Two signed William S. Burroughs novels (Books acquired, 15 Oct. 2022)

Huge huge huge thanks to my twitter friend Prabhakar Ragde for sending me his signed copies of two William S. Burroughs novels: Cities of the Red Night and Naked Lunch. Prabhakar is downsizing his book collection as he moves to Europe, abandoning, I guess, the totally-sane, rational heaven that is the U.S. of A.

Prabhakar got the volumes signed at a 1984 in-store appearance at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. (“He asked for my name, but I told him it was too hard to spell, so it’s just his signature,” Prabhakar told me.)

Thanks again, Prabhakar!

“The Valley” — William S. Burroughs

“The Valley”

a passage from

The Western Lands

by William S. Burroughs


THE VALLEY

There is no way in or out of the Valley, which is ringed with sheer cliffs with an overhanging ledge. How did the people of the Valley get in there in the first place? No one remembers. They have been there for many years. Children have been born, grown old and died in the Valley, but not many children. Food is scarce. A stream runs through the Valley, and they have dammed up a large pond to raise fish. There is an area along the stream where they grow corn. Sometimes they kill birds, a few lizards and snakes. So most children must be killed at birth. Just an allotted number to continue the line.

Maybe, some say, they will be seen, and people will lower ropes. There is a legend that one man built a flying machine from lizard, snake and fish skins sewn to a frame of light wood. It took him all his life to build it, and he was seventy when the machine was finally finished. It looked like a gigantic dragonfly with sixty-foot wings.
Continue reading ““The Valley” — William S. Burroughs”

Joe the Dead belongs to a select breed of outlaws known as the NOs, natural outlaws dedicated to breaking the so-called natural laws of the universe | William S. Burroughs

  Joe the Dead belongs to a select breed of outlaws known as the NOs, natural outlaws dedicated to breaking the so-called natural laws of the universe foisted upon us by physicists, chemists, mathematicians, biologists and, above all, the monumental fraud of cause and effect, to be replaced by the more pregnant concept of synchronicity.

Ordinary outlaws break man-made laws. Laws against theft and murder are broken every second. You only break a natural law once. To the ordinary criminal, breaking a law is a means to an end: obtaining money, removing a source of danger or annoyance. To the NO, breaking a natural law is an end in itself: the end of that law.

Ordinary outlaws specialize their trades, in accordance with their inclinations and aptitudes—or they did at one time. Many of the old-time criminal types are endangered species now. Consider the Murphy Man. How many even know what a Murphy Man is? Your Murphy Man steers the mark to a nonexistent whore, having located an apartment building without a doorman and with the front door unlocked.

“Looking for some action, friend?”

“Well, uh, yes . . .”

The Murphy Man makes a phone call: it’s all set up. He leads the mark to the apartment building entrance.

“Go up one flight, first door on your left, 1A. Prime grade, friend, and she’s ready and waiting on you. You pay me now, so there won’t be any arguments.”

Only a black man can have the real Murphy Man voice— cool, insinuating, familiar—and the real Murphy Man face— sincere, unflappable, untrustworthy.

And practitioners of the Hype or the Bill, a short-change routine. You start by paying for a two-bit item with a twenty-dollar bill. You get the change on the counter, then you tell the clerk, “I must have been dreaming—I don’t mean to take all your small change. Here, give me ten for this” and count the ones back, minus the five. Or something like that. It’s hard to get a conviction on the Bill, because nobody can explain exactly what happened.

The basic principle can be found in a sketch by Edgar Allan Poe on nineteenth-century hustlers who were known as Diddlers. The diddler walks into a tobacco store and asks for a plug of tobacco. When the plug is on the counter, he changes his mind.

“Give me a cigar instead.” He takes the cigar and starts to walk out.

“Wait a minute. You didn’t pay for the cigar.”

“Of course not. I traded it against the tobacco plug.”

“Don’t recall you paid me for that either.”

“Paid you for it! Why, there it is! None of your tricks on traveling men.”

Unobtrusive and insistent, practitioners of the Bill are often addicts.

I wonder if there are any hype men left? Like Yellow Kid Weil and the Big Store: he would set up a prop brokerage office or bookmaking parlor and fleece his customers for several days before vanishing one night with the boodle. Also noteworthy is the sordid yachting swindle, practiced at one time by a certain well-known cult leader who shall be nameless. They’re going to buy a boat together, sail the South Seas . . . this swindle requires that mark and swindler live in the same trailer, get drunk together every night and lay the same whore. Yellow Kid Weil would have been scandalized. “Never drink with a savage,” was one of his rules.

