The Friday Afternoon Movie: Naked Lunch

We are going to get right into it because you and I both know that there are copies to be made and collated A.S.A.P. As in As Soon As Possible. As in by 10 minutes ago.

The Naked Lunch is a mess of a novel which, I suppose, was the point. William S. Burroughs’s most famous work, made possible by the cut-up technique he championed* was decried as pornographic when it was published in Paris in 1959. It wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1962 where an obscenity trial was held for it and it was banned by courts in Boston, though the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned that ban in 1966. What The Naked Lunch is about is hard to say. There is a man named William Lee. He is an Agent. There are strange, far off places with names like Interzone and Freeland. There is a lot of sex of many varieties, centipedes, drugs, pedophilia, and Mugwumps. Somewhere in all this is satire. Mostly, it is nonsense.

And yet, it is interesting nonsense which is the key to its enduring legacy and the reason that David Cronenberg decided to make a movie out of it in 1991 starring Peter Weller, pulling an excellent Burroughs imitation. Also mixed in there are Ian Holm, Judy Davis and a crazed cameo by Roy Scheider. Naked Lunch does its best to make some kind of narrative out of Uncle Bill’s series of vignettes by filling in many of the gaps with snippets taken from Burroughs’s life, meaning we get to meet fellow Beat writers Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac in the forms of Bill’s friends Martin and Hank. It also features the infamous “William Tell routine” which resulted in Burroughs shooting and killing his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs née Adams, in 1951 for which he would spend 13 days in jail and eventually receive a suspended 2 year sentence, in absentia.

Luckily, the novel contains a plethora of just the kind of body horror material that so appealed to Cronenberg before 2002’s Spider. Fluids, orifices, and gruesome transformations are in gleeful abundance and the end result is a film that keeps the hallucinatory vision of the novel while adding a narrative anchor to keep it from completely floating away. Also, it helped to insure that, should one ever have to name a foreign rent-boy for their novel, short story, movie, whatever, it will always be Kiki. Always.

*This is not true, as pointed out by Ben Morris in the comments. While it is considered part of Burroughs’s cut-up period it was not produced using this method, a method Burroughs became acquainted with only after the publication of “The Naked Lunch”, meaning that Burroughs required no special technique to write a confusing mess of a book.

6 Responses to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: Naked Lunch”

  1. vikki Says:

    I saw the movie before reading the book and whilst worth reading it is a lot more hard going in a fever dream kind of way but worth a look nontheless … then with your new found reading weird books skill you can move on to gravitys rainbow.

  2. Paul Komoda Says:

    While I think it’s far from the definitive Burroughs movie( that’s something that has yet to be made ), and contains what is possibly the single worst animatronic creature effect scene for that era, I still claim a steadfast fondness for this film.
    I’d go so far to say that it’s quintessential “comfort” viewing for me.

    Thanks for posting this!

  3. Ben Morris Says:

    I hate to nit-pic because this is a great post on both a book and film that I really love I feel I must.

    William S. Burroughs’s most famous work, made possible by the cut-up technique he championed was decried as pornographic when it was published in Paris in 1959.

    This is incorrect. Burroughs didn’t use the cut-up technique on Naked Lunch, he first learned of the technique from Brion Gysin in 1959 shortly after Naked Lunch‘s publication. The first work Burroughs used the technique on was 1961’s Soft Machine.

  4. E.Bloeak Says:

    I definitely read Naked Lunch too young – I remember thinking, “Wow, that must be what drugs are like!” I think I’ll take the cosmic hint and finally sit down long enough to watch the movie.

    If nothing else, apparently there’s some great body horror going on there. :)

  5. kendra Says:

    my brain its still trying to process what i have just witnessed..maybe a little too hard..I think I have to add another book to wishlist..

  6. DavidS Says:

    I won’t argue that it’s confusing or a mess, but it’s not nonsensical. It has very compelling things to say about language (as virus), power (addiction to), paranoia, systems of domination and manages to relate them (obliquely, I’ll admit. Metaphorically.) to the larger culture. In a way, it’s Burroughs projecting his own complex of sex/addiction/neurosis/necrosis onto America. But that’s no different from any other writer, and his vision is persuasive. Looking through his warped lens, you see our culture as addicted (to violence, power, control) and suffering torments of flesh and denied sexuality. Hell, that’s the story of Elvis.