Cities of the Red Night

by William S. Burroughs
(1981)
   This first book in a trilogy of novels was published in the 1980s that also includes The place of dead roads and The western lands. Although written late in William S. Burroughs’s life, these three novels are gaining a reputation as being among his best. Ann Douglas in her introduction to Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader states flatly that they are his best work.
   The books are a trilogy in that there are overlapping characters and a consistent set of key ideas, including the continuous revelation of Burroughs’s philosophical views on control systems, Christianity’s monopoly on spirituality in the West, the move from a One God Universe to a magical universe, time versus space, and the need for humans to evolve to leave the dying planet—Earth being a “dead whistle stop,” a death colony run by aliens (Venusians). Unlike most trilogies, there is no real character development in the conventional sense nor are the books linear in the conventional way that most “trilogies” develop. This should not be surprising to readers of Burroughs. Like jack kerouac, he preferred to see his works as one long book. Burroughs also appears to have been able to imagine these works as a whole before writing any of them, meaning that in this trilogy (and in other works), he can freely cut back and forth through time and space, sometimes giving multiple names to the same character and playing similar tricks with geography. This singularity of vision may also suggest to some readers the limits of Burroughs’s range: At some point in the reading of all of his works, the reader feels that he has read this book before.
   Cities of the Red Night is, like all of Burroughs’s books, a blueprint for cracking the codes of reality that restrict us from ultimate freedom. The Urstory he adopts is the history of the 18th-century pirate Captain Mission, “one of the forebears of the French Revolution,” as Burroughs says in a foreword, who established the colony of Libertatia and enforced the following Articles: all decisions submitted to a vote, no slavery, no death penalty, freedom of religion. Under these principles, Burroughs says, all of the enslaved people of the world could unite and overthrow despotic governments, slave religions, and other control systems. However, Mission’s revolution did not spread, a key failure in the history of humankind, believes Burroughs: “Your right to live where you want, with companions of your choosing, under laws to which you agree, died in the eighteenth century with Captain Mission. Only a miracle or a disaster could restore it.” Cities of the Red Night is a fantasy involving a “what might have been” plot had Mission succeeded. Book One introduces the two main parallel storylines in the novel. The first involves a young man named Noah who lives at the beginning of the 18th century in one of the American colonies where he and his father manufacture guns. The book follows the fate of the Blake family and Noah Blake’s companions. They are ostracized, evidently for their homosexuality, and Noah and four friends ship out with Opium Jones, a captain whose primary cargo is eponymous. They end up being captured by a “pirate” named Captain Strobe of the Siren, whose sailors dress as women to lure in unsuspecting vessels. Noah and his companions are taken to Port Royal where they become conscripted in a plan to free the Americas according to Captain Mission’s Articles—thus their name, the Articulated. Noah has been presciently chosen by Strobe and Jones because they seem to know that he will invent the prototype of the modern bullet as well as other sophisticated weapons. This storyline reads like a boy’s adventure story.
   The other storyline is a mock hardboiled detective story involving several missing persons cases and the recovery of a rare manuscript. The detective’s name is Clem Snide, Private Ass-hole. Snide is hired to find a boy named Jerry Green by his father. The boy’s decapitated corpse turns up. Snide and his assistant Jim use psychic forces and “sex magic” as well as tape cut-ups and language cut-ups that help them to learn the truth. Jerry has apparently died from “orgasm death,” or the red death, a disease attributed to a virus turned malignant by radiation that was released 20,000 years ago when a meteor crashed in Siberia. The virus has once again become malignant because of radiation released in worldwide nuclear tests. He follows Jerry’s trail to London, Tangier, and Marrakech. Jerry, it turns out, was sacrificed in a hanging as part of the Egyptian sunset rite dedicated to Set. Dimitri, a rich employer of Snide, tells him this. Snide, as is the case with Phillip Marlowe and the Continental Op, becomes employed by several parties who seek the same information. While searching for another missing boy, John Everson, Snide travels to Mexico City, where he attends Lola La Chata’s annual party. The party brings friends together from Burroughs’s own past, including a character based on his lover Kiki and Bernabé Abogado, based on his lawyer Bernabé Jurado. Everson is a patient in an operation to transfer identities, performed by the Igauna Twins, who are also sorceresses in the Noah Blake storyline (several characters overlap in the two stories). The Iguana sister tells Snide that she can give him information which will help him “survive” a suicide mission on which Dimitri has sent him. She hands him a parchment-bound pamphlet entitled Cities of the Red Night.
   Book Two begins with Clem reading the Cities manuscript. Indeed, the novel takes on a postmodern feel as books are read within books and characters begin to write books that we are reading. The manuscript creates an anthropological fantasy from 100,000 years ago, and this lost civilization is at the root of our present-day woes. There were six cities of the red night located in the Gobi Desert (their names are six magical words taught to Burroughs by Brion Gysin, who told him if you repeated them before you fell asleep you would have prophetic dreams). Their populations were stable, based on a one birth/one death formula that was kept constant through the practice of transmigration of souls. Two factors destabilized the civilization. The first was the discovery of artificial insemination techniques, making it possible for a whole region to be populated by the sperm of one male. The second was more serious: A giant meteor fell to Earth, lighting up the sky with a deadly red radiation. Whereas the inhabitants were previously all black skinned, now mutant white people appeared. One of them, known as the White Tigress, took over Yass Waddah and enslaved all of the males. The males in Waghdas waged war, and the cities were all eventually destroyed and deserted. The books detailing their knowledge of the transmigration of souls fell into the hands of the Mayans, who misread them and “reduced the Receptacle class to a condition of virtual idiocy.” The story thus explains the origins of the “Mayan Caper” and mind-control techniques practiced by the indigenous people of the Americas.
   The six cities come to represent a path to the afterlife, each with a magical meaning related to the assassin Hassan i Sabbah’s motto: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” These cities also become the points on a pilgrimage that ends in the afterlife: “The traveler must start in Tamaghis and make his way through the other cities in the order named.” This pilgrimage corresponds fairly closely to the description of the seven souls in the final book of the trilogy, The Western Lands. Thus, throughout these books, Burroughs shows a remarkable ability to create metaphors, codes, and systems that depict the secrets of the universe. Although Clem has exact copies of these books, the Iguana sisters want him to find the originals because “Changes, Mr. Snide, can only be effected by alterations in the original.” However, Clem and his assistant (who, like many of the “assistants” in the trilogy, is probably based on Burroughs’s collaborator, James Grauerholz) opt instead to “start making books. I write the continuity. Jim does the drawings.” One of the books they make details the city of Tamaghis, and in the book, characters from the parallel storyline appear as well. The novel takes on a disorienting, intertextual style. Once again, Clem is hired by another client, this time Blum and Krup, two vaudevillians who appeared in previous Burroughs books. Clem plays dumb: “Books? Me? I’m just a private eye, not a writer.” They blindfold him and take him on an adventure that has the feel of an espionage film, such as The Third Man, or North by Northwest. He meets a CIA operative named Pierson who has a plan to kill off the white race with a biological agent and blame it on brown, black, and yellow races to justify exterminating them. Then he will genetically reengineer the white race as a super race. They hire Clem to write the “scenario.”
   Here the book becomes a parody of the serious writer-goes-to-Hollywood story (Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Agee in Hollywood): “Blum says he wants something he calls art. He knows it when he sees it and he isn’t seeing it.” In the script, Snide writes a hanging scene in which Audrey appears; and Audrey later substitutes for Snide in the narrative (they are the same character, in different times). The book’s technique is explained in a key observation by Jerry. Clem asks, “Who else is here?” “All the boys from your scripts . . . One foot in a navy mess and the other on some kooky spaceship. You see, there is a pretense this is just a naval station and you never know which is the pretense: spaceship or navy.” In Burroughs, names and places can be interchanged, and reality is an illusion, often compared to a film.
   Noah Blake and his companions participate in the Articulated’s plan to retake the Americas. Captain Strobe is captured in Panama City, but the city is taken by the rebels, thanks in large part to the sophisticated guns designed by Noah. The captured Spanish soldiers are read the Articles and quickly are converted to the cause. Only a small percentage refuse: “Any body of men,” says the narrator, “will be found to contain ten to fifteen percent of incorrigible troublemakers. In fact, most of the misery on this planet derives from this ten percent.”
   This statistic will be repeated in The Place of Dead Roads when a group similar to the Articulated, the Johnson Family, takes over the Americas. The real enemy in this book turns out to be the Spanish colonizers, and the Articulated steal their ledger books and are thus are able to predict the future behavior of the Spanish. With the Americas freed, Noah and the boys can survey the freed country at will, embodying a pioneer spirit: “We carry with us seeds and plants, plans, books, pictures, and artifacts from the communes we visit.”
   In Book Three Noah arrives in a frontier town, rents a house by a river, and trains himself as a shootist—a scene that looks forward to a nearly identical episode featuring Kim Carsons in The Place of Dead Roads. Noah’s encounter with a Venusian reminds him of Captain Strobe, and in the following sections, we return to the character of Audrey, who must travel through the six cities to attain immortality in the City of Waghdas (a scheme very similar to the pilgrimage that must be performed in the trilogy’s final volume, The Western Lands). As is true of many of Burroughs’s books, the characters are now revealed as having multiple identities: Noah, Audrey, and Clem Snide are apparently interchangeable characters. Noah realizes that he must “make preparations for a war I thought had ended,” but it is Audrey who is featured in the climactic battle staged at the novel’s end.
   To get to Wagdhas, Audrey must defeat the matriarchal villains, the Countesses de Vile and de Gulpa, in Yass–Waddah. All of the bad characters in history, including Burroughs’s own personal demon—that of the “Ugly Spirit” that he thought killed his wife Joan—are gathered in Yass–Waddah. The battle resembles the climactic scenes in Nova Express. “Towers open fire,” and the war room at Yass–Waddah is revealed as the “Studio,” where the film that keeps human beings enslaved by illusion is created: “It was all intended to keep human slaves imprisoned in a physical bodies while a monstrous matador waved his cloth in the sky, sword ready to kill.” Audrey wakes from this battle in mental ward—an intentionally cheap device— repeating the names of the six cities on his pilgrimage. Life is a pilgrimage, but one that may take many lifetimes (thus the multiple identities for characters in the book). Audrey, as Burroughs did after accidentally shooting Joan, tries to write his way out of his human predicament, sitting at a typewriter in an attic room. He meditates on a future that could have been had the Spanish never come over to the Americas in their galleons, a future in which Captain Strobe’s social experiment at Port Roger had succeeded. However, Audrey, like Burroughs, is “bound to the past.”
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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