation (I think now it was the Cronenberg one, but I’m not eager to confirm).

The study of thinking machines teaches us more about the brain than we can learn by introspective methods. Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets. – William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch

That said, the book is Beat novelist Burrough’s seminal (pun intended) work that vaguely follow a junkie across the U.S. into Mexico and to Tangiers. Calling it a novel is a bit of a stretch, it’s more like a series of related dreamscapes, the timeline is completely theoretical. Key themes and phrases are repeated or twisted through each segment.

As a narrative, it is an homage to climax experiences: the opiate high, sexual release, madness, and death.

…You see control can never be a means to any practical end…It can never be a means to anything but more control… – William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch

The whole work makes much more sense after reading the author’s (much more lucid) thoughts in the afterword and essays in the Grove Press edition I read (2009). Burrough’s was addicted to opiates, and through his addiction, took a LOT of notes. Those notes became the basis of Naked Lunch. (He was also apparently suffering from an unrequited love for fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, with whom he corresponded quite a bit on the topic of his writing.) Kerouac supplied the title for the project, which ended up being a combination of three separate pieces Burrough’s was working on (working titles of the pieces being ‘Junk,’ ‘Queer,’ and ‘Yage.’ Finally pushed to a deadline, his friends spend some intensive time with him trying to shape the raw material into one work: the result is Naked Lunch.

Eventually, after hitting rock bottom in Tangiers, Burrough’s is able to kick his habit though some intense therapy/treatment (which he describes at length) and is now in a state to provide some context and a coherent point of view on addiction”

“Junk is the mold of monopoly and possession […] Junk is quantitative and accurately measurable. The more junk you use the less you have and the more you have the more you use. All the hallucinogen drugs are considered sacred by those who used them […] but no one ever suggested that junk is sacred. There are no opium cults. Opium is profane and quantitative like money […] the ideal product…the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy….The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.” – William S Burroughs, Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness

In sum…Naked Lunch: Not saying it’s not art, just saying it’s not appetizing.

What do you think?

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