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“Naked Lunch” is an indulgent syntax circus

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

Photo via Malcolm Streitfeld

Disclaimer: If you read this review and want to pick up this book, be aware that it is very visceral and deals with many subjects that might make a person uncomfortable, most especially drug use. Go into it only if you’re prepared to handle the grim territories this story often enters.

By now, I have come across countless authors who could be considered postmodern and/or counterculture. From Heller to Vonnegut, these writers, each in their own unique way, pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in literature at the time. William S. Burroughs, more than any other author who I’ve read the writing of, openly defied the conventional. There is no better example than perhaps his most well known work: “Naked Lunch.”

Focusing on Burroughs’s experiences as a heroin addict, this story veers wildly in tone. It often abruptly swings between sensual surrealistic dreamscapes that resemble the bizarre paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and stark hellish realities that brutally capture the pain and suffering that comes with being a heroin addict.

In addition to this, the book is extremely nonlinear. None of the events that happen in it tend to occur in any kind of chronological order. In fact, they all feel completely unconnected. Burroughs, almost gleefully, quickly takes any notions of proper time and place and tosses them right out the window. It is impossible to tell where exactly “Naked Lunch” is happening and in what year. No hints towards a set location and timeframe are ever really provided. This, along with the aforementioned tendency of the story to give a reader tonal whiplash, makes it come across as jarring and unpredictable.

Burroughs’ writing style is definitely worth mentioning here, as it is unique. He is also known as an oral storyteller and anyone who reads “Naked Lunch” will quickly pick up on this. Burroughs’ paragraphs are filled to the brim with heavily accented dialogue and urban slang.

I first started reading “Naked Lunch” and made the mistake of trying to understand every single obscure phrase I came across. Truth is, “Naked Lunch” is not a book that is meant to be understood completely. It is rather meant to be experienced.

As I progressed through the novel, I more and more let myself be swallowed up by the insane festival. Once I stopped concentrating so hard on getting a full grasp of Burroughs’s vocabulary and just let the images he conjured wash over me in surrealistic waves, the story became far more enjoyable and progressed at a much faster pace.

Another piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to read “Naked Lunch” is to first listen to YouTube videos of Burroughs reading to live audiences. I didn’t do this myself, but looking back on my time spent reading “Naked Lunch,” I can definitely see how becoming well-acquainted with Burroughs’s literary voice would help someone better comprehend his textual work.

If you want to read a book that goes to every possible extreme, then read “Naked Lunch.” Before you do, get ready for one heck of a thrill ride.



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