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‘The Place of Dead Roads’ is a picaresque novel, the centrepiece of the ‘Cities of Red Night’ trilogy, and stands as an excellent introduction to William Burroughs’ thematic and stylistic concerns.
The novelist Peter Ackroyd characterised ‘Cities of Red Night’ – and by extension, its sequels – as “an obsessional landscape” and the choice of adjective is telling. Burroughs’ concerns are broad, cosmic, fundamental but the tent-pegs of the whole circus are, by necessity, ground-level: addiction, power, alienation, beauty and attraction, ugliness and repulsion. He is an existential writer and thinker, like Camus and hence the ‘naked lunch’ of his most infamous work: the moment when one sees “exactly what is at the end of one’s fork” without evasion or denial.
‘The Place of Dead Roads’ details the lot of one Kim Carsons; child of the Old West, outlaw gun-fighter, rogue shaman and Man with a Plan. His life charts the transition from a landscape dominated by the often savage realities of the Frontier to a 20th Century reality, tacitly preoccupied with the science fiction concerns of the Modern era and ruled over by “evil old men who play poker” and “are constitutionally immune to the effects of bourbon”.
Obstensibly a western, ‘Place of Dead Roads’ is one of Burroughs’ most conventionally novelistic works. It’s the book of his that I always recommend to people new to him, along with ‘Junkie’ his first book, a fictionalised memoir of heroin addiction. Both books have an overt through-line running from beginning to end that functions in lieu of a ‘plotline’, both expand subjective vision into something world-encompassing, bizarre and bordering- often tipping over- into alien dreamscapes.
A word of supposed issues of ‘difficulty’: Burrough’s prose has a bristling, tense quality that he often allows to disintegrate into seemingly disjointed and agrammatical poetry. This doesn’t happen “without warning” but is a feature of style, used to convey the impressionistic agrammatical nature of Thought, Dream and Character. This shift from style to a deliberate sort of ‘anti-style’ is based the ‘Cut-Up Method’, the random rearrangement of words in a text to create a collage without the thought-conditioning influence of ordinary grammar.
Dream was important to William Burroughs. He dispenses with the conventions of traditional narrative often as abruptly as one’s dreaming mind will and with similar purpose- to communicate an urgent sense of a particular place, mentality or counter-intuitive connection, without the distancing affect of descriptive prose.
This aside, the writing is curt, concise and indeed precise. Burroughs picks his moment to go “experimental”,aiming to urgently communicate his concerns, concerns about the present, the forgotten past, concerns about an post-human future and above all the realities of CONTROL. You’ll also learn a lot about guns, shamanism and the occult and you’ll read about a lot of fine young men having sex with each other. Highly recommended for heads.
Review by Ruairi Conneely, Seven Towers Books.
Today’s review is somewhat shorter, but then it is my wife’s birthday, so you’ll allow me this one won’t you?
As it happens I have chosen the latest book from the master of disturbing imagery – Mr Charles Burns, creator of the seminal Black Hole. If you have not heard of him and are interested, I envy you not just the chance of discovering this great artist for the first time, but also being able to walk into a bookstore and pick up the collected edition of Black Hole. Fans of the book had to wait a year between issues as Burns balanced his time working on this story of teenagers in the seventies enduring a disfiguring disease known as ‘the bug’, with commercial advertising.
There is also a movie based on Black Hole on the way. Now that is something I am very eager to see.
X’ed Out retains some of that previous work’s themes – disaffected teens, drug use – but Burns also mashes up two very diverse sources, namely Tintin creator Hergé and William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch. As you can see below, the cover of X’ed Out is a riff on the Tintin adventure titled The Shooting Star (apparently a favourite of Burns’), here with giant eggs standing in for the alien mushrooms of Hergé’s tale.
Doug is a young man suffering from a series of disturbing dreams. He finds himself in a bedroom with no memory of how he got there. There is a large hole in the wall of this room. His dead cat appears and leads him out through the hole into a barren wasteland covered in refuse and sewage. Attempting to follow his former pet he finds himself in another building that appears to be storing a collection of giant eggs. There he is confronted by a green reptilian man, who ejects him from the building into a street that resembles downtown Cairo, or Tunis, populated by weird and monstrous looking denizens.
He drifts in and out of the dream, occasionally flashing back to a period in his life when he met a fellow artist named Sarah, who expresses herself through unusual photographs hinting at feelings of self-loathing, or disgust. Doug himself attempts to perform beat-style poetry using the stage name Nitnit, homaging William Burroughs’ cut-up technique and wearing a plastic mask that resembles a punk-Tintin.
These events appear to be happening in the early nineties during the grunge-era with its revival of interest in punk icons like Patti Smith, as well as beat poetry and a return to experimentation in the arts. Doug is also medicating himself with antipsychotics of some kind and is seen eating pop-tarts. The events of his past begin to bleed over into his dream, his own personal Interzone. In this world Doug resembles a black dye-job Tintin, his Nitnit character come to life. He sees Sarah there also, transformed courtesy of the Hergé aesthetic from a troubled young woman with white scar lines along her arms into a beautiful princess.
This is the first in a new series by Burns, with each chapter published in the hardback European style. It is a dark fantasy, with an abiding sense of creeping horror waiting within its pages. I could be trite and say it is perfect Halloween fare, but I am not prepared to wait until October 2011 for the next book. I want it now!