The Hot Shot: Burroughs’s Con Game in the Opening of Naked Lunch
William Burroughs writes, in his “Atrophied Preface” to Naked Lunch, that “Naked Lunch is a blueprint, a How-To book […] How-To extend levels of experience by opening the door at the end of a long hall” (Naked Lunch 187). 1 This is a characteristically opaque statement that leaves us with a plethora of unanswered questions: what kind of experience does Burroughs want to “extend,” and to what end? And in what sense can Naked Lunch be called a “How-To” book? Naked Lunch is certainly not, for example, a cookbook or an instruction manual or collection of prescriptions. The book does not provide us with specific rules or guidelines that one must follow; and it certainly does not simplify experience in the way that a more traditional “How-To” text (just imagine the titles—Experience Extension For Dummies; The Idiot’s Guide To Breaking Out Of Control; Blocking Telepathy Made Simple; 365 Recipes For Rethinking the World) might aim to simplify experience. Finally, in what sense can a “How-To” book help us extend the levels of experience? Indeed, the very idea of a “How-To” text seems to imply a kind of limiting of experience—a prescriptive horizon that one is not encouraged to scrutinize. This would seem to be quite the opposite of what Burroughs claims he wants his book to accomplish.
How then, are we to read this statement, and how are we to read Naked Lunch in its light? I would like to suggest that the “How-To” (or at least one of the “How-To”s) of Naked Lunch works as an anti-“How-To”—that it works precisely by working to demonstrate the limits and contradictions of the blueprints and instructions of fiction. I propose to demonstrate this by unpacking the ways in which the opening segment of Naked Lunch works within the conventions of genre fiction, while simultaneously working to explode them.
As numerous critics have pointed out, the opening of Naked Lunch reads like the opening of a traditional hard-boiled crime narrative. There are “How-To”s working here at multiple levels. For one thing, a crime story (regardless of whether it is told from the criminal’s or the detective’s point of view) usually involves the tracing or reconstruction of a kind of blueprint or “How-To”: the “How-They-Did-It” is always at least as important as the more usual question of ‘whodunnit.” 2 Furthermore, the hard-boiled crime story, in this context, is a kind of blueprint, a kind of “How-To” for Burroughs—it is one of the sets of instructions around which he builds his text (or at least this portion of his text). 3 Burroughs makes use, for example, of the familiar pulp-fiction slang, and makes use, as well, of what at a first glance certainly seems to be the familiar hard-boiled first person narrator: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves” (NL 3). This is well-established Dashiell Hammett / Raymond Chandler / Mickey Spillane territory. The use of the first person, the present tense, the comma splice, the opening in media res—these are all instantly recognizable stylistic conventions of the genre. 4 There’s even a bit of the familiar hard-boiled action thrown in for good measure: “[I] vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train […] and right on time this narcotics dick […] hit[s] the platform […] but the subway is moving. ‘So long flatfoot!’ I yell […]” (NL 3). And again, true to the conventions of the hard-boiled genre, the text authenticates its “reality” by referencing “real” geographical space, and “real” people—for example, the subway station where the narrator evades the narcotics dick isn’t just any old subway station; it’s “Washington Square Station”—and the train that he catches isn’t just any old train; it’s the “uptown A” (3, my emphases). Similarly, the “square” or “fruit” with whom the narrator strikes up a conversation is a very specific type—the type who “talk[s] about right hooks and the Dodgers, calls the counterman in Nedick’s by his first name” (NL 3); who “would stand still for Joe Gould’s seagull act” (NL 5). 5
Perhaps most importantly, the generic conventions of the hard-boiled story also serve (at least initially) as the main blueprint for the reader’s understanding of the text. That is to say: once the text has signaled that it is based on the hard-boiled blueprint—and it does this, as we have seen, immediately—we feel licensed (or, to be more precise, obliged; even forced) to interpret the text according to the conventions of the genre. Because the opening section of Naked Lunch sounds like the typical opening of a hard-boiled detective story, we expect (at some level) the rest of the text to make the typical noir attempt to “define a milieu—to bring the reader into contact with the gritty textures of a concretely imagined, peculiarly inflected, world—and to establish a perspective, by means of the cynical detective figure, from which to observe that world.” 6 We expect, in other words, a self-consistent, continuous, coherent, more or less realistic world presented to us from a self-consistent, coherent viewpoint, with which we can more or less closely identify.
And these expectations are certainly fulfilled—at least to a degree. The narrator, for example, gains our acceptance largely through his skillful manipulation of these expectations. As we’ve already noted, the use of slang—the “heat,” the “stool pigeons,” the “fruit”—both establishes a milieu and marks the narrator as “hip.” The narrator then reinforces this by quickly establishing his kinship or complicity with us, and by using this to, in effect, blackmail us into acknowledging his authenticity; his hip-ness. When the narrator describes the “fruit,” he addresses us directly: “you know the type […] a real asshole” (NL 3). We, he seems to imply, are not such “assholes” or “squares”—provided that we do “know the type” that the narrator is talking about—in other words, provided that we share his view of the world; his view of what makes a person hip or square; asshole or in the know. Well: we don’t know the type—but nobody wants to be an asshole, of course. So we decide that yes, while we’re reading this book, at the very least, we should adopt the narrator’s world view—what after all seems to be, judging from the language, a perfectly typical hard-boiled milieu—as our own. We decide, in other words, to follow the narrator’s script; to adopt his “’story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’” as our own.