The old-time bank robbers, the burglars who bought jewelry-store insurance inventories and knew exactly what they were looking for, the pickpockets trained from early childhood—they say the best ones come from Colombia—where are they now? The Murphy Men, the hype artists, the Big Store? Gone, all gone.

From William S. Burroughs’ last novel The Western Lands.

A hiatus of disinterest | Burroughs meet Beckett (again)

I recall a personal visit to Beckett. John Calder, my publisher and Beckett’s, was the intermediary for a short, not more than half an hour audience. This was in Berlin. Beckett was there directing one of his new plays. Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag and myself were there for a reading. Also present in the visiting party were Fred Jordan and Professor Hoellerer, a professor of English literature at Berlin University.

Beckett was polite and articulate. It was, however, apparent to me at least that he had not the slightest interest in any of us, nor the slightest desire to ever see any of us again. We had been warned to take our own liquor as he would proffer none. So we had brought along a bottle of whisky. Beckett accepted a small drink which he sipped throughout the visit. Asking the various participants first what Beckett said, and what the whole conversation was about seems to elicit quite different responses. Nobody seems to remember at all clearly. It was as if we had entered a hiatus of disinterest. I recall that we did talk about my son’s recent liver transplant and the rejection syndrome. I reminded Beckett of our last meeting in Maurice Girodias’ restaurant On this occasion we had argued about the cut-ups, and I had no wish to renew the argument. So it was just ‘yes’, ‘Maurice’s restaurant’. Allen, I believe, asked Beckett if he had ever given a reading of his work. Beckett said ‘No’.

There was some small talk about the apartment placed at his disposal by the Academy: a sparsely furnished duplex overlooking the Tiergarten. I said the zoo was very good, one of the best, with nocturnal creatures in dioramas, like their natural habitat. They even have flying foxes. Beckett nodded, as if willing to take my word for this. I think there was some discussion of Susan Sontag’s cancer. I looked at my watch. Some one asked Allen or Fred for the time. We got up to go. Beckett shook hands politely.

From William S. Burroughs’ essay “Beckett and Proust.” Collected in The Adding Machine. 

There were a number of these antivaccination cults, a self-limiting phenomenon | William S. Burroughs

Kim remembers his first adolescent experiment with biologic warfare. Smallpox was the instrument, the town of Jehovah across the river, his target. Their horrid church absolutely spoiled his sunsets, with its gilded spire sticking up like an unwanted erection, and Kim vowed he would see it leveled.

It was dead easy. The townspeople were antivaccinationists…”polluting the blood of Christ,” they called it. Around the turn of the century there were a number of these antivaccination cults, a self-limiting phenomenon since all the cultists contracted smallpox sooner or later.

So Kim simply jogged the arm of destiny, you might say, by distributing free illustrated Bibles impregnated with smallpox virus to the townspeople of Jehovah. The survivors moved out. Kim bought the land and used the church to test his homemade flamethrower. He found the plan in Boy’s Life…a weed killer, they called it. Well, rotten weeds, you know…

From The Place of Dead Roads by William S. Burroughs.

Game planet | William S. Burroughs

This is a game planet. All games are hostile and basically there is only one game, and that game is war. Research into altered states of consciousness — which might result in a viewpoint from which the game itself could be called into question — is inexorably drawn into the game. One of the rules of this game is that there cannot be final victory since that would mean the end of the war game. Every player must believe in final victory and endeavor to attain final victory with all his resources. In consequence all existing technologies are directed towards producing total weapons that could end the game by killing all players. Is there any way out of this impasse of national security at the expense of global insecurity? Certainly a prerequisite for any solution would be for all countries to put all their top secrets right on the table.

From “Mind War,” collected in The Adding Machine. 

Life is an entanglement of lies to hide its basic mechanisms | William S. Burroughs

From The Place of Dead Roads

by

William S. Burroughs


Kim is a slimy, morbid youth of unwholesome proclivities with an insatiable appetite for the extreme and the sensational. His mother had been into table-tapping and Kim adores ectoplasms, crystal balls, spirit guides and auras. He wallows in abominations, unspeakable rites, diseased demon lovers, loathsome secrets imparted in a thick slimy whisper, ancient ruined cities under a purple sky, the smell of unknown excrements, the musky sweet rotten reek of the terrible Red Fever, erogenous sores suppurating in the idiot giggling flesh. In short, Kim is everything a normal American boy is taught to detest. He is evil and slimy and insidious. Perhaps his vices could be forgiven him, but he was also given to the subversive practice of thinking. He was in fact incurably intelligent.

