WILLIAM BURROUGHS is ready to reduce all you "Norms" to a whimpering jelly once again. Now 66, the father figure of the Beat Generation is just as sinister, weird, mysterious and exasperating as he was 22 years ago when he gave birth to that great monster, Naked Lunch. He has not changed one basic inch in the quarter century since he offended even the most sophisticated literary heads with his graphic world of violent hallucination and degradation, chockfull of the most vomit-making details.
Burroughs has stood fast -- it is his audience and publishers who have changed, true evidence that the once grotesque and repulsive Burroughsian vision is now an integral part of our apocalyptic tradition. Where Burroughs was once published by the semi-pornographic Olympia Press in Paris, he is now literally coming to us from Madison Avenue, and from the publishing arm of CBS at that; and where his work was once snubbed by practically all his fellow American novelists, Norman Mailer has since crowned him "our one genius" and John Updike has told us that "an integrity beyond corruption" shines through his "savage" books.
Unlike Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the two younger Beat Generation stars who looked up to Burroughs as wicked ringleader, "Old Bull Lee" (as Kerouac dubbed him in On the Road ) has never been an emotional writer. His prose could be written by a defrocked surgeon. It is clear, dry and poker-faced. Indeed it is this contrast between his horrendous images and scenes -- like "an open-eyed tourist in hell," as Updike has put it -- and the flat delivery that gives Burroughs his special fiendish touch, and makes even the most seasoned reader regard him with wonder and disbelief.
Before tackling this latest and most ambitious installment in the ongoing Burroughs chronicle, let's lay out the ground rules that have established themselves in his recent novels and predict the tone of Cities of the Red Night. Increasingly, Burroughs has been pitting a small group of homosexual free spirits, "the Wild Boys," against the "Norms," a collection of self-satisfied clods and meanies who represent the Western World establishment. You can almost see this conflict in comic-strip terms, an analogy that would be not at all insulting to Burroughs since he views his work as a series of "pictographs" (flashing pictures) rather than the usual accretion of words.
At any rate, with this basic clash between deviant good guys and "straight" bad guys/gals providing the energy, Burroughs then sets in motion incredible scenarios that take place all over the planet and beyond, and revel in scenes of torture, drug fantasy, kinky sex, murder and execution, Identity Transfer ("I.D."), and even a kind of corny vaudevillian playfulness.
Keeping the above in mind, one should approach Cities of the Red Night as the Wagneresque capper of all the five or six homosexual planet-operas Burroughs has scripted since he founded a genuine new style in Naked Lunch. This time out, the Burroughs imagination not only dashes around the world from South America to Tibet, it also time-travels from the 18th to the 21st century, where a terrible man-made plague has reduced the human population to what it was several hundred years ago. The book in fact winds down in the sadness and silence of devastation that usually humanizes the more lurid costumery in a Burroughs travelogue.
But along the way we are introduced to a cast of at least 50 characters, some of whom blend into others before this extravaganza is played out, and all of whom represent some aspect of human innocence ore depravity. They are not quite real -- often they are one-dimensional, as in a cockeyed morality play -- but they are nonetheless memorable because they come red-hot from one of the most unpredictable imaginations in the business.
No Burroughs novel has a "plot" in the conventional sense, but one gets the sense that in Cities of the Red Night this tight-lipped necromancer is really trying harder than ever before to reach out to a wider audience. As a result, he pegs his customary rituals on an actual historical incident in this book. It seems that in the early 18th century an avant-garde pirate named "Captain Mission" established a commune in Madagascar named Libertatia. Under the "Articles" which he drew up -- anticipating the French and American revolutions by nearly a hundred years -- the colony was ruled by democratic voting and was free of slavery and the death penalty, as well as harassment because of unpopular beliefs or practices. "The chance was there," says Burroughs in his preface, "the chance was missed."
But writing as if Captain Mission had succeeded -- and he was slain by natives along with 300 of his men -- Burroughs imagines a string of such guerilla colonies throughout South America which offer a home to deviants and Unpopulars of every stripe. His hero in this section of the book is an 18-year-old Yankee seaman named Noah Blake, who brilliantly invents the cartridge gun, which enables these idealized pirates to protect their utopia. To state it simply, Burroughs has provided a new home for his "Wild Boys" where they can't be persecuted for extreme deviations, sexual and psychic. There is something almost poignant in the author's hope that such a place could exist and his writing is unexpectedly vulnerable in these passages.
However Burroughs is also a bitter realist, and in the same opening preface he tells us that today "there is simply no room left for freedom from the tyranny of government." He goes on to say: "Your right to live where you want, with companions of your own choosing, under laws to which you agree, died in the 18th century with Captain Mission." This sets the stage for the futuristic nightmare world that Burroughs alternates with the 18th-century scenes.
In these sections, which dominate the book, psychotic governments in the West have introduced the "Doomsday Bug," a radioactive virus that causes a smell like "metal excrement" and forces people into sexual frenzies that end in mutual murder. In the midst of this general madness, Burroughs trots out his cast of bizarre adventurers including the two nasty Countesses de Gulpa and de Vile, Clem Snide the Private Asshole (a slapstick version of the Bogart private eye), Half-Hanged Kelly (literally half-executed!), and the half-Jewish, half-Nazi exporting team of Blum and Krup. All these characters are engaged in the most vicious power-plays to take over a planet that is falling to pieces and satisfy the most bestial part of their natures at the expense of a victimized majority.
For the purposes of clarity this review divides the 18th-century chapters of the book from the futuristic ones, but "Old Bull Lee" is hardly that considerate; just as he invents a science-fictional "Separator" in the story, which puts a person in two places at the same time, so does he span the centuries in almost the same breath. The result is that the reader spends half his time in shock from the sheer, perverse power and inventiveness of the writing and the other half tearing his hair trying to get located. To be honest about it, many a decent-willed reader is going to give up out of a feeling of bewilderment and impotence because he expects to be spoon-fed in the grand American custom.
But Burroughs doesn't make these concessions, nor should we ask it of him. What makes him extraordinary, even when baffling to the point of seeming to write in a secret code, is that he gives the very definite impression that he is including us in a private ceremonial obsession over which he has little control. As in Theodore Dreiser at his most powerful, we feel that Burroughs is composing in a trance that removes his work from what we ordinarily think of as "fiction" or even "art." It's as if we had gotten hold of a black ticket to his unconscious, and anyone who makes the trip will see sights and feel feelings that are unique and mindbending beyond anyone else's description. Totting it all up is or course another, highly subjective story, and here each tripper is very much on his or her own.
A last word. As to whether Cities of the Red Night is indeed William Burroughs' "magnum opus," as his money-minded new publishers rather loudly proclaim, there is every good reason to believe that Naked Lunch still stands supreme as the classic Burroughs flesh-crawler. But many parts of this new one will make strong men get down and pray -- believe it.