BOOK REVIEW: Naked Lunch [the Restored Text] by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch: The Restored TextNaked Lunch: The Restored Text by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page

This isn’t a novel so much as a series of heroin-fueled fever dreams. While that makes it sound incoherent and unreadable, there’s a great deal of visceral imagery and clever language in it. What there’s not is a thread that carries the reader through a series of events constituting a coherent narrative arc. The book reads like dystopian fiction, but that’s merely Beat-style lingo and heroin addict worldview applied to a combination of Burrough’s world and the surreal mind-space of the addict on a fix.

As is also true of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” if you’re a reader who needs a coherent story and the avoidance of experimental language, you probably won’t like this book. Furthermore, readers who’re uncomfortable with pornographic imagery will also find the book objectionable. However, if you enjoy books that are prose poem-like in their use of language and if you don’t mind the disjointed strangeness necessary to convey the addict’s mental experience, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this book. It’s worth recognizing that what makes the book a challenging read is simultaneously what makes it such a masterpiece of the drug-addled experience. If it were more lucid, it’d be tepid and purposeless.

This is the restored text edition. This is one of the few cases in which I’d recommend reading all the backmatter. It includes some “outtakes” from the earliest drafts, but (more usefully) some essays by Burroughs that offer important insights. When one finishes this book, there’s a tendency to think, “What was that? What did I just read?” The appendices help one understand the book better. Here we read Burrough’s claim that he had no recollection of composing the original draft, and a later statement in which he clarifies that his earlier statement was an exaggeration – that he did have some memories of it.

I found this book to be an engrossing read. As I say, while it’s bizarre, outlandish, and frequently pornographic, it also lends insight into a state of mind that most of us – fortunately – will never experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt

The Beats: A Very Short IntroductionThe Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This is the most fascinating book I’ve read in the VSI (Very Short Introductions) series, and I read a lot of these books as a means to mainline the gist of various academic subjects. I should point out that the subject matter is more colorful than the average scholarly topic. The Beats were a 1950’s American countercultural literary movement that some may confuse with the hippies of the 60’s, but which was different in many ways. As is emphasized in the book, the Beats were more about revolutions from within than they were about upending society. In that sense, they might have more in common with the Transcendentalists (i.e. Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) than the hippies. That said, some Beats did flow pretty smoothly from one movement to the next, and were both interested in revolution from within and without – most notably, Allen Ginsberg.

The first thing that one finds compelling is the biographical sketches of key Beat figures (i.e. chapters 3 and 4 on Beat novelists and poets, respectively.) A disturbing number of Beats lived tragically short lives, owing to drugs, alcohol (e.g. Kerouac,) and sometimes just being around a violent contrarian. Even the Beats who lived long lives had their share of outlandishness, such as William Burroughs killing his wife, Joan Vollmer, in an ill-fate William Tell imitation. (Those who know Burroughs from later in his career may wonder why he even had a wife, being gay and all. That’s just one of the ways that hidden, latent, and repressed homosexuality plays out as tragedy in the Beat story of the socially conservative 1950’s.)

The second thing I found absorbing was the discussion of how these writers and poets made art. Like the aforementioned Transcendentalists, the Beats drew heavily on Eastern philosophies and psychologies – most notably Buddhism, and Zen, in particular. Beat authors not only looked to the East for subject matter and aesthetics, but also to help them achieve the spontaneity and nowness associated with Zen. However, this wasn’t wholesale conversion to Buddhism, it remained a uniquely American strain, and also sought to draw inspiration from that most American of arts, Jazz.

If you’re interested in the Beats or their approach to writing, I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

Turtle Island (Shambhala Pocket Classics)Turtle Island by Gary Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re not a reader of latter-20th century American poetry, then maybe you’ve heard of Gary Snyder’s fictional doppelgänger, Japhy Ryder, even if you haven’t heard of Snyder, himself. Ryder appears in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” as a friend and mentor to Kerouac’s own fictional persona, Ray Smith. If you do remember Ryder, you have some insight into the themes that recur throughout this collection. Said themes include reverence for nature and an appeal to Eastern philosophical and religious traditions–most specifically Zen. Though there are other themes that you might not be expecting, such as fatherhood and the overarching theme of North America.

