Having recently finished reading William S. Burroughs’ seminal ‘novel’, Naked Lunch, I thought it a good opportunity to have a look at David Cronenberg’s film of the same and see how the two stack up.
The book is undeniably an astonishing piece of work, at once impregnable and enthralling it is a series of episodes loosely written by the same fictional protagonist, though throughout it is clearly at least partially autobiographical and the link between Burroughs and his avatar becomes at best muddied.
The book seems generally set in the real world, just a version of the real world twisted by the extensive use of drugs – primarily ‘junk’ but also a range of others all described with both regular and seemingly entirely fictitious, euphemistic, names – and various kinds of graphically depicted sex that was groundbreaking for the time it was written and saw the book prosecuted for obscenity.
Naked Lunch sees its protagonist move from the subways of New York to Mexico City and onto Interzone, aka Tangiers, and tell stories of his experiences that have a loose narrative thread, but, by the very nature of how the book was compiled, it is a narrative thread that is entirely in the mind of the reader – something like many concept albums.
Being a product of the beat movement the very text is clearly far from literal and often veers off in stream of consciousness fashion taking the reader on journeys away from what the main subjects may be, but at the same time keeping a general feeling and sense of being, and that seems to be Burroughs’ purpose – if indeed he had a purpose – in the writing of these chapters, or ‘routines’ to use his phrasing.
This all makes for a heady ‘trip’ (for want of a clichéd better word) of a book that is at once a thing to be marveled at but is in places almost unreadable while it transports the reader to the fringes of the world Burroughs seemed to inhabit for most of the 1950s.
When it comes to the movie, Cronenberg made a very wise choice in not trying to film a literal version of the novel.
Instead he takes its basic character and journey and turns them into a paranoid thriller narrative of insectoid monsters, talking cockroach typewriters and further merging of Burroughs’ own life story with that of the protagonist, going so far as to introduce very obvious avatars for Ginsberg and Kerouac into the mix.
This does a surprisingly good job of getting the tone and mood of the novel right, with a strong seam of sci-fi esque conspiracy laced through it. The more coherent story sees William Lee (our ‘hero’) possibly investigating the work of Interzone Inc. while receiving orders from talking typewriters that morph into cockroach like creatures with explicitly sexual parts.
Along with this we see the Kerouac and Ginsberg avatars trying to convince him to get his reports or ‘routines’ completed to publish as the book Naked Lunch, which breaks down all walls between worlds further, but in doing so it gets the feel of the source spot on.
Production wise the film looks amazing with some excellent puppet work and prosthetics on the typewriters and Mugwumps while something about the shooting style makes it feel like something otherworldly despite the mundane costumes and set design (for the majority of the film).
While it could be easy to dismiss both versions as utter nonsense, its clear that the novel has earned its place in the literary canon and the film, while not a stone cold classic, does as good a job as I think anything could have, turning something as twisted as the original manuscript of Naked Lunch into something digestible on-screen. As Cronenberg has said, if you made a literal film of the book it could never be released, while the book is capable of transcending conventional brain space and transporting the reader into an alternative world just a side step away from our own.