William Burroughs, Truth, and Storytelling

The young Burroughs liked to read adventure stories. The older Burroughs did too.

Stories are about characters. What’s infuriating and gripping about a good character is that she’ll have blind spots, things the reader can see that she cannot. It puts you into the story, you’re screaming at her: for goodness sake! Open your eyes! Just like real people have blind spots but you often don’t get involved enough in real people’s lives to notice or care so much. You have your own blind spots in this way.

In Last Words Burroughs writes about the clever ways some writers have of putting the reader into the story. Like one author has a wasp buzzing about a glass as two characters talk. You notice a wasp, it gives you something to feel bothered about as you read the conversation. Like you’re there half-distracted, like you’re mostly half-distracted in real life when you’re supposed to be paying attention.

Blind spots, distraction, these things are so human. You’re in the story because you know this could just as well be you. Well, you haven’t made such huge mistakes in your life, surely. In real life you’ve rarely encountered real tragedy or comedy, in the poetic senses of those terms.

One of the clever things a writer can do is find something interesting in a situation most people would pass over blindly. If you’re a writer you’ll pass over many things, but stop the wheel anywhere and there should be something you can write about to great effect. “A smokestack or a button,” Henry Miller said. Everything is meat to the writer.

The mundane is just the starting point. What develops is something larger than life. The characters are heroic in their resistance to acknowledging their blind spots. There’s no voice of reason to mediate between the clash of great personalities. In W. Somerset Maugham’s “Neil MacAdam,” we have two main characters: Neil and Darya. Neil is a moralist, Darya is a nihilist. Darya, a married woman, falls in love with Neil, and when he finds out he feels only revulsion, no pity at all. And Darya can’t understand Neil’s moralism, she won’t let it alone. The well-rounded character is Munro, Darya’s husband, but of course he won’t find out what’s happening, and there’s no way he can mediate the disagreement.

Neither the nihilist not the moralist will budge an inch. Munro in the background, Neil and Darya have to battle it out so that one of them must perish in the struggle.

This is the way a story goes. It’s something otherworldly. Could it have gone this way in real life? Well possibly. But more often in real life something gets in the way of the struggle, so it doesn’t have to be fought to its bitter end. It’s too convenient that when Darya puts Neil into an impossible position by blackmailing him, when she has him in her grasp, the stage on which they stand is the heart of the jungle, and he can abandon her to her death. When in real life does Nature conspire with the human heart to produce such an evil result?

For all he read and enjoyed stories, Burroughs himself was never much of a storyteller. He’s like Henry Miller in this respect. Writing is a way to get at the human soul, which is necessarily fragmented. Stories are just too neat. Human experience, mediated through the human soul, is something non-linear, and with plenty of loose ends. So if you want to be truthful in your writing, you’d better make it messy.

And one thing Burroughs and Miller had in common was that they wanted to tell the truth. There’s truth in Maugham of course, and in other 20th century storytellers. But they’re writing stories, and not autobiography.

(“Autobiography of a Wolf”: Burroughs had the truth-habit from the beginning, always writing about himself.)

One conundrum I’ve found trying to write about Burroughs, is how much I should be excusing Burroughs’s uneven style. In other words, is this unevenness a necessary part of what he’s trying to do? Or just sloppiness on his part? In other words: could Burroughs have created such an effect and yet have been easier to read?

It’s reading someone like Maugham, who is able to deal with deep philosophical ideas and the finest and most mysterious elements of the human soul, while still being a popular writer, that makes me ask questions like this. A writer like Maugham, who has his stylistic points of interest too, and was a popular storyteller without being just a hack. Burroughs, who admired writers like Maugham, while aspiring to be a writer himself, never became popular in this way, instead becoming a cult figure, someone in the margins. Even today, when everyone has heard of him, few have read him, and Burroughs is known for being an impossibly difficult writer to read. “Burroughsian” can more or less be used to mean “incomprehensible.” Why? The evidence seems to suggest that it’s not because he consciously decided to rise above writing popular fiction like Maugham’s, but because he couldn’t do it.

I’m not trying to make a point against Burroughs here. There are plenty of great writers who found themselves utterly unable to produce certain kinds of writing, while excelling in others. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, failed as a sports journalist in his early years, finding himself unable to write an article about a horse race. Finally he typed “The horse jumped over the f***ing fence,” then gave up on sports journalism.

It’s necessity that creates artists. If Burroughs had been able to write adventure stories with a philosophical twist early on in life, then he would never have had to struggle and experiment in order to succeed, and he would never have produced the body of original work, from Naked Lunch onward, that transformed a generation. Or if, failing as a writer early in life, he’d had nowhere to turn to pursue his own course, he’d have maybe got no further than the limited success of works like Junky, in which the experimental elements have yet to ripen. By noting this, you can begin to see how “standardisation” of culture can be harmful: no-one could have foreseen Burroughs’s success, and it was vital that he be allowed to experiment to produce the work that only he could. Culture has to be something that is both transformative, and transforms itself continually. Don’t fall in love with culture, because it will change and you’ll be disappointed. Burroughs, influenced as he was by Oswald Spengler, knew this well, and wasn’t afraid to keep experimenting, to try to create something new. And he succeeded, even if he didn’t end up in anything like the place he’d imagined.

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4 Responses to William Burroughs, Truth, and Storytelling

  1. A lot of food for thought here, Lee.
    For one thing, I’m not sure if I ever thought about how some very creative writers are unable to produce certain forms of writing. I love the Vonnegut quote.


  2. jamienauthor says:

    Interesting article from earlier in the year in The Guardian newspaper – one paragraph suggests what might have been if Burroughs had collaborated with Jane Austen… https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/may/09/bill-clinton-james-paterson-best-writing-duo

    Liked by 1 person

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