On rereading Naked Lunch, I'm particularly struck by something that doesn't seem to be talked about much (at least in the places I've been reading): Burroughs' misogyny. It makes this book difficult to get around. If you check out the Amazon comments pages, the comments fall into "It's brilliant; it changed my life," "It's incomprehensible; I couldn't read it," and "It's disgusting; I'd kill him if he weren't already dead." Let's take these one at a time.
The "brilliant" comments I can't quite agree with. I can see how they come about, though: people are thinking of the book as a planned-out flow, calculated to elicit a specific, finely tuned mental response. Having read The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959 I've seen that the material was written and conceived as free-standing routines, which were shuffled around in various orders, the "final" one decided by the printer. In several of Burroughs' letters, he suggests that this or that section can be eliminated for this or that market--in other words, various sections were nonessential. I'll admit that there is something to ordering a book this way, but the admission of chance elements as a textual composition method had been around since Dada, and probably before. But the "finely tuned mind bomb" of some critical raves doesn't seem, actually, to exist. Some of the material in the book is funny, much horrifying, some evocative of something, but there isn't much here that's precise or calculated. (It can be argued that that isn't the point, and I'd agree.)
The "incomprehensible" comments are understandable; the book becomes more comprehensible with the road map of the letters; you can see where this or that routine is an embellishment of this or that event. It can't be read as a conventional narrative, which is, of course, the point. Trying to read it that way is like trying to read a book without opening it. At the sentence and even the paragraph level, things make sense. The "incomprehensible" criticism comes from a desire for conventional narrative.
The "disgusting" criticism is difficult. Much of the book is disgusting. This is, obviously, deliberate. Burroughs says in the letters that his method is to think of the worst possible thing he can think of, and write the result. Well, there's something in here to offend just about everyone. But the problem with the "he meant to do that" defense is that much of the "offensive" sections read not like a witness to or critique of something horrible (capital punishment, for example, in the "Blue Movie/Rumpus Room" section) but like comedy or sexual fantasy. So? So I wouldn't go claiming that this book is the gospel of a Junky John Brown, rising up to denounce our slavery to the various evils of modernity. The misogyny is disgusting and demeaning. Somewhere in the letters Burroughs says that he writes the worst possible thing he can think of, so he's trying to be disgusting--and that doesn't negate misogyny as a problem in this text.
In any event, I'm still reading, so there's probably more commentary to come.
The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959
A friend gave this to me as a birthday present recently. It's amazing--if he hadn't existed, there's no way anyone would believe him as a fictional character. Every other letter he's getting off junk for the last time, or he's saying something hilarious and disturbing. In all, a very human picture of him, but in no way is this a warm and fuzzy book. He's the genuine item, pretty much who you'd expect from his persona, just more complete.
The letters provide a great deal of background on--and nearly verbatim material for--Naked Lunch, which he was writing during the mid-late '50s, so I'm starting to reread it.