Mark Dery on Naked Lunch's 50th Anniversary

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs's weird, challenging, creepy, funny, cut-up trek through the Interzone. To celebrate, Grove Press published a new hardcover, splipcased edition of the book: Naked Lunch: 50th Anniversary Edition. This edition presents the original restored text of the novel and and Brion Gysin's original cover art that appeared on the first Olympia Press printing. Over at the Las Vegas Weekly, Mark Dery pays his respects to the mugwumps among us. From Las Vegas Weekly:


Fifty years on, Naked Lunch still delivers the gut-grabbing jolt of the autoerotic hangings that punctuate its pages, every death erection and post-mortem ejaculation described with a grim relish that walks the line between cry of conscience and shudder of fetishistic pleasure.

It was these gore-nographic sequences, which Burroughs insisted were a sardonic critique of capital punishment, that resulted in the book's landmark obscenity trial in 1965. Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer offered spirited testimony in the book's defense–regrettably not included in the new Grove edition, but front and center in the 1982 Black Cat edition that electro-shocked my world–and in 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that the book possessed "redeeming social value" and was therefore not obscene.

Of course, Naked Lunch is obscene, in the sense that it's slimed from head to toe by the moral obscenities it wrestles with. In "Howl" (1956), the poem that introduced America to the Beat generation, Ginsberg banged his head against the padded walls of a soulless society "of cement and aluminum" that institutionalized its freethinkers, "bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination." Burroughs, by contrast, shoves America headfirst into the bilge of its hypocrisies, its blood-soaked history, the Pepsodent-smiling brainlessness of its consumer culture. The Beat sensibility, at least as embodied in Ginsberg, was about Whitmanesque brotherly love, a Blakean embrace of cosmic interconnectedness. By that definition, the misanthropic Burroughs, who aspired to a reptilian cool, was no more a Beat than Marcel Duchamp was a surrealist.

"Naked Lunch" at 50 (Las Vegas Weekly)

Naked Lunch: 50th Anniversary Edition (Amazon)