Later, when he becomes an important player, he will learn that people are not bribed to shut up about what they know. They are bribed not to find it out. And if you are as intelligent as Kim, it’s hard not to find things out. Now, American boys are told they should think. But just wait until your thinking is basically different from the thinking of a boss or a teacher…You will find out that you aren’t supposed to think.

Life is an entanglement of lies to hide its basic mechanisms.

Kim remembers a teacher who quoted to the class: “If a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well…”

“Well sir, I mean the contrary is certainly true. If a thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing, even badly,” said Kim pertly, hoping to impress the teacher with his agile intelligence. “I mean, we can’t all become Annie Oakleys doesn’t mean we can’t get some fun and benefit from shooting…”

The teacher didn’t like that at all, and for the rest of the school year singled Kim out for heavy-handed sarcasm, addressing him as “our esteemed woodsman and scout.” When Kim couldn’t answer a history question, the teacher asked, “Are you one of these strong, silent men?” And he wrote snippy little comments in the margins of Kim’s compositions: “Not quite as badly as that,” viciously underlining the offending passage. At the end of the term the teacher gave him a Β — for the course, though Kim knew fucking well he deserved an A.

To be sure, Kim was rotten clear through and he looked like a sheep-killing dog and smelled like a polecat, but he was also the most ingenious, curious, resourceful, inventive little snot that ever rose from the pages of Boy’s Life, thinking up ways of doing things better than other folks. Kim would get to the basic root of what a device is designed to do and ask himself, Is it doing it in the simplest and most efficient way possible? He knew that once an article goes into mass production, the last thing a manufacturer wants to hear about is a better and simpler article that is basically different. And they are not interested in a more efficient, simpler or better product. They are interested in making money.

When Kim was fifteen his father allowed him to withdraw from the school because he was so unhappy there and so much disliked by the other boys and their parents.

“I don’t want that boy in the house again,” said Colonel Greenfield. “He looks like a sheep-killing dog.”

“It is a walking corpse,” said a Saint Louis matron poisonously.

“The boy is rotten clear through and he stinks like a polecat,” Judge Farris pontificated.

This was true. When angered or aroused or excited Kim flushed bright red and steamed off a rank ruttish animal smell.

And sometimes he lost control over his natural functions. He took comfort from learning that partially domesticated wolves suffer from the same difficulty.

“The child in not wholesome,” said Mr. Kindhart, with his usual restraint. Kim was the most unpopular boy in the school, if not in the town of Saint Louis.

“They have nothing to teach you anyway,” his father said. “Why, the headmaster is a fucking priest.”

Sunday equinox blog | Atlanta, Di Benedetto, a Paley poem, ghosting William S. Burroughs, etc.

My spring break, which is to say the spring break of the community college which employs me to teach English, rarely coincides with my children’s spring break, but this year it did, and we took full advantage, spending a week in Atlanta. We stayed in Inman Park, enjoying the BeltLine and the city’s vibe in general. Airport aside, I hadn’t been to Atlanta in twenty years, and I took pleasure in our week there. (I dug the High Museum in particular, and shared some favorites from our visit on Twitter.)

I can’t remember the last time I visited a city and didn’t buy a book. A Capella Books was a short walk from our place; it’s a small, well-curated bookshop with a limited selection. A Capella offered a number of signed books by musicians, including Billy Bragg and Chris Frantz. I thought I might regret not picking up a signed copy of Frantz’s memoir Remain in Love (which I read last year), but I feel no regret as I type this sentence. I also visited Posman Books at Ponce Market. It veers close to something like a tasteful gift shop/stationery joint, but the small fiction and poetry selection is pretty good, even if a lot of it is shelf candy. I think if I’d been willing to drive farther out I might’ve found some deeper cuts. (My wife pointed out that our local used bookstore, 1.1 miles away, has utterly spoiled me.)

Anyway: No books acquired in Atlanta. (I did buy some records though: Fat Mattress’s debut and Fleetwood Mac’s Heroes Are Hard to Find.)

I brought Esther Allen’s new translation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel The Silentiary with me to reread on the trip. I read it back in January, dogeared it, and started a review, but found that I wanted to let it settle a bit. I liked it the first time round, but the reread revealed a sadder, deeper novel than I had initially estimated.

Other stuff I’ve been reading:

Grace Paley’s late collection of poems, Fidelity. Grand stuff. Sample:

I’ve also been picking through Helen Moore Barthelme’s biography Donald Barthelme: Genesis of a Cool Sound, although there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it.

I picked up the Paley and Barthelme when I swung by our campus library to get Don’t Hide the Madness, a series of conversations between Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is getting pretty close to the end of his life here, and Ginsberg seems to want to get him to further cement a cultural legacy through a late oral autobiography. Burroughs repeatedly derails these attempts though, which is hilarious. Burroughs talks about whatever comes to mind (often his guns). The cover by Robert Crumb is worth sharing:

I initially requested the Burroughs book because I’ve been rereading Cities of the Red Night—and absolutely loving it—and I was trying to figure out who it was who may or may not have played a role in ghostwriting the book with Burroughs. Cities is straighter than much of Burroughs’ work—but it’s still thoroughly Burroughsian. It’s entirely possible that a straighter hand cobbled Burroughs’ images and fragments together, at least to some extent, although I think it’s erroneous to refer to the novel as ghostwritten. As far as I can tell, the claim originates with Dennis Cooper’s obituary in the October 1997 issue of Spin:

My initial guess was that Cooper here insinuates that Victor Bockris helped arrange Cities of the Red Night. Bockris was around Burroughs a lot when Burroughs was working on Cities; however, Bockris suggests that it was Burroughs who corrected his prose:

From 1979 to 1981, I had the privilege of working with William Burroughs (aged sixty-five to sixty-seven) editing two books: my portrait With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker (St. Martins, 1996), and his selected essays, The Adding Machine (Arcade, 1996). At the same time, Burroughs was finishing his long-awaited novel, Cities of the Red Night (Holt, 1981), which would inaugurate a whole new person and period in his career, opening the doors to sixteen highly productive, positive years (1981-97) writing, painting, acting, performing, recording. Consequently, I suppose I am one of the ten to twelve people who ever got close enough to Bill professionally to see into his writing center. When I gave him the manuscript of With William Burroughs (75 percent of which was taped dialogue of conversations between Burroughs and fifteen other celebrities), he not only corrected the sometimes atrocious writing, he added a handful of precious inserts.

More digging seems to suggest that it was the artist Steven Lowe who helped Burroughs arrange Cities. Rick Castro’s appreciation of Lowe goes as far as to assert that, Lowe “was a ghostwriter for Burroughs, assisting on Cities of the Red NightJunkie, and a few other titles.”

Ultimately, I agree with Jamie Russell in Queer Burroughs (2001), that

The rumor that the post-Red Night trilogy texts were partly ghostwritten is perhaps…more of a compliment than the criticism it was intended to be, since it highlights Burroughs’ central theme of the 1980s and 1990s texts: the creation of a post-corporeal real. Who needs a body to write with anyway?

Typing that out, I realize that I’ve inserted an entirely different post into this Sunday equinox post. Oh well.

I love Cities of the Red Night—it’s funny and gross and oddly sweet and even sentimental, an ironic pastiche of the so-called “boys books” genre, as well as a howl against war, conformity, and the military-industrial-entertainment complex. The novel it most reminds me of (apart from other Burroughs’ novels) is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

I’m also, thanks to the audiobook, into the third section of Marlon James’ Moon Witch, Spider King. The second section focused on the protagonist Sogolon’s domestic life. Frankly, the section sags, although I understand that it likely girds the emotional core of the events to come. The novel pivots dramatically in section three, “Moon Witch.” Sogolon has lost her memory, and is in a strange sunken city centuries in the future. That’s the good shit. More thoughts to come.

 

  I asked Kelley what it feels like to be hanged | From William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night

An excerpt from

Cities of the Red Night

by

William S. Burroughs


Kelley told me his story. He started his career as a merchant seaman. In the course of an argument he killed the quartermaster, for which he was tried and sentenced to hang. His ship at that time was in the harbor of Tangier. The sentence was carried out in the marketplace, but some pirates who were present cut him down, carried him to their ship, and revived him. It was thought that a man who had been hanged and brought back to life would not only bring luck to their venture but also ensure protection against the fate from which he had been rescued. While he was still insensible the pirates rubbed red ink into the hemp marks, so that he seemed to have a red rope always around his neck.

