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A Firsthand Account of Withdrawal,
This review is from: Queer: 25th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
William Burroughs was a hero of the literary counterculture. With a penchant for madcap experimentation (i.e. the hit-and-miss cut-ups), and a mischievous iconoclasm, Burroughs redefined the modern novel. But those looking for the hallucinatory and paranoid shenanigans of Naked Lunch will be disappointed by Queer. As a straightforward realist love story, it should be read as a companion piece to Junky, Burroughs's first novel. Yet whereas Junky was a firsthand account of addiction, Queer is a firsthand account of withdrawal. Still, despite the seedy milieu of 1940s Mexico City, it is a moving tale, and a raw depiction of unrequited love.
Of primary importance, however, is Burroughs's 'Introduction to the 1985 Edition', a preface in which he recounts the moment that led to him becoming a writer: 'the accidental shooting death' of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in September 1951. This shocking event, so prominent in the Burroughs mythology, 'motivated and formulated' his writing; it also brought him into contact with the 'invader, the Ugly Spirit' that possessed him when he shot his spouse. From that moment onwards, his existence was driven by 'a constant need to escape from possession, from Control'. Was he really possessed, or is this simply a schizoid escape from responsibility?
The story of Queer is simple: William Lee is looking for love. Trawling the dives of Mexico City, he picks the young Eugene Allerton, and so begins an amorous tussle between innocence and experience. Allerton, though, is a rather disinterested receiver of Lee's advances. Worried about his lover's involvement in the City's noisome revels, Lee whisks Allerton down to South America in search of Yage, a mystical drug that increases 'telepathic sensitivity'. The quest fails, Allerton absconds, and the love affair is over.
Despite the solemn topic, there are moments when the antic Burroughs pokes his head through the realist fabric. To allay his nerves, and to mask his 'shocking disintegration', Lee improvises certain Routines, surreal little skits that exasperate his listeners but seduce his avid readers. They act as a necessary entry, for both Burroughs and Lee, into a world of fancy, a world devoid of responsibility and one cleansed of the 'stupid, ordinary, disapproving people who kept him from doing what he wanted to do'. Burroughs, then, even in these early novels, is yearning to remould humanity, to infiltrate its values with his own decadent needs: the project would take the rest of his life.