Three Books

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Queer by William S. Burroughs. Trade paperback by Penguin; copyrighted 1987 but no year of the actual printing, which I’m sure is sometime in the mid-nineties. Cover design by Daniel Rembert from a painting by Burroughs.

I bought Queer and Junkie at the Barnes & Noble where I spent too many Friday nights of my high school years. I was sophomore in high school, I think. My parents were concerned about the books, I recall, but in a vague, troubled way—a wrinkling of the temples, a look that I now know means, What does this mean? What are we supposed to do here? They asked me what the books were about and then told me not to do heroin.

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Hardback and cloth by Houghtin Mifflin, 31st printing, 1961. No designer is credited; the book may have had a dust jacket at one point.

The dark marks are from a librarian’s tape job. She gave me this book, and dozens others, which were being remaindered. I reread the novel a few years ago, noting some of its themes, “including the divide between the New World and the Old, alienation, and the ways in which conformity and routine are antithetical to the pioneer spirit that Americans like to trick themselves into believing they are heir to.”

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My Sister’s Hand in Mine by Jane Bowles. Trade paperback by the Ecco Press, 7th printing, 1988. Cover design by Anna Demchick.

This collection includes the novel Two Serious Ladies, one of the best and strangest books I’ve read in years. I wrote about it last year on this blog, concluding:

The reading experience cannot be easily distilled. (Strike that adverb). Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way we expect our narratives to unfold—to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows. (I don’t have the verbs for this book). I think of Harold Bloom’s rubric for canonical literature here. In The Western Canon, he  argues that strong literature exemplifies a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Nearly three-quarters of a century after its publication, Two Serious Ladies is still strange, still strong, still ahead of its time. Its vignettes flow (or jerk or shift or pitch wildly or dip or soar or sneak) into each other with a wonderfully dark comic force that simultaneously alienates and invites the reader, who, bewildered by its transpositions, is compelled to follow into strange new territory. Very highly recommended.

Two photographs of William Burroughs by Andy Warhol

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“It Is Necessary to Travel…” — William Burroughs

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From The Adding Machine.

William Burroughs and Andy Warhol eat rabbit, discuss chicken-fried steak; Nico sings a bit

“Cut-up from THE GREAT GATSBY and some other sources” — William S. Burroughs

Self-Portrait — William Burroughs

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Portrait of William S. Burroughs — Jonathan Edwards

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William S. Burroughs’s Walking Stick

(Photograph by Udo Breger).

“William S. Burroughs was a high modernist and a writer of complete trash”

William S. Burroughs was a high modernist and a writer of complete trash; the two are by no means mutually exclusive. He was a genius and a bullshit artist. If his books prove anything, it’s that profundity and inanity can skip along merrily arm in arm. Sometimes his work was heavyweight, sometimes dumb. To borrow a Freudian analogy, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar and sometimes a man who taught his asshole to talk really is just a man who taught his asshole how to talk (what it’s saying and why is a different story). The paradox of the freest writer being a lifelong junky is really no paradox at all. As a user and pedlar, he understood the mechanics of how it all worked and kindly pointed it out to us, even as he was picking our pockets. He was a stiff morose patrician figure in a suit (so much so his friend Herbert Huncke initially took him for an undercover agent) with books and a history full of debauchery and depravity. If there seems a contradiction there, it’s in the eye of the beholder. What makes Burroughs’ work seem prophetic is that he was perceptive enough to see that people don’t change, the secret to all successful prophecies. We’re still continually re-enacting Greek myths on a daily basis and always will. Psychosis may mirror the zeitgeist (whether it’s paranoia of witches, Jews, communists, drug fiends, Islamists or whoever next) but its essential character doesn’t alter. The bugs and the feds are always with us and there’s only so much one man can do, calling door to door with an extermination kit.

From Darran Anderson’s insightful and thorough essay “The Third Man: William Burroughs at 100.”

Watch Commissioner of Sewers, A 1991 Documentary About William S. Burroughs

100 Point William Burroughs Riff

1. William Seward Burroughs, born February 5th, 1914, St. Louis, Missouri. Died August 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kansas.

2. Danger.

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3. William S. Burroughs, a writer no one reads and everyone references.

4. Point three is not fair: I’m sure you, dearest reader, have read Burroughs, continue to read Burroughs, will read Burroughs, etc.

5. But, points three and four, it’s the idea of Burroughs, Burroughs-as-luminary, Burroughs-as-symbol, that our culture persists in keeping.

6. Re: Points three, four, five: Burroughs the poser who posed for so many photographs, who couldn’t say no to a spoken word CD or a collaboration or a fucking Nike ad.

7. And always with the guns.

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8. And the knives.

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9. And the guns.

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10. If you want to know what licenses Picasso to break the human form (and other forms) into cubes and lines and colors and figured abstractions, go gander at Aunt Pepa or First Communion.

11. If you want to know what licenses Duchamp to call a urinal a work of art, go gander at Portrait of the Artist’s Father.

12. If you want to know what licenses Burroughs to call Naked Lunch a novel, go read Junkie or Queer.

13. Junkie, the first Burroughs novel I read, is a high modernist classic.

14. Typewriter.

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15. Shoes.

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16. The reader is invited, most cordially, to print this riff and cut it into little bits and rearrange it.

17. The reader is invited, most cordially, to cut and paste this riff into a new digital document and rearrange it.

18. William Burroughs, curator.

19. William Burroughs, collaborator. Continue reading “100 Point William Burroughs Riff”

William Burroughs Wielding a Big Ass Sword

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William Burroughs with a brother Sphinx (Photo by Ginsberg)

William S. Burroughs looking serious, sad lover’s eyes, afternoon light in window (Photo by Ginsberg)

Topless William Burroughs

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William S. Burroughs Wielding a Knife

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Handsome Devil William S. Burroughs, Smiling

William Burroughs in his flat, London, 1971. Photo by Baron Wolman

(Via).