Paranoid Burlesque: William S. Burroughs At 100

Life is maddening and dull. People are treacherous. It is impossible to have any peace without being lonesome. Our species fell into a trap of words and routines. William S. Burroughs was born a century ago today, made many detailed complaints to the Management, and died in 1997.

"Communication must become total and conscious before we can stop it."

His life went like this: Born to an uptight and upper-class family in St. Louis, sent off to boarding school at Los Alamos, summer jobs working the crime beat for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Harvard with honors, the delight of Vienna's bohemian homosexual life in the last days before Hitler, two marriages (one of mercy that ended in amicable divorce, one of love that ended with his pistol), and then another 50 years of roaming this grossly mismanaged world while trying to write himself out of addiction and despair.

"Back to the case of Johnny Yen—one of many such errand boys—Green Boy-Girls from the terminal sewers of Venus—So write back to the streets, Johnny, back to the Ali God of Street Boys and Hustlers."

He is famous now for Naked Lunch, a grim comedy of weird sketches that somehow makes sense as a whole, even though the sections were randomly assembled by the printer. A foreign agent of indistinct loyalties has been compromised by his addictions to narcotics and local boys. His memories and dream lives—a deadpan sketch comedy of malpractice, Islam, sodomy, bureaucracy and hangings—are tortured out of him by sinister and voyeuristic aliens. Ultimately, the agents who turned him in don't even exist.

"The basic Nova Mechanism is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts. This is done by dumping life forms with incompatible conditions of existence on the same planet."

If you are satisfied with the world and your place in it, you may not find Naked Lunch or its companion works funny, and you definitely won't find it instructive for dealing with matters of Control. You may even find it paranoid.

"He then set himself to throw off the restraints imposed by Congress and the Senate. He loosed innumerable crabs and other vermin in both houses. He had a corps of trained idiots who would rush in at a given signal and shit on the floor, and hecklers equipped with a brass band and fire hoses."

But paranoia was required for a Burroughs—he was a lifelong heroin addict and underground homosexual who shot one of his own wives (through the forehead) and fled four of the five countries he lived in because the law was closing in. Paranoia is universally required now, even for those who think they're ahead.

"A broker is someone who arranges criminal jobs: 'Get that writer—that scientist—this artist—He is too close—Bribe—Con—Intimidate—Take over his coordinate points—' And the Broker finds someone to do the job like: 'Call Izzy The Push, this is a defenestration bit.'"

Two global bank executives (or three, or four) killed themselves last month, or at least the deaths looked like suicides. How much trouble are you in, when you can't buy your way out with billions of dollars? Burroughs' grandfather invented capitalism's first great machine, the mass produced accounting machine, and Burroughs' uncle was an American public relations shill for Hitler himself. The boarding school young Burroughs attended was later seized by the feds for the creation of the atomic bomb. Was Burroughs wrong to think he'd been dropped off on Earth as an extraterrestrial double-agent?

"The paranoid is the person in possession of all the facts."

Forces of weirdness regularly found their way to Burroughs: L. Ron Hubbard, V. Vale, Mick Jagger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Philip Glass, and a long list of punk and rock performers from Steely Dan (infamously named for a dildo in Naked Lunch) to last week's Super Bowl halftime entertainment. With the first book under his own name just barely out of the Boston courts, the last text-only work prosecuted for obscenity, Burroughs had already been elevated by the Beatles to counter-culture icon. This is why it matters so little that the New Yorker did a hatchet job on Burroughs to mark his 100th birthday—he lives in the firmament of Edward Snowden and the Soft Boys, he lives in the American medicine cabinet filled with erection pills and synthetic opiates, he lives in the cornball patter of California cops busting kids for something that's entirely legal a couple of states over, and he lives as a reluctant "godfather of cool" for each new gang of troublemakers railing against the dull conformity of banal Brooklyn website employees with their well-marked sacks of conspicuous consumables.

"Victimless crimes are the lifeline of the RIGHT virus. And there is a growing recognition, even in official quarters, that victimless crimes should be removed from the books or subject to minimal penalties."

Yes, he told the future. The 21st Century buffet of constant freakish pornography, numbing surveillance of the individual, hysteria over Islam and institutionalized terror is right out of Interzone. But the only people who never flinched at his nightmare visions and icy wit were the people with nowhere left to fall: dropouts, losers, aliens. David Bowie read The Wild Boys and immediately molded his strange new "Ziggy Stardust" persona on these homosexual gangs of the apocalypse. Iggy Pop became Johnny Yen—the boy-girl alien dope god who hypnotizes chickens—from The Ticket That Exploded. Patti Smith studied Burroughs as a fellow poet, and was a rare female presence in his Bowery bunker. Kurt Cobain and a thousand lesser-known junkies thought old Inspector Lee held the religious secret to shooting up 'til old age.

"The boy was sleeping when the Priest left room 18. He went back to his room and sat down on the bed. Then it hit him like heavy silent snow, all the grey junk yesterdays."

The Burroughs voice is a lyrical blend of street hustler lingo, horror science, country doctor, cop talk, Chandler/Hammett hard-boil, and a post-modern collision of burlesque homosexual code previously unheard in straight society and Old West hobo talk lifted straight from Jack Black's autobiography of dead-end crime, You Can't Win.

"The mooch got on the IRT headed for Brooklyn. We waited standing up in the space between cars until the mooch appeared to be sleeping. Then we walked into the car, and I sat down beside the mooch, opening The New York Times. The Times was Roy's idea. He said it made me look like a businessman."

The common complaint about William S. Burroughs' novels is that they're narrative sinkholes, that they lack structure, that it's all a flow of grotesque scenes and cheap jokes. Now that the old-fashioned narrative novel is dead and picked over as a meaningful art form, now that a YouTube clip of an animal defecating or an animated gif of the First Lady dunking a basketball holds more meaning than a 10-part series in a Respected Newspaper, it is finally time to quit complaining about Burroughs not fitting into 19th and 20th Century polite forms of entertainment for the upper crust. He is a news wire from the future and the past and the dream worlds that still go unmentioned, and the best medicine after a long day of demeaning bullshit is to pick up any paperback bearing his name and turn to a random page.

Read it out loud if you can. Repeat as necessary.

The quotes above were randomly plucked and haphazardly transcribed, probably from the following William S. Burroughs' books: Nova Express, Naked Lunch, Word Virus, The Place of Dead Roads, The Yage Letters and who knows what else.

Ken Layne writes his American Journal and American Almanac for Gawker from San Francisco. Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty.