Ever since the hundredth anniversary of William S. Burroughs’ birth in 2014, there has been a glut of books about his life and work. When I wrote my own book, Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’, not long before that, there really wasn’t much available in terms of research into his work. It seems that now he is being assessed from all angles, and it is wonderful to read these very different approaches to his work.
This year, Joan Hawkins and Alex Wermer-Colan have edited William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century, a collection of essays about Burroughs as well as some of his unpublished work. This is an extremely wide-ranging book that contains pieces of scholarship on many different aspects of Burroughs’ oeuvre, and aims to “provide a foundation for new generations of fans and scholars… to interpret Burroughs’ cryptic runes.”
The book begins with a useful timeline of Burroughs’ life and an introduction that positions Burroughs as a literary warrior of sorts, attempting to destroy elements of the world through his famous Cut-Up Method. Indeed, Burroughs himself said “The cut ups are not for artistic purposes. The cut ups are a weapon a sword.” This explains why the cover photo (taken from 1963’s Towers Open Fire) for the book shows the author in an almost military scene. Although he is experimenting with cutting together sounds, a quick glance might see him mistaken for a general commanding a devastating counterattack.
Burroughs’ own material in this book includes a great many unpublished cut-up efforts from throughout his lifetime. The first is actually a poem written by his son, Billy, at just fourteen years old. However, in addition to the original poem is Burroughs cut-up of it. There is also a pornographic screenplay for The Wild Boys, and some of Burroughs’ embarrassingly misguided thoughts on the Cultural Revolution in China, which he grossly misunderstood. Much of this material is riddled with typos, which makes deciphering it even harder than reading his published work, but it is nonetheless fascinating.
The first essay in the collection is, fittingly, by Oliver Harris. I say “fittingly” because every other essay in the book references Harris and his contributions to Beat studies. Harris offers a view of the Burroughs century rather than American century announced by Henry Luce of TIME, LIFE, and Fortune magazines. He demonstrates just how important Luce was to Burroughs as an enemy of sorts, and shows how Burroughs’ Cut-Up Trilogy (which was not a trilogy at all, he explains) was in part an effort to subvert Luce’s vision:
To grasp the centrality of Luce’s global media empire to Burroughs’ Cut-Up Project is to understand how and why cut-up methods were weapons for waging asymmetrical warfare against the American Century and to recognize the true scale of his ambition and sight.
Harris’ essay is one of the highlights of this volume, as is his interview with Barry Miles, taken from a 2014 event. There are a few other interviews scattered throughout the book, another of which sees Harris being interviewed by Davis Schneiderman. These, along with Burroughs’ own cut-ups, help break up the dense essays of which the book is otherwise comprised.
Kristen Galvin examines Burroughs’ work in terms of place, though not through Tangiers, Paris, Mexico City, or even Texas, as in previous books or essays. Here, she picks the lens of Downtown New York City, which was where Burroughs first settled after his long, self-imposed exile from the U.S. This sprawling essay covers the Nova Convention and the history of Semiotext(e). Another magnificent essay by Eric Sandweiss explores Burroughs’ return to St. Louis, as detailed in his Paris Review piece, “St. Louis Return,” which is largely overlooked in even the extensive biographies. This visit was an oddity in Burroughs’ life, as Sandweiss explains:
He proved unwilling to treat his homecoming with the surrealist abandon that livened up his chronicles of North Africa, South America, or the American West.
Perhaps the most unique of perspectives in Cutting Up the Century (a book which generally shines new light on lesser-known parts of the Burroughs universe) is Laura Palmer’s essay on Burroughs’ voice. She not only analyses Burroughs’ vocal fry but also looks at his descriptions of the voices of characters in his novels (such as the Talking Asshole from Naked Lunch) and actors who played Burroughs on screen and how they handled his unique drawl. She observes how, when Burroughs is portrayed on screen, he is typically preceded by his voice, which is arguably his most well-known feature.
Allen Hibbard looks at three of Burroughs’ many collaborators: Jack Kerouac, Kurt Cobain, and Brion Gysin. It is an odd selection, given how brief his collaboration with Cobain was, and the fact that they did not even meet while working together. Burroughs did meet Cobain in October, 1993, just six months prior to the Nirvana frontman’s suicide. However, in Hibbard’s essay, despite getting the date of Cobain’s suicide correct, he claims that the meeting took place “a year or two” earlier. Even a cursory search on Google offers up the correct date. Hibbard also misquotes Burroughs as saying:
“Now that’s one troubled young lad,” or something to that effect.
