William S. Burroughs At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959 - 1989
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Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg have selected twenty-five critical essays on Burroughs that reflect the historical reception of his work, both positive and negative, decade by decade, and that represent the best essays written about him.
The essays cover Burroughs’ major novels—including the cut-up and new trilogies—the censorship issue, and his work in film and painting. The chronological organization brings into critical focus the shift from moral questions raised by the novels’ content, through examinations of Burroughs’ relationship to humanism and modernism, and finally to more focused literary and linguistic issues. In their introduction, the editors survey the progress of Burroughs’ critical reception and examine the reasons for the varied and intense responses to the work and the theoretical assumptions behind those responses.
The reviewers include prominent figures such as Mary McCarthy and Marshall McLuhan as well as major academic critics such as Cary Nelson, Tony Tanner, and Ihab Hassan.
enter another and as Burroughs gradually suggests that one of the characters, Audrey the child-writer, is the author of all the stories. Audrey is a reader of pulp fiction (Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Adventure Stories) whose stories imitate his reading. Thus the source of the stories explains their episodic structure and their popular style. The most important plot development in Port of Saints is the merger of the Audrey Carsons and the wild boys stories in a plot to rewrite history. In
develop through more fanciful perceptions: She seized a safety pin caked with blood and rust, gouged a great hole in her leg which seemed to hang open like an obscene, festering mouth waiting for unspeakable congress with the dropper which she now plunged out of sight into the gaping wound. By the end, the horror emerges in a surrealistic montage of dramatic scene and dramatic hallucination. Even the physical lineaments of the body are absorbed into the lust for drugs. The lust becomes
narrative. The result was Cities of the Red Night. It was while working on this project that I encountered a deadly occupational hazardwriter's block. Suddenly you would rather do anything than sit down and write. When you force yourself, the words seem banal, dead, false, stale, flat, and unprofitablethat is, unpublishable. Writer's block often results from overwriting; the general has gotten too far ahead of his army and finds his supply lines cut. "It just doesn't come anymore!" Hemingway
end a vast tapeworm covered with newsprint twists its way out of a lot of microphones set up in the middle of the city square. The watching crowd cheers and tears the worm to pieces. This is their liberation, and the story ends with "silence et pas de commissions." Compressed into this short piece are so many images and figures from his earlier work that it reveals that Burroughs has now created a vocabularydiagnostic and therapeuticwhich can engender a theoretically indefinite number of episodes
of the body, hooked into erogenous zones maintained by sex words in the pleasure-pain syndrome. It simultaneously enforces association on stellar and molecular levels. "The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system" (TX 49). We live on the "word dust planet''; we perceive objects as images linked to conflicting verbal association blocks: "Earth and water stones and trees poured into him and spurted out broken