If you like Charles Burns, go ahead and pick up X’ed Out, the first (and very promising) entry in a new trilogy. Skip this review. You’ll probably be happier (and more unsettled) just experiencing all that vivid, glorious weirdness for yourself without any potential spoilers. If you need convincing, read on.
X’ed Out begins in a strange fever-dreamland that doesn’t immediately announce itself as such. Instead, we tentatively enter this weird world with Doug, the book’s protagonist, who, like Alice following the white rabbit, chases his (long dead) childhood cat through a crack in the wall. Doug traverses a cavernous, ruinous place, littered with murky detritus and swamped in a strange flood, to finally arrive in a bizarre desert town that approximates William Burroughs’s Interzone. Populated by mean lizards who dress like Mormon slackers and other grubby grotesques, the terrain readily recalls both Tatooine and Asian bazaars. Hapless Doug, still in pajamas, house coat, and slippers — and marked by an as-yet-unexplained head wound — soon finds himself under the guidance of a strange little diapered dwarf, who may or may not have his best interest in mind. The dreamworld unravels as Doug glances an old man — an “oldie,” as the dwarf says — who we will learn later is Doug’s father. An all of a sudden we’re back in the real world, back in waking life.
But no. That’s not right. Not “back” — we were never in the waking world to begin with. Significantly, X’ed Out begins in the Burroughsian dreamworld and then moves to a conscious, concrete reality. Burns’s dreamworld sequences explicitly reference Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s seminal Tintin comics (you can see how X’ed Out’s cover riffs on the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star here). Doug’s dream face is an expressive, stark mask, a naïve, cartoonish contrast to the bizarre nightmare to which it reacts.
Doug — the waking world Doug, the “real” Doug, that is — pulls a similar mask over his more realistically drawn face later in the story when he does his “Burroughs thing” at a slummy art punk party. Alienated from the scenesters who don’t get his cut-up poetry performance, Doug takes up with Sarah, a girl from his photography class with a thing for razor blades and pig hearts. The same night they meet, he loses his girlfriend, and her crazy boyfriend goes to jail for assaulting a cop. They initiate their romance in Patti Smith records, lines of cocaine, and sick Polaroids. Ah, young love.
But all of that is in another kind of dreamworld, the past, a retreat for the “real,” contemporary Doug, who spends his few waking hours cringing in his bathrobe, poring over old photos, and eating the occasional Pop Tart. At night he eats pain pills and goes to Interzone-land, a place that seems as real and solid and valid as his past with Sarah, a past he has apparently lost. Doug bears a huge patch over half his head (significantly x-shaped in his Interzone version), and both this wound as well as the psychic trauma he’s obviously endured (and is enduring) remain unexplained throughout X’ed Out. However, Burns’s often-grisly images hint repeatedly at a past event filled with violence and loss. X’ed Out leaves us in the Interzone, with the dwarf making long-term plans for Tintinized Doug. There’s even talk of establishing residency and employment–it feels like Doug is here to stay (at least in his non-waking hours). X’ed Out ends maddeningly with a girl who visually recalls Sarah being borne by lizard men to a giant hive. The dwarf explains that she is their new queen–and like some insect queen, she is a breeder. Yuck. The ending is the biggest problem with X’ed Out, simply because it leaves one stranded, wanting more weirdness.
In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.
X’ed Out is available in hardback from Pantheon on October 19th, 2010.
We continue to raid The Paris Review’s interview archive. Here’s J.G. Ballard on William Burroughs, in a 1984 interview–
INTERVIEWER: Burroughs wrote an eccentric and laudatory, in its way, introduction to the American edition of Atrocity Exhibition. Do you know him?
BALLARD: Burroughs, of course, I admire to the other side of idolatry, starting with Naked Lunch, then Ticket, Soft Machine, and Nova Express. I’m less keen on his later books. In his way he’s a genius. It’s a pity that his association with drugs and homosexuality has made him a counterculture figure, but I suppose his real links are with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beats. Still, I think he’s much more of an establishment figure, like Dean Swift, with a despairing disgust for the political and professional establishments of which he is a part. I have met Burroughs quite a few times over the last fifteen years, and he always strikes me as an upper-class Midwesterner, with an inherent superior attitude towards blacks, policemen, doctors, and small-town politicians, the same superior attitude that Swift had to their equivalents in his own day, the same scatological obsessions and brooding contempt for middle-class values, thrift, hard work, parenthood, et cetera, which are just excuses for petit-bourgeois greed and exploitation. But I admire Burroughs more than any other living writer, and most of those who are dead. It’s nothing to do with his homosexual bent, by the way. I’m no member of the “homintern,” but a lifelong straight who prefers the company of women to most men. The few homosexual elements in Crash and Atrocity Exhibition, fucking Reagan, et cetera, are there for reasons other than the sexual—in fact, to show a world beyond sexuality, or, at least beyond clear sexual gender
I devoured Charles Burns’s X’ed Out last night. Then I read it again this afternoon. I’ll read it again before I give it a proper review closer to its release date near the end of October. It’s weird, wild stuff, working in the idioms of William Burroughs and Hergé, brimming with punk rock energy and druggy art madness. It’s thoroughly Burnsian. X’ed Out is the first volume in what the publisher promises will be “an epic masterpiece of graphic fiction in brilliant color.” Like I said, full review down the line, but look out for this book. X’ed Out comes from the good folks at Pantheon, who’ve already proven their commitment to the graphic novel medium in stunners by publishing soon-to-be classics like David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp and Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld.
So we ran this post of famous authors’ typewriters the other day but we somehow forgot William Burroughs’s typewriter, which is really damn silly ’cause his name is right there on it–
SF: William’s magickal experimentation, the aspects of recording what he called “Danger Sounds” and replaying them in proximity to his target, or using collage to hit a specific target has become the stuff of legend. Some attribute the closing of one particular establishment to William’s hexes. Is there another specific instance which you can recall that is as dramatic and apparently self-evident?
JG: Nope, not really. You are likely referring to the Moka Bar in London, where William said he received snide, snotty service and lousy, weak tea — and his tape-recorders-and-cameras mock-surveillance routine, back and forth on the sidewalk of Frith Street, and how the Moka Bar failed and was shuttered not too long after that.
Forgive me please, but my cast of mind leads me to suspect the Moka Bar, if it really did sell lousy tea with terrible service, might have been headed out of business, with or without the sound-text-tape-film sidewalk-pacing routine…
As with William’s long-ago theory that, because he had never known a NYC junky ever to get a seasonal cold, it was likely that Junk provided a protective covering to the cells (or else, maybe Junk kept the cells well-exercised and in-shape with a constant cycle of shrinking to kick, swelling back up in re-addiction, kicking, hooked again, etc.) — I pointed out that, because a junky with a good supply on hand rarely leaves his apartment to mingle on the sidewalk with other people (which would expose him to more airborne rhinovirus particles), maybe the apparent immunity was more the result of limited exposure to current pathogens…
I’d never seen this before. William Burroughs reads–and acts out–one of his infamous Dr. Benway riffs from Naked Lunch. Gross, engrossing, and hilarious.
Check out this photo series of William Burroughs’s personal effects at The Morning News. There’s also a really cool interview with the photographer Peter Ross. Great, uh, stuff.
There are some great downloads available at Naropa University’s Internet Archive, including some lucid-but-still-weird lectures from William Burroughs. We highly recommend Burroughs’s 1979 lecture on creative reading, where he dissects Conrad and Gysin among others, waxes on heroic tropes, and talks about assassins. Also good is a 1980 forum on public discourse (Ginsberg introduces and sticks around). Good stuff.
Convicts and Sailors, Yagé and Nutmeg, Seeing Things from a Special Angle, and the Uncut Kick that Opens Out Instead of Narrowing Down: Don’t Try This at Home, Kids
Do you remember when you were like thirteen or fourteen and you read that bit in Naked Lunch about the supposed mind-expanding properties of nutmeg? Nutmeg! Like your mom baked with! Like, readily-available, no questions asked! And then you took it, just like Burroughs indicated, and it made your stomach hurt and gave you a headache (just like he said it would). And nothing else happened. No visions, no enlightenment, nada. Do you remember that? Oh, wait…that wasn’t you? That was someone else? Sorry…
From “Afterthoughts on a Deposition,” an index to Naked Lunch:
Convicts and sailors sometimes have recourse to nutmeg. About a tablespoon is swallowed with water. Results are vaguely similar to marijuana with side effects of headache and nausea. Death would probably supervene before addiction before addiction if such addiction is possible. I have only taken nutmeg once.
There you go, kids. Knock yourselves out. Actually, don’t. Just rent Altered States instead.
Burroughs, of course, was far more interested in yagé, or ayahuasca, a psychoactive preparation of a South American vine. At the end of his spare, funny, first novel Junky, Burroughs writes:
I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage. … My wife and I are separated. I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.
Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of aging, cautious nagging, frightened flesh. Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix.
I’ve read Junky a few times and it seems that these lines are strangely half-hopeful and also deeply ironic. Burroughs’s stand-in, narrator William Lee doesn’t get what the writer William Burroughs seems to realize: there is no permanent solution, no “final fix.” Still, Burroughs sure did have some wacky adventures looking for it. Check out this clip from a documentary, apparently called Ayahuasca, narrated by Burroughs (if anyone out there knows anything about this movie, please let us know):
“You were not there for the beginning. You will not be there for the end. Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative” — Naked Lunch