When in fact Burroughs said:
There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.
In addition to these mistakes, the essay is structurally weak, often changing topic within a paragraph, and to my mind grossly overstates Allen Ginsberg’s role in writing Naked Lunch.
If this essay was notably weak compared to, say, Harris’ or Palmer’s, it is because Cutting Up the Century is a fairly uneven text. There are some incredibly intelligent and unique essays mixed in with some far less useful ones. Another poor essay takes Burroughs in relation to regionalism and includes the rather ridiculous line:
Burroughs’ waiting place between the United States and Mexico equally figures as a limbo between life and death, a place where the bountiful harvest of citrus fruits signifies nothing but inevitable extinction.
This essay then asks, “how does regionalism ensure its usefulness?” On the basis of this essay, it appears to have absolutely no usefulness. Moreover, in a book about Burroughs’ Cut-Up Method, this rather tedious essay is not even about the Cut-Ups at all.
Another small flaw in the book is the occurrence of repetition, which admittedly may be hard to avoid in a text of this length that tackles essentially one topic. While Oliver Harris brilliantly discussed Burroughs’ interest in and attacks on Henry Luce in the book’s opening essay, it is less impressively rehashed later on. There is also a repetition of the fact that Burroughs’ voice precedes him on screen, with even the very same picture used to demonstrate this – the opening shot from David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1992).
Thankfully, there is a wealth of superior material in the book that more than balances out these editorial oversights. There is an excellent essay by Timothy Murphy, author of Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. In it, he explores interference and globalization, coming to the wonderful conclusion that:
All Burroughs did for the Beats, and all he can do for us, is demonstrate how to slip away for a little while, how to slip between the forces of control to find a precarious and temporary space for resistance.
Kurt Hemmer has an interesting question to explore regarding The Place of Dead Roads (another under-appreciated book). He asks why it is that, when Burroughs wholeheartedly believed that writers write things into existence and make the future happen, he has his heroes fail at the end of the book. This is another sprawling essay, but one that is very much a pleasure to read.
Overall, I thought that Cutting Up the Century was a valuable addition to Burroughs scholarship. Its chief accomplishment was highlighting the fact that the Cut-Up Method was not some lazy attempt to evade the hard work required in “real” writing, but rather something that took genuine effort. As Véronique Lane says in her essay: “Burroughs used his scissors with astonishing care.” It is clear through most of the book that Burroughs, for all his interest in crank theories, was an incredibly imaginative and hard-working multi-disciplinary artist, who really put a ridiculous amount of work into his various ambitious projects (including his colour alphabet, which is included in this volume).
The book ends with two challenging but important entries. One is a conversation between Ann Douglas, Anne Waldman, and Regina Weinreich, and the other is a short piece by Waldman. They both explore the troublesome history and attitude of William Burroughs and the extent to which we can respect him and his work. For a man who famously killed his wife and claimed women were a “mistake” that propagated a “virus” to enslave men, how can we really take him seriously, enjoy his work, or allow him into the literary canon? Thankfully, these two intelligent discussions handle these issues sensibly and sensitively and conclude that Burroughs is indeed worthy of our respect and attention. Waldman says:
Burroughs’ visionary writing – his generative imagination – frequently comes to mind these dark days, as if he invented this post-modern dystopic “set” we find ourselves in […] He destabilizes and investigates our humanity and foregrounds our fluid, transmigrating identity […] This, in my opinion, trumps his misogyny.
Indeed, Burroughs is and was a controversial and problematic figure, but his work has proven to be of great significance, and while he should not be given an automatic pass for his sometimes abhorrent views or, of course, for the murder of Joan Vollmer, he was undoubtedly one of the major artists of the 20th century. Cutting Up the Century examines his Cut-Up Method from new perspectives while reminding us that there is much more to be explored in the unpublished works, and much more work to be done by scholars in the near and distant future.
William S. Burroughts: Cutting Up the Century is out now from Indiana University Press.