‘Confusion hath fuck his masterpiece’: Re-reading William Burroughs, from Junky to Nova Express
When William Burroughs first emerged on the literary scene in the early 1960s, his published works were subject to numerous emotional, subjective responses, which focussed rather too strongly on the content of his novels and not strongly enough on their compositional style. He was presented by his supporters as a writer in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Henry Miller, and Jean Genet, rather than, as would have been more representative of the work he was engaged in, an artist in the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Hannah Höch, and Jackson Pollock. As a result, many readers, both then and since, have come to his work with misleading expectations, and have found themselves at best confused or disappointed, and at worst disgusted and nauseated. This chapter proposes a reassessment of the way readers approach Burroughs’s novels of the 1950s and 1960s, from Junky to Nova Express, arguing that it must be informed by an understanding of his compositional techniques and setbacks: in other words, how and why he came to use collage in his writing. I will chart the development of Burroughs’s writing, from the linear narrative of his first novel, Junky, through the ‘lost’ novel, Queer, and the epistolary writings which informed much of Naked Lunch, to the transformation of his work into the calculated collage style in which he wrote his ‘cut-up’ novels, also known as The Nova Trilogy. I will discuss the reasons for this transformation, and assess the successes and inevitable failures of using the more radical cut-up technique to produce his novels. I have chosen to concentrate chiefly on the novels rather than on the hundreds of shorter cut-up items that Burroughs also produced during the same period, predominantly because of the novels’ relative availability and the likelihood of their having a wider readership.