Essays

The Great Writing Caper

William S. Burroughs often suggested that one’s dreams are a valuable target for the writer to plunder. But what he never said, nor made explicit, was how the dreams of others might provide a writer with direction and material. And yet it happened to him: the dream of a literary character, as it occurs inside a novel of the past, appears to have given Burroughs a massive treasure cache.

The dream is Raskolnikov’s, in Crime and Punishment. And it brings William S. Burroughs to life. His whole oeuvre seems to spring from it, is outlined in the passage – yet Dostoyevsky had written it half a century before Burroughs was even born.

This interesting dream scene occurs at the very end of the novel, in the epilogue, in the final pages of the book.  The scene itself is short, about a page and a half long, and it feels practically like an afterthought – which makes it all the more uncanny when it comes. Those paragraphs are unlike anything else in the novel: there is a complete change of tone. And it’s abrupt, almost as if the author has lost control and is penning in another voice, by dictation, in some kind of blind compulsion that even he doesn’t fully understand … as if the novel itself is interrupted by the opening of a temporary chasm from a future world.  We get a vision of this world and the vision is like a preview of many books to come, of the works of a writer that the world won’t even know for another hundred years.

The narrative quickening in this passage, its change of pace from the book’s world-time to a newer, faster, summing-up time of exposition, is an effect that’s actually quite common in novels – particularly big ones. But sometimes it’s not the original intent. Sometimes the shift in tone isn’t detected until much later, until something else happens in the world, until someone else comes along to finish the job and then you see it.

“Good job, Bill, you got quite a haul outta this one. Whole books, even, and they’re all yours – now I don’t need to say it, but boss is gonna be plenty happy with this one.”

That’s what’s happening here, because it’s doubtful that there’s anything in this tiny sequence that would’ve seemed, in its day, as unusual. No one had ever noted anything strange about it, no one picked up on it – until, that is, after  Burroughs came along; now, to those who know him, the passage glows. When you read it you sense the germ of his work, like it’s something pulled straight off the operating table that bore Naked Lunch. It describes a virus that infects all of humanity and makes them prone to violence, a piece of pure space-age science fiction – and the similarities in tone, style, voice and effect with a typical Burroughs routine is uncanny and incredible; you can even hear the passage being read in his laconic monotone: “… the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. … Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. … Each thought that he alone had the truth … Men killed each other … senseless … gathered together in armies … but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting … devouring each other. … alarm bell ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned … the land too was abandoned … conflagrations … famine … plague …”

You see the Cities of the Red Night trilogy laid out in those words, the pages from chaos, the entire Burroughs file pulled. It’s all there: the exterminator, the four horsemen rearing high against steel-blue electric sky, the biological plot to take over the world by the evil Dr. Fu Manchu working in disguise. You can scarcely believe it’s Dostoevsky, because it’s so obviously Burroughs. It’s as if all of this was planted for him, was sitting here untouched in Dostoevsky just waiting for Burroughs to case the scene.

“You got five minutes, kid, your time comes you get in there and go – you know the score, this one’s dangerous, quite a dangerous job … you’re gonna have to grab what you can, scoop up everything you see, and then get outta there fast.”

Burroughs himself was aware of this phenomenon, and he’s brought it up in terms of where some of his writing may have come from, how it seemed to share identical sources and scripts with the others. We see some of Conrad’s goods coming through in Dr. Benway, who is clearly born of the same mold as Razumov in Under Western Eyes. Burroughs himself had noted this and compared passages and characteristics in some detail. Was the same actor playing both roles? And was it a shared location, perhaps occurring on the same sound stage? Where exactly were these stories coming from? And how often is this going on?

Very often – all the time.

Here comes a young and earnest Scott Fitzgerald, diligently rewriting out the dreamwork of his contemporary. There you see it, Sinister Street by Compton Mackenzie, both red volumes laid open on the bedroom desk. When Fitzgerald first hit the scene it looked like he was writing quite a bit from Mackenzie’s script, to the point where the heroes of their books even shared names – in later manuscripts he’d change it, but in the published This Side of Paradise a ghost hint of it remains (they rhyme), and it still frequently mimics the gorgeous voice of Mackenzie’s novel.

