Interzone

by William S. Burroughs
(1989)
   This collection gathers material William S. Burroughs wrote after completing junky and queer. The title is derived from Tangier’s status as an “international zone” during the time that Burroughs lived there. Originally, this material was part of what would become the naked luncH manuscript, but very little of the actual text of Interzone appears in Naked Lunch; nor does Burroughs avail himself of this material in the cut-ups trilogy that followed Naked Lunch. The work collected here thus provides a key transition between the linear, hard-boiled style of Junky and the surreal, poetic, fragmented style of Naked Lunch. Along with Queer and The yaGe letters, Interzone is crucial reading for those who wish to come to Naked Lunch by following the author’s early development. Certainly, a familiarity with the earlier works enables a much more informed reading of the difficult Naked Lunch.
   In his introduction to Interzone, James Grauerholz, Burroughs’s longtime companion and editor, says that Interzone is based on an early manuscript version of Naked Lunch rediscovered by Bill Morgan in 1984 among allen ginsberg’s papers at Columbia University. “Interzone” was in fact the working title of Naked Lunch. Grauerholz included the material from this lost manuscript that had not been previously published and supplemented it with work from the same period that he found in Burroughs’s collections at the University of Arizona, Columbia, and the University of Texas at Austin. Many of these pieces were first written in letter form to Ginsberg. The most significant find in the manuscript at Columbia is entitled “Word,” a literary bloodletting that reads as if Burroughs is purging himself to transform himself.
   From the collection at the University of Arizona, Grauerholz includes “Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” first written with Kells Elvins in 1938. Based upon the sinking of the Morro Castle in 1935, this story of a captain and his crew sneaking aboard the lifeboats of a sinking ship exists in various shorter versions in other works by Burroughs. This is one of Burroughs’s favorite stories, and he uses it often as a metaphor for what happens when the “ship of state” goes down: Those responsible for sinking it jump ship and leave the passengers to die. In the next story, “The Finger,” a man cuts off the end of his finger to impress a woman. Although written in the third person about a character named Lee (Burroughs’s mother’s maiden name), the story is clearly an autobiographical retelling of Burroughs’s own attempt to impress his boyhood love Jack Anderson. However, Burroughs worried that the homosexual angle would render the story unpublishable and changed the object of desire from male to female. In later years, Burroughs would further obfuscate the facts, claiming, for example, that the finger end was blown off in a chemistry accident. The straightforward, factual presentation of the act of cutting off one’s finger reflects the emotionless, junk-influenced style of Junky.
   “Driving Lesson” has a similar style and is also about his relationship with Anderson. The Burroughs character is called “Bill,” and he and Jack carouse in the bars of East St. Louis. Bill comes to realize that Jack is stupid and asks Jack if he would like to drive his car, even though Jack has little experience behind the wheel. As if to prove his point about Jack’s stupidity, Bill encourages him to drive so fast and recklessly that Jack ends up totaling Bill’s father’s car. The clear self-destructive urge of Bill is not commented upon. His father takes him home and makes little of the incident, since neither Jack nor Bill was seriously hurt.
   “The Junky’s Christmas” has actually been anthologized in collections of holiday stories. As is true of the previous two stories, this one was written in a letter to Ginsberg (circa mid-1950s) with the hopes that he could have it published. It is the story of “Danny the Car Wiper” who, on Christmas Day, comes out of a three-day jail sentence junk-sick and broke. When Danny finally scores, he gives up his junk to a young man in the flophouse apartment next to his who is suffering horribly from kidney stones. A Christmas miracle occurs for Danny when he suddenly feels “a warm flood” pulsing through his veins, and he thinks that, because it is Christmas, he must have “scored the immaculate fix.”