But we quickly discover that we’ve been conned, from the very beginning. The “asshole” on the subway is an asshole and an easy mark for the con-man narrator because he is a “square” who “wants to come on hip” (NL 3). All the narrator has to do is to pretend to be a “character” (NL 5); to identify and act out the asshole’s preconceived notions about what a hipster ought to be, while simultaneously lulling the asshole’s suspicions by reassuring the asshole that he considers him “one of [his] own” (NL 4). Thus, for example, when he jeers at the policeman who’s been left at the subway station, the narrator is not only acting on his own impulses, but he is also “giving the fruit his B production” (NL 3). He is, in other words, acting out the “fruit’s” own B-movie derived expectations in order to later swindle him by selling him catnip in lieu of marijuana (NL 5). 7 This is precisely what the narrator is also doing to us. He lulls our suspicions by reassuring us that he considers us to be in the know (“you know the type”). We are in no hurry to contradict him: we are also squares “wanting to come on hip.” And, having shaped our expectations with his opening gambit—the hard-boiled opening—the narrator then proceeds to substitute (just as strychnine is substituted for heroin in a “hot shot” to punish the informer; just as catnip is substituted for marijuana to punish the “incautious or uninstructed”) something else in its place.
It is in this “something else,” perhaps, that we might be able to locate the “extended levels of experience” that Burroughs promises us in the “Atrophied Preface.” In the very first sentence of the book, for example, when we read that the narrator can “feel” the heat closing in, we feel compelled to assume that the narrator’s ability to “feel” the police must be metaphorical, and thus strictly in keeping with hard-boiled verisimilitude. The narrator can’t literally be able to “feel” the heat, we tell ourselves. This is impossible; it breaks all the rules. Hard-boiled heroes—Mike Hammer and Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe and the Continental Op—don’t have ESP; they just have keen senses, finely honed reflexes, and a knowledge of the working of the world. Otherwise, of course, the detective story ends before it has properly begun. 8
But that is precisely the point. Naked Lunch repeatedly signals (and punctures) the over-determinedness and narrowness of the hard-boiled generic script, staging its theatricality by deliberately departing from the hard-boiled generic conventions. The typical hard-boiled story is told in a single (implicitly heterosexual male) narrative voice that strives for verisimilitude; Naked Lunch is not. The narrator “feels” the heat because the fuzz are not, contrary to our expectations, simply typical hard-boiled cops—corrupt and fallible in a merely secular sense. Here they are actually (or, at the very least, they might actually be) demonic forces—sorcerers, “setting up their devil doll stool pigeons” (NL 3), out there “powwowing and making their evil fuzz magic” (NL 6). Their prime informant is a nightmare figure called Willy the Disk (perhaps the alter ego of Willy Burroughs / William Lee?), an embodiment of junk-hunger, “sway[ing] out on a long tube of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk” (NL 8). The narrator himself isn’t—as he would ordinarily be in a hard-boiled crime story—a private eye. Instead, he is an underworld figure: a petty criminal, a drug dealer, and a homosexual—it’s as if Joe Cairo had been substituted for Sam Spade. The policeman pursuing the narrator in the beginning wears a white trench coat, “trying to pass as a fag” (NL 3). The very slang that seems such a firm marker of the typical macho hard-boiled milieu is rendered sexually ambiguous when the narrator comments on “how many expressions carry over from queers to con men” (NL 4). And the text itself, after the first page or so, almost immediately starts to meander. Anecdote and free association and vignette multiply, becoming so much a part of the text that we quickly begin to lose sight of the story of the narrator trying to evade the narcotics squad.
In other words, the text starts to become unpredictable as we begin to lose sight of the “How-To”s of generic convention. The usual chain of association (hard-boiled language that transparently indicates the presence of hard-boiled story / plot / continuity) breaks down, and new possibilities open up. We had had reason to expect gangsters in flashy suits and sultry brunettes packing heat; a corpse or two and perhaps a corrupt city council man who meets his just deserts near the end of the book. Nothing else, after all, would really make sense in a hard-boiled milieu—nothing else would really fit the script. But with the breakdown of the script, we move from the quotidian to the unexpected—to the possibility of authentic surprise and authentic terror, unfettered by the hackneyed B-movie scripts and “How-To”s that govern “reality”—or, as Burroughs puts it in The Adding Machine, the “sequential representational straitjacket[s]” of society, reality, and fiction (The Adding Machine 62). 9
1. Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove, 2001.
2. Arguably, the detective story (or at least, the analytic detective story) itself anticipates some of Burroughs’s concerns. Clues in detective stories always have both a right and a wrong interpretation. The wrong interpretation is usually the pre-programmed response, articulated by a Watson or a Lestrade or a Hastings—the prosaic, the banal. The right interpretation is the unorthodox, “original” response, articulated by Holmes, or Dupin, or Poirot—the unlikely solution that is the only option open when all of the more easily imaginable solutions have been eliminated. In this sense, the detective story is always about extending levels of experience.
