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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.
Head west across the Delaware. You’ll see
a sign that reads: America Starts Here!
It rambles on to Sacramento, free
and brave, but takes a little detour near
Columbus to avoid Chicago – Ski
the Poconos! and Have Another Beer –
the billboards foliating fore and aft,
and every Huckleberry has his raft.
There’s something very communal, but also cloying, about poetry reading nights. I used to attend a weekly session in Dublin’s The Stag’s Head with quickly scribbled verse, that when I wasn’t on the bad side of the organiser (long story) would win me a free pint of red ale.
If writing for booze doesn’t sum up the college poetry scene that I was involved in, I cannot think of a better description.
I say cloying because much of what was performed in that basement bar area was fairly mediocre, but we all clapped loudly, especially if a newcomer was standing before us for the first time. By the same token the atmosphere was kindly, supportive, I was rarely aware of any competitive bickering and having attended a few book launches for well-known published Irish poets – refreshingly free of affectation.
Rick Mullin’s poem evokes the spirit of an open mic poetry evening, with its cantos divided up between different performers on a stage eulogising the life of Herbert Huncke. We visit the life of the (in)famous Beat poet, meet the famous literary figures and New York artistic scenes that he became swept up in. There are sustained riffs on the work of William Burroughs, an associate of his, as well as a style of writing credited to Thomas Pynchon (a man who enjoys inverting history in eye-popping ways).
In that regard Huncke’s life is used as a model for the influences and historical forces of America itself. The Beat poets raged against and satirised the American Dream. ‘Manifest Destiny’, has escaped the dreamers and they were left at the bottom staring upward. No wonder a paranoaic, conspiratorial tone entered their writings. The firebrand language of Paine, the revolutionary promise of George Washington, abducted and besmirched by the new ruling classes of America. Rick Mullin has the twinned symbols of corruption, Mickey Mouse and Rudy Giuliani, haunt the poem’s cantos, reappearing throughout the life of Huncke himself.
And a kid’s been trailing him all afternoon.
A schoolboy in a Catholic uniform
whose head looks like a carnival balloon
that’s prematurely balding. Not the norm
for even Catholic tikes. Well, pretty soon
the child is offering a light. Reform
school etiquette – the contrasts are uncanny.
“So, what’s your name, kid?” ‘Rudy Giuliani.”
Amusingly he also announces –
And drop the politics, for Jesus sake.
It mixes with the arts the way that rock
gets on with scissors – scissors tends to break.
We skip and jump from War of Independence to America’s jazz era and then forward again briefly to dwell upon a post-9/11 New York, but for the most part no vision of the future is offered. Huncke is absorbed into the canon of American letters, this beatnik junkie become a symbol for an idea of the nation, or perhaps just 42nd Street, that has been lost. Ginsberg and Burroughs are ghosts now too, though Mullin dedicates some verses to memory of Joan Vollmer. Her murder an accident. Burroughs saved from a Mexican jail thanks to family influence. It is worth remembering that these heroes (Mullin rejects the term – ‘There’s a hand we over-play’) were for the most part educated, middle-class and privileged. Their free-form verse often indulged in esoterica, a rebellion not so much against their class, but their elders. Yet today all mysteries can be solved with a trip online –
And so I went. To Wikipedia
to bone up on the luminary thief
and prostitute…whose online media
runs viral with a hypertext relief
that lights full paragraphs.
In a sense Mullin’s poem can be seen as an attempt to restore that mystery, the fugue of names, places and associations intended to pique an interest that can be so dismissively sated by a simple hyperlink. For that he should be commended. He also captures the feel of a poetry performance. To see Mullin’s words be read rather than read them strikes me as the preferable condition to receive them in.
So mission accomplished. I would know more about the man Huncke, as well as look forward to a less biographical work by Mullin himself.
With thanks to Seven Towers Publishers for my copy of this edition.
‘I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!’
I think Steve Aylett inoculated me. Like Burroughs, once you read him your brain changes by increments. This is why I always liked Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Actually Daniel Dennett gave it much better expression, describing memes as a host of larvae in your brain that grow and develop into new viral ideas. This astonishingly disgusting image nails the idea behind ‘infectious culture’.
Welcome to my long-winded digression! Aylett infected me and now I am ready for George Saunders’ own invocation of manically surreal humour.
My edition is actually features the title novella, as well as a collection of short stories gathered under the banner In Persuasion.
The initial story describes the rabid assent of the eponymous Phil, a tyrant in waiting whose hatred of the bookish and weak-limbed ‘Inner Hornerites’, leads him to form a border militia of ‘Outer Hornerites’, who enforce an ever shrinking border surrounding their neighbours, demanding more punitive taxes each day. While the number of patriots called to his cause do not outnumber the Inner Hornerites, they are strong and tall, having been raised in the wide open spaces of Outer Horner.
They are also not strictly speaking human. While never fully described the peoples of Inner and Outer Horner are mentioned to have vents, or exhaust shuts, or in the case of the senile President, several moustaches. Phil himself is given to loud, stentorious speeches about patriotism and values and the threat posed by the limp wristed Inner Hornerites, especially when his brain slides down a large rack affixed to his body. What manner of beast is this?
George Saunders is dealing with overt political satire here, but in a refreshingly pretension free, absurdist manner. The story feels like a depressed Terry Gilliam run amok on the Monty Python opening credits. There is anger expressed, but couched in deceptively manic and lurid imagery.
This is a style that Saunders continues to employ in the following short stories in this edition. my flamboyant grandson features an elderly grandfather just trying to give his grandson an entertaining evening on Broadway, but frustrated by run a gauntlet of invasive holographic advertising. I remember Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report featured a similar scene of Tom Cruise finding himself assaulted by images of products and brands. The difference being Spielberg’s depiction seemed almost excited at the prospect of such augmented reality tech. Saunders portrays it as an affliction.
jon also tackles the increasingly dominate role advertising culture plays in our lives, once again depicting a future society ruled by images of comfort and excess. Here two lovers question whether their lives as commercial role models as any future for them as a family, as a part of a system that has no interest in the young life they are hoping to create. brad carrigan, american goes even further again, where television shows feature live action participants, at the mercy of reality altering ‘programmers’.
Throughout the collection there can be found a weary absurdism, a low mocking tone that fails to disguise a growing sense of despair at the future waiting for us.
I recommend a crash course in Burroughs, or Aylett first, however. Make sure you take your memetic shots.
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!