The pirate ship was commanded by Skipper Nordenholz, a renegade from the Dutch Navy who was still able to pass his ship as an honest merchant vessel flying the Dutch flag. Strobe was second in command. Barely had they left Tangier headed for the Red Sea via the Cape of Good Hope when a mutiny broke out. The crew was in disagreement as to the destination, being minded to head for the West Indies. They had also conceived a contempt for Strobe as an effeminate dandy. After he had killed five of the ringleaders they were forced to revise this opinion. The mutinous crew was then put ashore and a crew of acrobats and dancing boys taken on, since Nordenholz had already devised a way in which they could be put to use.

Kelley claims to have learned the secrets of death on the gallows, which gives him invincible skill as a swordsman and such sexual prowess that no man or woman can resist him, with the exception of Captain Strobe, whom he regards as more than human. “Voici ma lettre de marque,” he says, running his fingers along the rope mark. (A letter of marque was issued to privateers by their government, authorizing them to prey on enemy vessels in the capacity of accredited combatants, and thus distinguishing them from common pirates. Such a letter often, but by no means always, saved the bearer from the gallows.) Kelley tells me that the mere sight of his hemp marks instills in adversaries a weakness and terror equal to the apparition of Death Himself.

I asked Kelley what it feels like to be hanged.

“At first I was sensible of very great pain due to the weight of my body and felt my spirits in a strange commotion violently pressed upwards. After they reached my head, I saw a bright blaze of light which seemed to go out at my eyes with a flash. Then I lost all sense of pain. But after I was cut down, I felt such intolerable pain from the prickings and shootings as my blood and spirits returned that I wished those who cut me down could have been hanged.”

“Fore!” — William S. Burroughs

“Fore!”

from

Cities of the Red Night

by

William S. Burroughs


The liberal principles embodied in the French and American revolutions and later in the liberal revolutions of 1848 had already been codified and put into practice by pirate communes a hundred years earlier. Here is a quote from Under the Black Flag by Don C. Seitz:

Captain Mission was one of the forbears of the French Revolution. He was one hundred years in advance of his time, for his career was based upon an initial desire to better adjust the affairs of mankind, which ended as is quite usual in the more liberal adjustment of his own fortunes. It is related how Captain Mission, having led his ship to victory against an English man-of-war, called a meeting of the crew. Those who wished to follow him he would welcome and treat as brothers; those who did not would be safely set ashore. One and all embraced the New Freedom. Some were for hoisting the Black Flag at once but Mission demurred, saying that they were not pirates but liberty lovers, fighting for equal rights against all nations subject to the tyranny of government, and bespoke a white flag as the more fitting emblem. The ship’s money was put in a chest to be used as common property. Clothes were now distributed to all in need and the republic of the sea was in full operation.

Mission bespoke them to live in strict harmony among themselves; that a misplaced society would adjudge them still as pirates. Self-preservation, therefore, and not a cruel disposition, compelled them to declare war on all nations who should close their ports to them. “I declare such war and at the same time recommend to you a humane and generous behavior towards your prisoners, which will appear by so much more the effects of a noble soul as we are satisfied we should not meet the same treatment should our ill fortune or want of courage give us up to their mercy.…” The Nieustadt of Amsterdam was made prize, giving up two thousand pounds and gold dust and seventeen slaves. The slaves were added to the crew and clothed in the Dutchman’s spare garments; Mission made an address denouncing slavery, holding that men who sold others like beasts proved their religion to be no more than a grimace as no man had power of liberty over another.…

Mission explored the Madagascar coast and found a bay ten leagues north of Diégo-Suarez. It was resolved to establish here the shore quarters of the Republic—erect a town, build docks, and have a place they might call their own. The colony was called Libertatia and was placed under Articles drawn up by Captain Mission. The Articles state, among other things: all decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation. Continue reading ““Fore!” — William S. Burroughs”

Ballard/Burroughs/James | Hello/Night/Witch (Books acquired 25 Feb. 2022)

Dropped by my beloved sprawling used bookstore yesterday to pick up a new copy of Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King. It’s not exactly the sequel to 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf as much as it is a kind of parallel story to that novel. From the publisher’s description:

In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Sogolon the Moon Witch proved a worthy adversary to Tracker as they clashed across a mythical African landscape in search of a mysterious boy who disappeared. In Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon takes center stage and gives her own account of what happened to the boy, and how she plotted and fought, triumphed and failed as she looked for him. It’s also the story of a century-long feud—seen through the eyes of a 177-year-old witch—that Sogolon had with the Aesi, chancellor to the king. It is said that Aesi works so closely with the king that together they are like the eight limbs of one spider. Aesi’s power is considerable—and deadly. It takes brains and courage to challenge him, which Sogolon does for reasons of her own.

I also couldn’t pass up a first-edition hardback of William S. Burroughs’s late novel Cities of the Red Night. I haven’t read it in at least twenty years, but I remember it as my favorite Burroughs novel. An excerpt, via The Floating Library–

The Cities of the Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba’dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis. These cities were located in an area roughly corresponding to the Gobi Desert, a hundred thousand years ago. At that time the desert was dotted with large oases and traversed by a river which emptied into the Caspian Sea….

…The towns of Ba’dan and Yass-Waddah were opposite each other on the river. Tamaghis, located in a desolate area to the north on a small oasis, could properly be called a desert town. Naufana and Ghadis were situated in mountainous areas to the west and south beyond the perimeter of usual trade routes between the other cities…

….The inhabitants were divided into an elite minority known as the Transmigrants and a majority known as the Receptacles. Within these categories were a number of occupational and specialized strata and the two classes were not in practice separate: Transmigrants acted as Receptacles and Receptacles became Transmigrants.

To show the system in operation: Here is an old Transmigrant on his deathbed. He has selected his future Receptacle parents, who are summoned to the death chamber. The parents then copulate, achieving orgasm just as the old Transmigrant dies so that his spirit enters the womb to be reborn. Every Transmigrant carries with him at all times a list of alternative parents, and in case of accident, violence, or sudden illness, the nearest parents are rushed to the scene. However, there was at first little chance of random or unexpected deaths since the Council of Transmigrants in Waghdas had attained such skill in the art of prophecy that they were able to chart a life from birth to death and determine in most cases the exact time and manner of death.

Many Transmigrants preferred not to wait for the infirmities of age and the ravages of illness, lest their spirit be so weakened so to be overwhelmed and absorbed by the Receptacle child. These hardy Transmigrants, in the full vigor of maturity, after rigorous training in concentration and astral projection, would select two death guides to kill them in front of the copulating parents. The methods of death most commonly employed were hanging and strangulation, the Transmigrant dying in orgasm, which was considered the most reliable method of ensuring a successful transfer. Drugs were also developed, large doses of which occasioned death in erotic convulsions, smaller doses being used to enhance sexual pleasure. And these drugs were often used in conjunction with other forms of death.

I also couldn’t pass up a mass market edition of J.G. Ballard’s 1981 novel Hello America (with a nice cover by Tim White). I have not read Hello America. Yet.

Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction reviewed in the The New Yorker 

There’s an interesting review of Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous novel The Spirit of Science Fiction in the The New Yorker  The review’s author, editor and translator Valerie Miles, read Bolaño’s novel through/against the work of the American Beats—William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, specifically. From Miles’ review:

From 2008 to 2014, during the charged emergence of Bolaño in translation, I worked behind the scenes with the writer’s estate, reading through roughly fourteen thousand six hundred papers in his archive and helping to prepare his posthumous work. Bolaño, it should be said, saved everything. His archive includes notebooks, diaries, letters, magazines, war games, postcards, photos, typescripts, newspaper clippings, and an extensive library. (“I even found one of those paper napkins from a bar in Mexico,” his widow, Carolina López, has said, at a press conference.) The wealth of material makes it easy to locate Bolaño’s fixations at a given time, and much of my efforts involved establishing a chronology of when his work was written—a chronology that became a central part of the first exhibition dedicated to his papers, which I curated together with the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, in 2013.

That chronology also shed light on just how much “The Spirit of Science Fiction” was informed by poetry, and specifically by Bolaño’s reading of the Beats. In 1978, around the time Bolaño first began writing fiction in earnest, he wrote in his diary, “I write verses, dream of a novel.” During that time, he read William S. Burroughs daily and often commented on the writer’s work. (Burroughs was the “ice shard that would never melt,” he writes in his essay collection “Between Parentheses,” “the eye that never closes.”) In an early version of “The Spirit of Science Fiction,” Burroughs was the contact person for the young Chileans. Bolaño was also influenced by Burroughs’s approach to structure; he was fascinated by “Naked Lunch” and by the collage-like experimentation of “Nova Express.” He even borrowed some of Burroughs’s methods, riffing on Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique in his own verse.

miles-bolano-and-the-beats

Three Books

img_2612

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.

img_2613

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.”

img_2615

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