This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of William S. Burroughs‘ Naked Lunch. A dedicated Web site celebrates the book and lists some upcoming events related to the anniversary, while AbeBooks has a gallery of the various editions of the novel. The one I own is the Grove paperback edition; I didn’t shipwreck on Naked Lunch, but while I can say I finished it years ago, I can’t say I’ve read it well.
Perhaps it would’ve helped if I’d heard Burroughs reading from the novel first. As a story in the Lawrence Journal-World explains, that’s one of the ways Burroughs novices find their way into the book. “After they hear his voice, most people claim there is an internal breakthrough and they can read his work,” says James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime companion in Lawrence, Kansas, where the author died in 1997. Burroughs’ first reading of Naked Lunch was, in fact, a recording. The late poet Harold Norse explains in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel:
In 1959 Burroughs had accepted an invitation to read sections of Naked Lunch at the Mistral Bookshop [in Paris]. [Poet Gregory] Corso and I completed the program. When the day arrived Burroughs didn’t appear. He was junk-sick. He sent a tape of his reading from the opening pages of the novel. The tiny audience, mesmerized by the deep, hypnotic voice and black humor, sat spellbound. This was his first reading; it was entirely appropriate that a disembodied voice should create the hallucinatory climate of fear, horror, and fun.
The Journal-World story notes that the anniversary has increased the number of looky-loos arriving at Burroughs’ home in Lawrence. Its current resident, Tom King, explains:
“This summer has to be a record. I used to get five or 10 people a week. Now it’s that many just on the weekend. They drive by very slowly a couple of times — like a shark — then they’ll pull up, get out and take a picture standing in front of the house.”
King — who never actually met Burroughs — has also encountered people rummaging through his back yard.
“There’s an old typewriter in the back, and stealing the keys seems to be a popular sport,” he says.
Below, a bit of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch. I don’t know its provenance, but as Grauerholz promises, Burroughs’ reading definitely brings out the book’s humor: