William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs

Throughout the body of his work, the experimental writer Burroughs presented conspiracies and conspiracy theories whose agents comprise right-wing governments, fascist police, repressive medical and psychiatric institutions, corporations and media conglomerates, parasitic mutants and aliens, and, perhaps most pervasive of all, language itself.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914, Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936, and briefly attended medical school in Vienna, Austria, and later the Harvard graduate school of anthropology. After a short service in the U.S. Army, Burroughs moved to New York City where he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Along with other figures such as Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this group would later be recognized— despite their divergent writing styles—as the core of the Beat literary movement. It was also in New York that Burroughs met his wife Joan Vollmer Adams, whom Burroughs later killed in an accidental shooting. It was this event, Burroughs would later say, that motivated him to become a writer.

Burroughs was the grandson of W. S. Burroughs, inventor of the Burroughs Adding Machine and founder of what became the Burroughs Corporation. The Burroughs fortune provided the author with a small stipend that allowed him, from 1948 on, to live in Mexico City, Tangier, Paris, and London.

As much as Burroughs’s famous lifelong heroin use, this extensive travel provided the subject matter and inspiration for his work, which is characterized by a frenetic, fantastical, and picaresque style of diverse locations and time periods, along with science fiction–influenced reimaginings of the past and the present.

Burroughs’s first novel, Junky (1953), was published in his mid-thirties under the name of William Lee. It is a first-person reportorial account of his life as a junkie in New York, and displays little of the stylistic experimentation that Burroughs became famous for in Naked Lunch (1959).

It does, however, inaugurate his lifelong fascination with the criminal underworld and his often “hardboiled” writing style. Published by the notorious Olympia Press, Naked Lunch crystallized many of Burroughs’s surreal and sexually violent obsessions, such as young boys ejaculating while being hanged, secret agents and otherworldly organizations, and real and imagined drugs such as aquatic centipede meat and Mugwump jism.

It also introduced Burroughs’s use of “routines,” which were short, seemingly improvised stories of a satirical, often grotesque nature. The 1962 publication of Naked Lunch in the United States led to its being banned in Boston, Massachusetts, and a trial in which the novel was deemed obscene, a decision that was later repealed.

After Naked Lunch, Burroughs began composing novels using the cut-up method (also known as the cut-up and fold-in method). Similar to a technique proposed by the dadaist Tristan Tzara when he suggested he would write a poem by pulling words from a hat, and later by Burroughs’s friend Brion Gysin, the cut-up method involved splicing his own writing as well as that of others into fragments, and recombining the pieces to create a new text.

Burroughs constructed a trilogy of novels using this method, namely The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). Through the use of the cut-up method, the regular intermixing of generic styles and dislocations of time, space, and subject, and the satirical use of “routines,” Burroughs’s work was increasingly concerned with overcoming and sometimes redeploying various modes of power and control.

The cut-up method served not only to make random associations but to reveal hidden connections. Thus it was not so much an effort toward schizophrenic fragmentation but a surrealist and perhaps “paranoid” attempt to unmask the hidden meanings in language.

Critics have often read Burroughs’s work as an attempt to escape a language that had been taken over by corporate, governmental, and intergalactic forces. Drug addiction was reimagined as “the junk virus” and Burroughs began to explore the nature of addiction not merely to drugs, but to images, causality, language, and power.

Questions of agency are frequently refigured as narratives about “secret agents” in which characters are represented as agents of a particular organization or group, or simply as agents of the belief system that has imprinted itself on them.

These agents infiltrate each other’s organizations, take on disguises and then forget their original identities, work as double or triple agents, and become involved in conspiracies so obtuse that they are often unsure for whom they are working. Burroughs’s representation of conspiracy regularly extends to the phantasmagoric, in which the agents of conspiracy are presented in biological terms, as parasitic, viral, and insectile.

The effect of such conspiracies often involves the transformation of humans into mutated organisms defined by their particular addiction or group. The conflict between various “controllers” and those who would be controlled recurs throughout Burroughs’s novels, such as the alien conspiracy known as the Nova Mob, and the Nova Police who struggle against them.

In the 1980s, Burroughs published an apocalyptic trilogy, made up of Cities of the Red Night (1981), Place of Dead Roads (1984), and The Western Lands (1987). These utopian/dystopian fictions thread together various story lines of gay pirate utopias, Westerns, and Egyptian mythology.

In 1991, The Naked Lunch was made into a film by David Cronenberg, but as had become customary by this time, the film dealt as much with the biography and mythology of Burroughs’s life as it did the contents of his best-known novel. In a similar fashion, Gus Van Sant had used the mythology of Burroughs’s life in his film Drugstore Cowboy (1989), in which Burroughs played a defrocked junkie priest with a paternal relationship to the lead protagonist.

Burroughs’s influence on the worlds of punk and underground music was apparent from the 1970s onward, with The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, and Patti Smith, among others, citing him as an important influence, and other bands taking on names inspired by his books such as Steely Dan and The Nova Conspiracy.

Even the genre of Heavy Metal was inspired by Burroughs’s literary appropriation of the scientific category. In the 1990s, numerous musical collaborations were released, further cementing his status as an underground icon and elder statesman of the counterculture.

These releases included Dead City Radio (1990), with collaborative tracks by John Cale and Sonic Youth, a collaborative album with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy called Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (1993), and another with Kurt Cobain, entitled The “Priest” They Called Him (1992). In his final years, Burroughs wrote little, publishing My Education: A Book of Dreams and Ghost of Chance in 1995, but he continued to shotgun paint, exhibiting his works in the United States and across Europe.