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

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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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DAILY PHOTO: Cave Dining

Taken on January 1, 2016 in Bai Tu Long Bay

Taken on January 1, 2016 in Bai Tu Long Bay

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One of the interesting experiences to be had on a junk boat tour in Vietnam is dining in a cave. This cave used to be employed as a shelter for fishermen during storms. Given all the rocky skerries in the bay, I suspect being in a boat in a storm here would be terrifying. However, the caves are now prohibited to those without a license. Because the fishermen took to lopping off stalactites and stalagmites because they make for impressive mountains for bonzai displays–and those displays can be big money makers when done well.

 

An example of what I’m talking about can be seen below.

This one was located at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi.

This one was located at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi.

TODAY’S RANT: How’d I Get So Much Stuff?

IMG_5194I don’t  like to use words like “stuff”, “things”, or the vague but picturesque “crap.”  Such words have low information content and are thus semantic lightweights. However, there are few words for the random compilation of tchotchkes, trinkets, baubles, gewgaws, kit, tools, devices, objects, gadgets, contraptions, contrivances, gizmos, widgets, thingamajigs, and doohickeys that line the drawers, shelves, and closets of my house.

You may think I’m some sort of packrat, but the sad fact is– I’m not. I’d say our household buys  less than average for homeowners. For one thing, we have no children. For another thing, both my wife and I might be classified as, for lack of a more eloquent term, cheapskates. (She’s an accountant and I’m trained as an economist, what do you expect?)  Of course, many people, perhaps most people, organize their junk better than I.

I do have one consumption fetish, and that is books. If you live in a very small town (or a large city with many small, local libraries) I may have more volumes in my house than does your local library. However, two things have slowed me down in collecting [physical] books. First, I buy most of my books on my Kindle these days. Second, I’ve come to realize that the reason I’ve bought so many books is the hope that one of them would provide some impetus for me to say something interesting, insightful, and valuable, and the entire English language canon has failed me utterly in this regard.

Still, I have a lot of miscellaneous detritus floating around in my home. You’ve heard of the 500-year flood? I have 500-year tools; that is, tools that are specifically for some task that only comes up once every few lifetimes or so. In a reasonable world, one would rent such tools. However, most tool rental places are also tool sellers. Such businesses have learned that if the tool sells new for $60, they can rent it for $50. Most people will buy it on the principle of the matter, and if they don’t… CHA-Ching. Who would rent a tool that costs almost as much to rent as it does to buy? I’ll tell you who (you thought that was rhetorical, didn’t you?), people who have the good sense to think of every object that comes into their home as an item being warehoused at their expense. People who have garage sales are brilliant. They are getting paid to store their junk in your home.

When I’m doing spring cleaning, as I am now, I frequently find containers that contain nothing. I guess I’ve just kept them around in case some pressing containment needs pop up. I keep all sorts of things because I think one day I’ll need them. However,  I never do need such items again, except the day after I throw them out.  To avoid such a situation, I don’t pitch them. However, if I keep them I won’t need them. If Joseph Heller was still alive, he could write a novel about my life.

Of course, sometimes I do need such items, but–owing to my poor organizational paradigm–I can’t find them. I then face the ultimate dilemma. Do I put the new one that I just bought with the old one that I found after I made the purchase, or do I put it in an entirely different location in the hope that when I need it again I’ll have a better chance of finding it.

No place have I felt the weight of how much “junk”  is swirling through our planet as when I was in Bangkok’s Chinatown last fall. There are miles of cramped alleyways and corridors packed to the gills with little plastic-wrapped junk, much of which seems to serve no purpose other than to satisfy the aesthetic needs of people with really poor taste or as gifts for people to whom you really want to send a statement of loathing. I had to get out of there, owing to a fear that shelving would collapse and I would be buried alive under a pile of knock-off Hello-Kitty coin purses.  I can think of no death that is more embarrassing and yet apropos of life in the modern world than that.

Of course, one of the many downsides of an economics education is the knowledge that our high standard of living is dependent upon people making and buying ever more stuff. If you are saying “what high standard of living?” and you haven’t hand-churned your own butter, darned some socks, and killed a mastodon today, I would encourage you to look into how people lived in the past. People unburdened of an economics education can make statements like, “People shouldn’t be materialistic and everybody should have a job and all jobs should pay a living wage.” However, that is like saying, “I should be able to keep my cake and I should be able to eat it as well and somebody should pay me $100 for it.”

We are still hunter-gatherers. We just hunt for bargains, and gather up geegaws.

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