“Scott, you done real good with this one, but we got a problem: boss says you’re working that Mackenzie line too close; see, he’s got that ground already covered for us so you gotta push out, stake out some new territory. We got big plans for you, kid. Now we know some good land on Long Island you can have. East and West Egg – none of our guys are out there. Why don’t you take both …?”

A writer takes what he can get, but if he’s any good he also grabs everything he sees.

“What, that old ash dump out there in Long Island City? Yeah sure, you take that too. And the billboard, that Eckleburg guy with buggy eyes? Sure, that’ll come with it, sure. Tell you what – you do good with this, boss’ll get you a nice place on the French Riviera … that’s right, the Riviera – would you like that? Who knows how high you’ll go, kid? Maybe even Hollywood – I’ve got a feeling that with your talent, kid, the sky’s gonna be the limit!”

It turns out that there’s plenty for everyone, but we’re all grabbing the goods from the same land. We’re all in this big dream world together, all of us right here in eternity, scooping out the bits of what we see inside it. “Life is a dream,” said Jack Kerouac, and that’s because he knew the score and knew it well. He knew exactly what was happening and just where we were getting all the words. It’s mysterious, sure, and we don’t know why, but it’s our job to take everything we can from it and go.

JW Dunne, the discoverer of serialism, had observed in 1924 that dreams seem to indicate or refer, in precisely equal relation, to events occurring in the future and the past. You have a dream about a thing that happened to you yesterday and notice that it also seems to have a flash of something that will come to you tomorrow; a dream that seems to indicate an event ten years hence will also contain flashes of what once occurred a decade back. Now can the same be said for writing? An author whose work seems to draw back from a source at least a hundred years might have the intimations and the flavor of a novel that will be a great sensation in the century to come. So then a writer who is working the same territory as a work from a millennium of yore may be assuring his work of relevance for at least another thousand years. In this way one might apply Gott’s Theorem to the written word, to show how writing from the past contains the germ of the writing of the future – so that the older a given work may be, or draw from, the further into the future a passage or a passing note might last.

(What might eventually be found inside this essay, then? Take a stray bit of dialogue overheard – “got five minutes, kid” – and imagine: The Five-Minute Kid, a character inside a future book. Maybe with the right mindset one can get good at predicting this sort of thing, based on work that presently exists. Further investigation in this area may prove to be highly profitable.)

Here we have a small, passing scene in Dostoevsky. Now cut forward just a hundred years, and suddenly it’s clear: somehow the entire life-work of another great writer appears to have sprung right out of it … as if it had been waiting for the proper time to be seized, written out, expanded. How did this happen, who done it, where’d it come from, and what came first?

Well, we know what came first: in the beginning was the Word. It’s all out there and it’s all waiting for just the right person to come and see, to get it down. We’re all out there picking things up, taking things from a place that already exists.

So who’s the brains of this whole operation? Where do we get our orders from? That’s one of the fundamental mysteries of the writing job. We’re working the streets here, us thieves, taking all the risk, doing the dirty work, grabbing the goods, and putting our necks on the line for it – but we don’t even know who it is we’re working for, or what the payout’s gonna be.

“Them’s the rules, kid. You know that. Can’t give it all away. That’s the setup. You’re our ground man in this operation, see, we need you. Don’t you want your place on the Riviera? Your big long car ride across a golden-age America? Your early underground tour of the whole wide online world to come? Now you got your orders – “

All writers steal. That’s long been acknowledged, it’s a given that’s been observed high and low, over and over again – all good writers are thieves. The best get away with a heist.

Michael Stutz

Michael Stutz is the author of Circuits of the Wind, the story of the net generation. Working as a novelist, correspondent and itinerant poet-photographer, his writing has appeared in many publications online and off, including the New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Age, The Daily Caller and Wired. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelstutz.

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