But the opposite argument, of course, could also be made, in this fashion: in the opening of a typical Holmes story, the detective will notice, for example, a pattern of scrapes on Watson's shoe, a new patina of wear on Watson's cane, a bulge in Watson's hat, and a certain paleness in Watson's complexion, and will then "deduce" correctly that Watson has had an increase in his practice (since he is keeping his stethoscope at hand in his hat at all times), that as a result the good doctor has been walking around on muddy roads, has a new servant-girl in the house who has been scraping his boots incorrectly, and has recently caught a cold that has forced him to stay indoors. But Holmes is able to make these inferences only because, in a sense, he already knows the outcome: he knows the circumstances under which a Victorian middle-class professional man has his boots scraped, the mistakes that a ill-paid Victorian lower-class serving maid is liable to make, the circumstances under which a Victorian general practitioner walks longer distances, and the place where Watson keeps his stethoscope when he wants it handy. Thus Holmes's "deductions" are in the final analysis--however brilliant--over-determined; even tautological. The analytic detective uncovers, rather than creates, meaning. No matter how scarce or obscure the clues, in the end they amount to a simple substitution code--like The Dancing Men, or the cipher from Poe’s Gold Bug--that is transparent to the trained detective. The analytic detective story works because, although every problem is inscribed in an alphabet (of bloodstains, fingerprints, footsteps, cigarette ash) that seems outré or bizarre, the vocabulary and the grammar of the language that the problems speak--the cultural/social/historical context; the milieu--is perfectly familiar and "natural," both to the detective, and to the reader. And this is precisely the kind of mechanical association between signifier and signified that Burroughs abhors.
3. That is to say, it is a program—a “routine” not only in the sense originally intended by Burroughs (a kind of comedic, vaudevillian routine)—but also in something like the contemporary sense of the computer program or routine: a set of simple textual instructions that, when followed, generate complex behavior. Here we may locate another facet of the (well-documented) appeal of Burroughs for the cyberpunk authors—in that he is disrupting and modifying the pre-programmed routines of narrative and generic convention, he is in fact prefiguring the contemporary hacker aesthetic.
4. Or rather, a kind of well-established (although not necessarily accurate) shorthand marker for Dashiell Hammett / Raymond Chandler / Mickey Spillane territory. But for comparison, try the opening of Kiss Me, Deadly: “ All I saw was the dame standing there in the glare of the headlights waving her arms like a huge puppet and the curse I spit out filled the car and my own ears.” Spillane, Mickey. One Lonely Night, The Big Kill, and Kiss Me, Deadly. New York: Dutton, 2001. 350.
5. That is to say: any con, however improbable. Joe Gould himself, as portrayed in Joseph Mitchell’s collection of essays Up in the Old Hotel, was a real-life personage who was also a kind of archetypically Burroughsian character—a Harvard-educated East Village vagabond who claimed to know the language of seagulls, and who claimed to be working on an “Oral History” of the world. The “Oral History,” of course, turned out to be a fiction (i.e., it didn’t exist); but by the time the truth came out in The New Yorker, Gould was already on his deathbed. And for the decades preceding his death, Gould used that fiction to tap the wallets of everyone from e.e. cummings to the barkeep at McSorley’s—it was, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s description of Naked Lunch, an endless fictional project that drove everyone mad. Arguably, Burroughs is imagining Joe Gould as a kind of predecessor, in much the same way that he later imagines Captain Mission as a predecessor.
6. Novak, Phillip. “Hard-Boiled Histories: Walter Mosley’s Revisionist Eye.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 2:2 (2003).
7. Although it must also be said that the narrator himself seems to harbor the same B-movie expectations. For example: “I can hear the way [the cop] would say it holding my outfit in his left hand, right hand on his piece: ‘I think you dropped something, fella.’” But it is perhaps the case here that the narrator merely expects the cop to adhere to his hackneyed B-movie script.
8. Imagine: Detective Clarence Voyant arrives at the crime scene in rumpled fedora and yesterday’s suit, yellow trench coat stinking of cheap Scotch and cigarettes. He doesn’t even bother to look at the corpse. He simply pronounces his infallible verdict—“I can smell it from here. It was the wife who did it, for the insurance money. Only she isn’t really his wife, and she isn’t really a she, anyways—the real wife ate a hot shot five years ago and her twin brother took her place… Ever see a hot shot hit, kid?” End of story.
In order to keep this scene (or something like it) from being the end of the story, I for one found myself automatically trying to devise a more naturalistic explanation of the narrator’s “feel” for the heat. For example, I found myself playing the scene in the movies where you see the protagonist walking down a busy street—cut to close up of a face that tracks his motion—disreputable looking man leaning on lamppost pushes himself off, lazily, and starts walking—cut to close up of protagonist, three quarters back-turned—he slowly, barely perceptibly turns his head so that you can see him in profile—he knows he’s being tailed—etc., etc., etc.
9. Burroughs, William. “The Fall of Art.” The Adding Machine. New York: Seaver Books, 1985. 61-5.