This collection consists of 63 pieces divided into four parts. Except for those of the last part, the pieces are all poetic. In other words, there are 58 poems and five short prose essays. The poems cover a lot of ground, though they are all free verse. Some of them are spare and others are prose poetry. They range from a few lines to a few pages. The vast majority of the poems put nature at the fore. Some have the tone of haiku—though not its form. By that I mean the tendency to describe without letting in analysis or judgement, attempting to offer a pure reflection of scenes from nature. There are some points at which Snyder veers into political commentary, e.g. with lists of statistics—some of which have no meaning as written (see: “Fact” the first piece in the section “Magpie’s Song”) and rants against the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR)–a technology that one suspects the poet knows no more about than does the reader. But for the most part the poems are portraits of North American wilderness, and can be enjoyed as such.

I found this collection to be enjoyable and evocative. Snyder transports one into North America’s great outdoors. I’d recommend this work for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Collected Poems 1947 – 1997 by Allen Ginsberg

Collected Poems 1947-1997Collected Poems 1947-1997 by Allen Ginsberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This “collection” is actually 13 collections bound together in one volume that presents much of the published poetry of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg over the second half of the 20th century—till his death in 1997. Ginsberg is probably best known for “Howl,” which is both the name of the third collection in this book and the poem for which it was named (i.e. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,…”) However, Ginsberg’s work is extensive, and one can find many a lesser known gem inside.

Ginsberg’s body of work isn’t just copious; it’s also highly varied stylistically. While Ginsberg most commonly uses free verse, he also uses rhyming / metered poems, shaped poems, variations on haiku, musical lyrics, and–in rare instances–prose form poems and puzzle poems.

While Ginsberg’s work is also thematically varied, there are a number of recurring themes. First, as one might expect of the author of “Howl,” Ginsberg’s work is highly politically charged. One gets a history review of the latter 20th century from reading this volume. Ginsberg rails against the war in Vietnam, against the Iran-Contra affair, and against alleged CIA drug dealing at home and abroad. It should be noted that while Ginsberg’s views are expectedly counter-culture, there isn’t the delusional glorification of the opposition that one often sees from many political writers. That is to say, as Ginsberg rebukes capitalists and conservatives, he also takes on the Soviets and other leftist regimes who engaged in human rights violations or war-mongering.

Second, as one might expect from the inspiration for Alvah Goldbook in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” Ginsberg frequently references Eastern spiritual traditions—notably Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. There are a number of poems set in places like Varanasi (Benares) and Siem Reap (Angkor) that reflect Ginsberg’s traveling exploration of these systems. Of course, Ginsberg was a traveler in general, and so there are a number of poems set in the Western Hemisphere and Europe as well. Ginsberg also writes a little bit on his birth religion, Judaism, but usually in a secular manner and sometimes while rebuking the actions of Zionists.

Third, there are many [mostly homoerotic] sex poems in the collection. For those who are sensitive about such matters, I don’t use the term “sex poem” as a sloppy substitute for the word erotica. These aren’t erotic love poems in the conventional sense, they are usually graphic and Ginsberg purposefully uses provocative, shocking, and sometimes lurid wording to evoke a response in the reader. If reading about Ginsberg’s sexual adventures will cause you emotional trauma, be forewarned.

There are end-notes that can be quite helpful, particularly if you’ve forgotten some of your 20th century history, are unfamiliar with Beat trivia (all of the characters from Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” make an appearance), or aren’t familiar with the various yogic and Buddhist gurus who Ginsberg refers to. (The first set of notes oddly comes after the 10th collection. that’s because this collection is actually even more of a matryoshka doll than I suggested. The first 10 collections are actually collections inside a collection (“Collected Poems 1947 – 1980”) that’s inside a collection (“Collected Poems 1947 – 1997”.) The last three collections have their own end-notes immediately following them.

There are few graphics, mostly the music to poems that are—or can be—set to music.

I’d recommend this collection to poetry readers, particularly those who enjoy Beat period language. As I mentioned, the delicate political or sexual sensitivities of some readers may be offended. On the other hand, as I always say: If you’re not reading outside your comfort zone, you shouldn’t consider yourself so much educated as indoctrinated.

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