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Not a "normal" book!
on 10 October 2013
Not knowing much about William Burroughs other than his history with drugs, I picked up `The Soft Machine' spontaneously, assuming that it would be a "normal" novel, albeit a strange one. To say the least, I certainly wasn't expecting this. One paragraph in, and I'd raised an eyebrow; one page in, and I was starting to wonder if the whole first chapter would be as seemingly nonsensical as what I'd just read. When I found that the second chapter was just as weird, I started to question whether or not it would be worth continuing to read a book that I just didn't understand, but I persevered after reading the Wikipedia article on it and finding out that some kind of sense emerges from it in chapter 7. There was a strange allure to it, after all, as I'd never read anything quite like it before. Written in the so-called "cut-up and fold-in" technique, the book consists of many different seemingly random, mostly graphic, and often horrific, scenes spliced into one another. Paragraphs go off into a tangent, sentences inexplicably merge into one another, and there's a general disregard for character, story or even grammar. I must admit, for most of the book, I found it arduous to read and I often came close to throwing in the towel and chucking it in the bin.
However, by the time I'd reached chapter 7, the only chapter to have a somewhat coherent plot, and which kind of puts the rest of the book into perspective, I'd gotten my head around the incredibly disjointed writing style, and began to appreciate it for what it was. I say "appreciated", but that's purely on an artistic level. By this point, I still didn't actually *like* the book, although some of the scenes were very funny. I also started to realise that this is a book that you have to read in small doses and really concentrate on. The moment I started reading it just to read it, my mind would wander and I'd lose the intricacies of the narrative (if you can call it that). In small doses, however, I could follow most of it (though many of the rambling sentences and paragraphs still lost me completely, and were probably designed to do so), and I started actually enjoying it.
By the end of the book, I had fully gathered the theme (and "theme" is a better word to use than "story" when describing the narrative of this book) and understood that this was all some kind of analogy for being hooked on drugs. But, if any further context is needed, Burroughs includes some rather excellent appendices at the back, which I'm guessing he wrote for the book, and they really add to the appeal and understanding. If read as a cohesive end to the novel itself, rather than a separate entity, these appendices make for a rather satisfactory end to this bizarre and challenging book.
Over all, I'm glad that I decided to persevere with `The Soft Machine', and to take my time doing so. Although I hated much of the book before I got my head around it, I think it's telling that I never once found it pretentious or artistic for the sake of being artistic. William Burroughs is clearly an extremely intelligent and talented writer, and under any lesser author the "cut-up and fold-in" technique would have no doubt been a pretentious nightmare. I can't imagine myself ever recommending this book to anybody, but I did enjoy it and get a lot from it. It's certainly forever changed my ideas of what the novel, as a medium, is capable of.