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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.

The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Minor, the murdering soldier from America; and there is one other. To say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens, however, that a furious lexicographical controversy once raged over the use of the word – a dispute that helps to illustrate the singular and peculiar way that the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it as a witheringly intimidating authority.

This is the kind of book the Peter Ackroyds and John Banvilles of this world would give their eye-teeth to write. An incisive and witty account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary – with a surprising history of murder and madness interwoven into the tale.

This is, despite the quote above, the story of three men. The aforementioned Dr. W. C. Minor, an American medical doctor who suffered from what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress and paranoid schizophrenia. Dr James Murray, a gifted polymath with humble beginnings that failed to prevent him from achieving honours and great success as a result of his work as editor on the Oxford Dictionary. Finally this is also the story of George Merrett, the victim of a gunshot to the neck. His murderer was committed to Broadmoor asylum and is recognized by history as one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike Minor, Merrett is largely unremembered and unmourned. This is a book that could not have been written without the sacrifice of his life.

For as a veteran of the American Civil War, Minor was haunted by delusions of pursuit at the hands of Irish deserters from the Union army. He was terrified by the thought of being hunted down by a man he was ordered to brand with a hot iron, as punishment for fleeing the field of battle. The Irish soldiers conscripted to fight the Confederate army initially were willing to fight, with a view to someday returning home to put their newfound skills to use in liberating their own country. Disillusionment soon followed though and Winchester huge numbers of desertions from the Union cause. Minor was also troubled by increasingly disturbed sexual fantasies. No form of treatment for his maladies existed. He was judged completely insane and though not found responsible for the death of George Merrett, locked away for what was judged to be the rest of his natural life in Broadmoor.

Murray’s early life was also touched by tragedy. The loss of his first wife and child before the age of thirty and been forced to eke out a living as a bank clerk despite his prodigious intellectual gifts. Winchester includes an extract from a job application Murray wrote where he claims fluency in over a dozen languages. His fortunes, however, improved with a happy second marriage and the fortunate society he kept with many other learned men, who recommended him for his eventual career as editor of the Dictionary. Despite the efforts of Samuel Johnson, the English were lagging behind the efforts of the French Encyclopédistes and Italian lexicographers. There was no enshrined account of the English language itself, its cultural forms mutable and unaccounted for. What Murray attempted was to collect proven definitions and associations for singular words, drawn from the literature of the time. Volunteers were asked to submit completed lists of words with their origins and usage clearly defined. This proved unwieldy and met with little enthusiasm once the size of the task was glimpsed.

It was with Minor that Murray met great success. The two began to correspond over a number of years, with the American giving little hint as to his circumstances, at first merely submitting his exhaustive work without comment. Winchester argues that this research and study offered Minor relief from his painful delusions. He continued to be troubled, especially at night, by the thought of pursuit by invisible Irishmen, succubae and most disturbingly, children. Yet his work on the dictionary seemed to reflect a particularly erudite and reflective mind. I have always been struck by the phrase a ‘monk’s cell’, as if contemplation was a crime. Minor’s life following the death of Merrett symbolises that contradiction.

I love Winchester’s style of writing, with one phrase in particular just leaping off the page – seamless syrup of insanity. A beautiful, commanding book.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

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