   The remaining stories in this section are all set in Tangier and are only loosely related. Grauerholz selected them from among the letters Burroughs sent to Ginsberg. “Lee and the Boys” is Burroughs’s most extensive picture of his life with Kiki, the Spanish boy who appears in many of his works: “Like many Spanish boys, Kiki did not feel love for women. To him a woman was only for sex. He had known Lee for some months, and felt a genuine fondness for him, in an offhand way.” A second brief Tangier story, “In the Café Central,” sketches a crowd of sybarites and scavengers who live in hotel lobbies, prey on the rich, and delight in each other’s humiliations. One anecdote here has to do with Tennessee Williams, an unapproachably famous guest in Tangier, who is nonetheless approached by one of these sybarites and rebuffs him. Burroughs eventually met Williams, and they became friendly. The related “Dream of the Penal Colony” casts Tangier metaphorically as a place inhabited by colonists who are actually prisoners. The colonists can be recognized by “the penal colony look: control, without inner calm or balance; bitter knowledge, without maturity; intensity, without warmth or love.” This useful list of characteristics reveals Burroughs’s growing ambivalence about Tangier, which had originally appealed to him (as had Mexico) as a place of total freedom. The intrigue and secret-agent plot here will surface in the passages of Naked Lunch that are set in Tangier. Burroughs wrote “International Zone” in response to Ginsberg’s suggestion that he might be able to sell a magazine article about his Moroccan experiences and observations. Burroughs would later reject the essay as far too conventional, but it is hardly so and can hold its place with the very best travel writing of the period. It is also a revealing self-portrait of Burroughs as fatally defeated character. For Burroughs and the other desperate characters living there, the “special attraction of Tangier can be put in one word: exemption. Exemption from interference, legal or otherwise. Your private life is your own, to act exactly as you please.” Such freedom was crucial for Burroughs at this period, having been successively run out of America and Mexico. Burroughs would eventually leave Tangier because he felt the walls closing in after Morocco gained independence and Tangier was no longer an international zone. The “Lee’s Journals” section of the book is mostly drawn from letters that Burroughs sent to Ginsberg. During this period, Burroughs drew no line between the writing of letters and the writing of his books, and he depended on Ginsberg to collect and edit his work. The “journals” detail Burroughs’s development of the novel that would become Naked Lunch. They testify to Burroughs’s heavy self-criticism of his work, show how thoroughly he revised his work, and how willing he was to cut out any material that was not up to his high standards. For example, many of the “routines” included here were cut from Naked Lunch.
   These journal entries also reveal Burroughs’s dedication to creating a new kind of self-referential novel. As he says of himself in “International Zone,” he is in a “larval” stage, ready to change into something but not knowing what: “What am I trying to do in writing?” he asks in “Lee’s Journals.” “This novel is about transitions, larval forms, emergent telepathic faculty, attempts to control and stifle new forms. . . . I feel there is some hideous new force loose in the world like a creeping sickness, spreading, blighting.” While in Junky, Queer, and The Yage Letters he reconstructed his past; he writes that the new novel “is an attempt to create my future. In a sense, it is a guidebook, a map.” Such notes suggest that Naked Lunch is a more personal book than has been understood before: It is literally Burroughs’s guidebook for his life. Burroughs saw the writing of Interzone/Naked Lunch as decidedly antiliterary. He says in “Lee’s Journals” that until he was 35 and wrote Junky, he “had a special abhorrence for writing, for my thoughts and feelings put down on a piece of paper.” To overcome this hatred of literary novels and of their self-revealing “feelings,” Burroughs wrote in a hard-boiled style in Junky, displaced his “feelings” in the “routines” of Queer, and put together an epistolary novel in The Yage Letters. Throughout these journal entries, he struggles to articulate a form of novel writing that will not disgust him. Essential to his concept of the novel is its fragmentary nature and its self-referentiality: “The fragmentary quality of the work is inherent in the method and will resolve itself as necessary. That is, I include the author Lee, in the novel, and by so doing separate myself from him so that he becomes another character.” Such notes show that the radical form of Naked Lunch was thoroughly thought-out beforehand. “The Tangier novel,” he writes, “will consist of Lee’s impressions of Tangier, instead of the outworn novelistic pretense that he is dealing directly with his characters and situations. That is, I include the author in the novel.” He will not, as some other novelists do, pretend that the author is hidden. Another key to the technique of Interzone/Naked Lunch is the “routine” that he first developed in Queer. The routine allows for the “uncontrollable, the unpredictable,” and the dangerous to enter into the novel. Such explicit technical discussions of the writing of Naked Lunch are invaluable, and scholars of Naked Lunch will find the “Ginsberg Notes” section here to be central. “Word” is the longest piece in Interzone and quite possibly are the words that jack kerouac typed that gave him nightmares when he visited Tangier in 1957. In many ways, this manuscript can be seen as a rehearsal for the kind of “antinovel” that Burroughs has sketched out in the “Ginsberg Notes” and other journal entries. It does take on the kind of mosaic form that Burroughs sought. But the work is decidedly undisciplined, too: “This book spill off the page in all directions.” “Word” is more than anything else the record of Burroughs’s first sustained attempt to unleash his “word hoard.” The method is purgative; the metaphors, not accidentally, scatological. Like Naked Lunch, there is great poetry in these pages, too. Yet, the overall feel of this key, transitional work is that Burroughs wrote it for himself, with no hope of ever getting it published.
 Bibliography
■ Grauerholz, James. Introduction. Interzone, by William S. Burroughs. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989. ix–xxiii.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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