BOOK REVIEW / Junk mail man: The collected letters of William S Burroughs, 1945-1959 - ed Oliver Harris: Picador, pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
LAST YEAR having been a slap-up one for Burroughsians, it was almost too much to hope that the publication of the Collected Letters would put any more flesh on the junk-atrophied bones of the notorious 'Hombre Invisible'. Besides, in the wake of media brouhaha surrounding David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch and Ted Morgan's exhaustive biography Literary Outlaw, how much more weight could the Burroughs myth really bear? Fortunately, the answer is: a lot.

The letters, collected here by Oliver Harris, have been re-edited from an expurgated edition long out of print. They are written principally to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs's tireless friend, amanuensis, literary agent and all-round bum-chum, with short cul-de-sacs heading off towards Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the other corners of the Beat hotting circuit.

Harris has assembled these, together with a somewhat gee-whizz introduction and comprehensive notes, to form what may conceivably be Burroughs's best work

of all. Burroughs was aware at the time of the centrality of his correspondence to his literary endeavour: 'Maybe,' he remarks to Allen Ginsberg at the core of this volume, 'the real novel is in letters to you.'

It is. The letters display all the sassiness, the marriage of Mandarin and slang, the shoot- from-the-hip aphorising of Burroughs's best prose, but de-coupled from the rather portentous literary experimentation and attitudinising that has marked his oeuvre since fame hit with the publication of The Naked Lunch, shortly after the chronological end of this volume.

These letters are remarkable not least because, as their writer slowly acquires a sense of the possibility of having an input into mainstream culture, so the very cultural avant-garde of which he himself is the last great avatar fades into senselessness and irrelevance.

An omnivorous reader and perpetual student, Burroughs studded his correspondence with references both to the wilder shores of esoteric knowledge (his obsessions with Reich, Spengler and Korzybski), and, more surprisingly, to the orthodox canon of English literature: to Spenser and Dryden, Shakespeare and Pope. Burroughs quotes Pope - 'Willing to wound yet afraid to strike . . .' - in describing Bill Garver, the decrepit overcoat thief and addict-model for Bill Gains in Junky. And in this: his narced-out polymathism and propensity to envisage grandiose universal schemas (the back end of this volume is much preoccupied with the cancer /addiction / psychosis biopathy), Burroughs is more of an heir to De Quincey than a godfather to Frank Zappa.

The actual topography of the Letters includes all the muddled territories of Burroughs's best works. The journey begins within the sepia hinterland of New York, New Orleans and Mexico City that forms the backdrop for Junky. We then head south into Latin America, with our guide 'taking pictures, trying to get the bare dry mountains, the wind in the white dusty polar trees, the sad little parks with statues of Generals and cupids . . .'. It is this landscape, full of the 'stasis horrors', that gave Burroughs the material for Queer, his nostalgic roman a clef. But it was also in South America that he took yage, or ayahuasca, and in an hallucinogenic trance 'called in' the mondial bazaar that would be the 'all cities, of all times and in all places' of The Naked Lunch.

No wonder that, when Burroughs actually reached Tangier at the beginning of 1954, he was miserably disappointed: 'What's all this old Moslem culture shit?' he writes to Ginsberg with sublime incorrectness. 'One thing I have learned. I know what Arabs do all day and night. They sit around smoking cut weed and playing some silly card game.' But German efficiency in synthesising opiates kept him there - he was soon heavily hooked on Eukodol, a particularly nasty hypnotic / analgesic morphine substitute - and Tangier gradually swam into view, its lineaments congruent with those of the other Cities of the Red Night.

Part of the Burroughs mythology that he himself wilfully cultivated was the idea that The Naked Lunch was written on junk. In the introduction to the Olympia Press edition (for a long time standard, and one which we now learn Allen Ginsberg objected to at the time), Burroughs wrote that he could 'barely remember' taking the notes that grew into the corpus of the book. In the Letters this confabulation is rectified. While the letters written during his pernicious Eukodol phase are relatively spare and constrained, after his revolutionary apomorphine treatment in London with Dr Arthur Dent (the founding editor of the British Journal of Addiction), they become lapidary, freighted with the almost hysterical material that made up the very best of his 'routines'.

When he was finally clean from junk, Burroughs was, in Hemingway's coinage, 'juiced'; and like Georges Simenon, another great high-speed typist, Burroughs felt the work 'coming almost like dictation'. For the Burroughsian these later letters from the Tangier period are the most satisfying. They contain almost verbatim several of the most important routines in The Naked Lunch, including the 'Talking Asshole', 'Dr Benway's Interzone Clinic', and the genesis of 'AJ', as well as providing far more effectively than Ted Morgan's biography the primary atmosphere out of which Burroughs distilled his great sense of millenarian miasma.

However, for committed non-Burroughsians these Collected Letters are an even better investment. Whether it was drugs, homosexuality, gratuitous yuckiness, stylistic sloppiness or wilful obscurantism that in the past drove you away from the corpus of Burroughs's work, I can confidently predict that the spare wit of the letters alone may well draw you in at last.

Who else but Burroughs could write of London - a city he cordially detested - '(it) drags me like a sea anchor. I want to see bright blue sky with vultures in it. A vulture in London would be an Addams cartoon . . .' Quite so.

(Photograph omitted)