William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is confusing in how it shifts narrators, places, and topics without warning. There seems to be no overarching structure to the novel other than its lack of structure. There are brief one to seven word titles (I hesitate calling them titles because they are decentralized by being all lower case, right aligned, same font size as the prose, and if they were not italicized they would blend with the rest of the text) that are like a flash of “10 Days Later” on screen. The deemphasis of the titles supports the text’s desire to be seen as a visual form because it is not about the traditional form of a title being a given after a page break, a larger font size, or sectioned off with space underneath it. The deemphasized titles are a quick note that we are moving along like how we see a movie cut scenes and immediately know we are somewhere else. Burroughs uses the word “Fadeout” often that makes the novel feel like a play dimming the lights in order to change costumes and background scenery. In certain respects, this novel would flow better as a play. The heavy attention to visual detail, the spasmodic shifts in scenes, and the many characters with unique characteristics. But the play would have to be rated R for its explicit language as well as the excessive display of sex and violence. Naked Lunch is fascinated with the visual representation of the mental, from hallucinations to government experiments gone wrong.
The sex scenes, particularly with Mary, Johnny, and Mark, reminded me of Crash by J.G. Ballard because both are obsessed with sex and violence. Naked Lunch’s obsession with drugs, sex, and violence shows a side of America that is fueled by the rush, the need to have instant gratification, and does anything to fulfill this need. Crash has a narrative whereas Naked Lunch is more aptly a jumble of short stories and chunks of prose. Naked Lunch’s lack of structure worked well for it because it sets the reader in the mind of the junkie where there is no time only junk time. The removal from linear time pairs well with queer time, time that is deliberately non-linear in order to challenge the standard straight, heterosexual orientation norm. Naked Lunch has a lot of homosexual sex as well as a particular interest in sex and death by hanging. The rapid killing of people shows a disregard for life and highlights the extremity of instant gratification. People will truly do anything for the rush, even kill others and themselves for it.
Naked Lunch has tidbits of social commentary on complacency, the police state, the use of technology and science to control people, the power of the doctor, and political parties. I wondered if these pieces would work better as stand alone short stories because as part of the novel they get lost among the whirlwind of other bizarre anecdotes and snapshots of different characters.