1 Hr., 55 Mins.
Naked Lunch August 15, 2019
n the introduction to Queer, a short 1985 novel written between 1951 and 1953, the author, William S. Burroughs, makes a confession. “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death,” he wrote. Burroughs is, of course, alluding to an infamous 1951 incident that, by now, might as well be referred to as the incident. At a party in Mexico City one evening, Burroughs purportedly took a handgun
out of his travel bag and declared that it was time for “the William Tell routine” from him and his wife, Joan Vollmer. He then accidentally shot the latter in the head rather than hitting the glass she'd set on top of her skull. Both were drunk. Vollmer, at the time, was also coming off an amphetamine high.
Burroughs, who never tangibly paid the price for Vollmer's death (he immediately left the scene; he received a two-year suspended sentence and was convicted in absentia of homicide), had been writing before the event. Having befriended the writers Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsburg, and others in the early 1940s at Columbia University, he was en route to becoming among the pioneering voices of the Beat Generation, an iconoclastic postwar literary movement. But the death caused something to shift in him. “I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control,” he wrote. “So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
It is Naked Lunch — a rambling, elliptical novel from 1959 that was imbued with his guilt — that is considered his chef-d'œuvre. Made up of vignettes, which Burroughs has said don’t have to be read in order, it concerns the misadventures of a heroin-addicted secret agent. Burroughs had written more or less orthodox novels before: Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953), a loosely autobiographical work of pulp fiction published by Ace Books at the behest of Ginsberg; and the aforementioned Queer. Naked Lunch was different. It notably culled from Burroughs’ life but unusually enveloped it in freaky, sci-fi-tinged allegory. It not only captured its author’s mercuriality, but it also revealed the jangly prosaic and thematic possibilities that would come to be indicative of the Beat Generation.
xterminate all rational thought. That is the conclusion I have come to.” So says William Lee, Burroughs’ stand-in in the adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991) to a couple of listening mates. The movie has been written and directed by David Cronenberg, that creepily calm master of body horror. The line is a succinct, pretty telling tip-of-the-hat to what sort of movie this is. Not uncommon for
Cronenberg, who often makes apolcalyptic-feeling movies in which sense is never among the top priorities, Naked Lunch is never rational. It’s a fantastical, nightmarish movie that’s as much about Burroughs’ life after the world-altering crime as it is about the creative process. Complicating an already complicated text, Cronenberg has additionally managed to make the movie both metafictional and a composite of other Burroughs texts. It's not technically a totally faithful adaptation of the literary Naked Lunch.
Set in the early 1950s, the film, like the novel, is about a man named William Lee. In the movie, he’s an exterminator who’s just kicked drugs. He’s played by Peter Weller with the energy of a glassy-eyed, walking corpse — a man who has gotten so habituated with himself on drugs that he’s forgotten how to function without them.
As the film opens, Lee’s sobriety is foreshortened. His wife, Joan, who is played by an unnervingly still Judy Davis, has been stealing and getting stoned on the bug powder Lee uses to kill insects on the day-to-day. “It’s a Kafka high,” she purrs, wanting her husband to lose himself with her. “You feel like a bug.” Lee soon falls back into addiction. But even sooner is Joan dead, murdered in the freak-accident style the real-life Mrs. Burroughs was.
Lee’s decline is strewn with increasingly unsightly hallucinations. Lee thinks about killing Joan, in the first place, because his typewriter tells him to during the first act. Well, not exactly. His favored machine, which to Lee suddenly appears as a giant beetle who speaks with Shakespearean grandeur through an anal-like orifice, claims that Joan is an enemy “agent,” and that she must be exterminated. Unbeknownst to him, he is also an agent, apparently for her rival company. But keep in mind this is all information reported by a bug machine thing. Other visual aberrations appear. There’s a sordid doctor who wears a hyper-realistic skin suit that covers up their true identity, a human centipede hybrid that gorily devours its partners during sex, variations on the creepy-crawly typewriter idea.
Lee's descent doesn’t involve him at any point confessing to killing Joan, even if it was an accident. But the task of finishing a new novel is always poking around in the background. After Lee flees to a retro-looking North African metropolis called Interzone and becomes acquainted with a number of mendacious characters, he begins to seriously work on his latest literary creation. (Over the course of the last few years, Lee has turned to writing porn to support himself and Joan in addition to exterminating.) The distractions, paired with the around-the-clock drug use and the image of the typewriter as a gooey and scaley beast, grotesquely speak to the self-destruction through which a writer might put themselves to complete their latest. The movie will undoubtedly make many an artist feel seen. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t prone to indulging in Lee’s (or Burroughs’) extremes.
Naked Lunch is more heady than enjoyable. But what might you want, otherwise, from a film based on something by Burroughs, ever the dark and tragic author, and helmed by Cronenberg, whose films reliably make you think that maybe the world isn’t as cruel as we think it is? (The ones as portrayed in his movies, from 1979’s The Brood to 1983’s Videodrome, seem so much worse.) The inescapable misery isn’t gratuitous, though. Adaptations are rarely this interesting when trying to be their own animal, and movies about the writing process, about drug abuse, and about this same type of itinerant lifestyle, seldom unsettle so intensely, if to co-exist in a film in the first place. B