Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note Queer
- by William S. Burroughs(1985)Queer is a transitional novel between the hardboiled prose of junky and the “routines” of naked lunch.Queer can be used as an alternative to Junky, the text used for the junk paradigm as a blueprint for William S. Burroughs’s oeuvre to be read with a queer paradigm. Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs (2001) and Greg Mullins’s Colonial Affairs: Bowles, Burroughs, and Chester Write Tangier (2002) are recent scholarly texts that emphasize Burroughs’s homosexuality over his drug use to analyze his writings. During the cold-war 1950s it was potentially more subversive to be a homosexual than a junky. To grasp the importance of Burroughs as a novelist, Queer must be examined.Queer was first published almost 35 years after it was written (some speculate that the manuscript was either lost or suppressed by Burroughs). In his introduction to the book, something Burroughs had to write to meet the demands of the publisher for a text of adequate length and a piece of writing that happened to eclipse the novel itself on its publication, Burroughs draws heavily from his letters to allen ginsberg and jack kerouac, which were written during the period when Burroughs lived in Mexico City, from late 1949 to 1954, and before he moved to Tangier, Morocco. He wrote Junky, Queer, and The yaGe letters and started what would become interzone. Burroughs shot his wife Joan in 1951, but with the aid of a clever lawyer working the corrupt Mexican legal system of the time, he served only 13 days in jail for her accidental murder. Junky covers Burroughs’s years of addiction and Queer his years off junk in Mexico and on a South American expedition to try to find the mysterious hallucinogenic vine yage. Joan is barely mentioned in Junky and is conspicuously absent from Queer.At the time when he wrote the books, Burroughs thought of Junky and Queer as part of the same book: one written on the junk and the other off it. Yet Queer is an odd sequel to Junky, written as Burroughs struggled for a form to recount his experiences. In the introduction to Queer, Burroughs says that while he was an addict, he “just shot up and waited for the next shot.” On junk, he needs no human contact. Off junk, however, he is desperate for contact, in particular sexual contact, for when an addict kicks, the sex drive comes back in “full force.” At first, Burroughs says, William Lee (Burroughs’s persona in the novel) believes that the contact he seeks is merely sexual and that to lure in the sex object named Eugene Allerton (based on Lewis Marker) he devises skits, or comic routines to entertain him. As these performances intensify, however, Lee realizes that he is looking for much more than mere sexual contact: He is searching for contact with an audience. Later even that need is removed as he realizes that he can perform for himself, and it is at that point, says Burroughs, that “Lee is being inexorably pressed into the world of fiction.” Still, Lee does not yet realize—as Burroughs did not at the time—that he is “committed to writing.” A powerful subtext of this novel is the absence of any discussion of Joan Burroughs’s death. When Carl Solomon tried to get Burroughs to include in Junky the “William Tell” scene in which he tried to shoot a glass off Joan’s head at a Mexico City party, Burroughs begged off on the basis of how such a scene would betray his artistic intentions. Here, in his shocking and infamous introduction and after having read Queer again after three decades, Burroughs writes, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to the realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” Not all of Burroughs scholars buy this commentary as honest or accurate. It is possible to see this claim about “the Ugly Spirit” as a cover for Burroughs to take full responsibility for his foolish, drunken act.The book begins in medias res with Lee off junk and oversexed, pursuing a boy named Carl. When Carl leaves Mexico City to rejoin his family in Uruguay, Lee makes a more desperate attempt to attract the attention of Winston Moor. Moor is based on the real-life Hal Chase, who earned Burroughs’s ire not simply for rejecting Burroughs’s sexual advances when Chase visited him in Mexico City but also for Chase’s style of rejecting him. Burroughs pays him back here with an equally mean-spirited portrait of physical ugliness and a hypochondriac personality. Moor, he says, “had aged without experience of life, like a piece of meat rotting on a pantry shelf.”The reader follows Lee and the other G.I. Bill students and junkies from their daytime bar, Lola’s, to their nighttime haunt, The Ship Ahoy. Lee meets the young ex-soldier, Eugene Allerton, who becomes his obsession. He first sees Allerton with an American girl, Mary, and believing him beyond his reach, he takes refuge in boys at the Chimu, a queer bar. (A similar scene is described in Junky, which shows how at one time the two books were connected). The next night Lee starts a conversation with Allerton at the Ship Ahoy. Allerton is drunk and friendly. Oversexed from junk withdrawal, Lee “licked his lips” over Allerton, wolflike, and stretches forth “ectoplasmic fingers” to touch him. The limitations on his ability to fulfill his desires are compared to the “bars of a cage,” and the book, like all of Burroughs’s works, investigates the limits of personal freedom. Lee adopts the strategy of attracting Allerton with his conversational routines.Lee’s routines for Allerton grow more elaborate. Burroughs’s first sustained routine, the “Texas Oil-Man routine,” is drawn from his experiences as a cotton farmer in Edinburg, Texas, and from his farming days in East Texas. The routine shows Burroughs’s continued fascination with the jargon and argot of different professions (as in the underworld language of junkies and queers), but it is also a means of seducing Allerton by entertaining him (much as Burroughs used similar routines in letters to Allen Ginsberg in the late 1940s). To further seduce and “feel out” Allerton, Lee takes him to Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus, “cruising” him for responses that might indicate if he is interested in Lee sexually. Lee at last finds an entrée to the subject of his queerness and begins melodramatically, “A curse. Been in our family for generations. The Lees have always been perverts. I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands . . . when the baneful word seared my reeling brain: I was a homosexual. I thought of the painted, simpering female impersonators I had seen in a Baltimore night club. Could it be possible that I was one of those subhuman things?” He turns his confession into a routine that is part truth and part invention. Allerton is apparently open to homosexual experience, and he and Lee have sex in Lee’s apartment. The next morning, Lee puts their relationship on a business basis by offering to get Allerton’s camera out of hock.Later Lee lectures Allerton about a South American vine called yage that medicine men ingest to achieve telepathic abilities and thought control. Allerton is bored, unaware that Lee wishes to control his thoughts. Lee eventually proposes to Allerton that he accompany him on his South American quest for yage. He will pay all expenses if Allerton is “nice to Papa, say twice a week.” Allerton says that he will consider the offer. In a desperate attempt to capture Allerton’s attention, Lee shoots the head off a mouse that is held by its tail by a busboy—perhaps another subconscious reference to Joan’s accidental death.Lee and Allerton travel to Panama City and then fly from Panama to Quito and to Manta. Lee is fighting withdrawal symptoms, and the cities seem to be the most squalid that he has ever observed. (Imagery and events from this trip recur in many of Burroughs’s books, including Naked Lunch, and the Red Night trilogy.) Lee tells Allerton why he is interested in yage—“Think of it: thought control. Take anyone apart and rebuild to your taste”—but he hides his real thoughts from Allerton: “You’d be so much nicer after a few alterations.” Lee is just one step from becoming like the monstrous Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents and Russians who are in South America searching for mind-controlling drugs: “Automatic obedience, synthetic schizophrenia, mass-produced to order. That is the Russian dream, and America is not far behind. The bureaucrats of both countries want the same thing: Control.” The search for yage becomes an investigation into modern methods of control, which is ironically being practiced by Lee himself in his relationship with Allerton. Lee’s invoking of the imperialism of the United States and his identity as the Ugly American demonstrates that Queer, far from being a slight, personal work, can be read as a political text that serves as a key for his later political commentary in Naked Lunch. Lee and Allerton fly from Manta to Guayaquil. In Ecuador, he first sees the ancient Chimu pottery with its erotic imagery of men who are engaged in sodomy and of men who are changing into huge centipedes. Throughout his work, from this point on, the centipede imagery of Chimu pottery will come to represent the end of all limits, or, in later works, the horrifying original act that imprisoned human beings in their flesh form. Lee goes to Quito to obtain information about yage and finds that it grows on the Amazon side of the Andes. From Babahoya, they take the bus for 14 hours over the top of the Andes Mountains. On the bus, Lee meets an old prospector named Morgan who says that he can obtain any quantity of the vine for Lee. The locals are suspicious of foreigners, however, and do not come through. Lee and Allerton seek out Doctor Cotter, an American living in the jungle near Puyo. They stay with Cotter for a few days, but the botanist is evasive about Lee’s questions, suspecting him of some con game to steal his discoveries. They leave without having obtained any of the vine.There is a gap in the book here. The “Epilogue: Mexico City Return” section was grafted on to the original Queer manuscript of 1952 by James Grauerholz; the material here actually came from the Yage Letters manuscript and was an unused ending to that text, added on to Queer because the manuscript was too short for the publishers. Allerton apparently returns to Mexico City before Lee does. In any case, their relationship has disintegrated, and Allerton has apparently satisfied his curiosity about South America. Lee is stuck in Panama for some time. He has a recurrent dream of being back in Mexico City and asking Allerton’s friends if they knew where he was. He conducts this investigation when he actually does return to the city, but he can find no one at Lola’s or the other haunts who has information on Allerton. The book ends with a dream/routine, with Lee playing the part of the Skip Tracer, sent by the Friendly Finance Company to collect on Allerton’s “debt” to Lee—“Haven’t you forgotten something, Gene? You’re supposed to come see us every third Tuesday.” (The Skip Tracer will show up in many of Burroughs’s books, from Naked Lunch to the Red Night trilogy).Joan’s death is suppressed in the novel, an absence that may account for the many dreams that are recounted at the end. The last line of the novel eerily suggests the Ugly Spirit that killed her: “The door opened and wind blew through the room. The door closed and the curtains settled back, one curtain trailing over a sofa as though someone had taken it and tossed it there.”Since Queer was published in 1985, the book cannot be seen as having influenced queer writing from the 1960s through the early 1980s, but it can be seen as part of the great interest in gay literature in the age of AIDS, and it was published during the rise of queer theory during this time period. Queer laid the groundwork for the writing of Naked Lunch precisely in terms of Burroughs using a particular audience (unreciprocated objects of desire) as the recipients of his material. Routines from Queer can be found first in letters to Marker, just as routines from Naked Lunch were initially written in letters to Ginsberg.Bibliography■ Harris, Oliver. “Can You See a Virus? The Queer Cold War of William Burroughs.” Journal of American Studies 33, no. 2 (1999): 243–266.■ Johnson, Rob. “William S. Burroughs: South Texas Farmer, Junky, and Queer.” Southwestern American Literature (Spring 2001): 7–35.■ Russell, Jamie. Queer Burroughs. New York: Palgrave, 2001.Rob Johnson and Oliver Harris
Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. Kurt Hemmer. 2014.
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