Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch
Naked Lunch  
First Edition 1959 Olympia, misprinted title
Author(s) William S. Burroughs
Country France
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Olympia Press/Grove Press (US)
Publication date 1959
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 9783548028439 (reprint)
OCLC Number 69257438

Naked Lunch (sometimes The Naked Lunch) is a novel by William S. Burroughs originally published in 1959. The book is structured as a series of loosely-connected vignettes. Burroughs stated that the chapters are intended to be read in any order.[1] The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the US to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The vignettes (which Burroughs called "routines") are drawn from Burroughs' own experience in these places, and his addiction to drugs (heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, "Majoun" — a strong marijuana confection — as well as a German opioid, brand name Eukodol, of which he wrote frequently).[2]

The novel was included in Time magazine's "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".[3] David Cronenberg released a film of the same title based upon the novel and other Burroughs writings in 1991.[4]


Title origin

The book was originally published with the title The Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959 by Olympia Press. Because of US obscenity laws,[5] a complete American edition (by Grove Press) did not follow until 1962. It was titled Naked Lunch and was substantially different from the Olympia Press edition, because it was based on an earlier 1958 manuscript in Allen Ginsberg's possession.[6] The article "the" in the title was never intended by the author, but added by the editors of the Olympia Press 1959 edition.[7] Nonetheless The Naked Lunch remained the title used for the 1968 and 1974 Corgi Books editions, and the novel is often known by the alternative name, especially in the UK where these editions circulated.

Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."[8] In a June 1960 letter to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac said he was pleased that Burroughs had credited him with the title. He states that Ginsberg misread "Naked Lust" from the manuscript, and only he noticed; that section of the manuscript later became Queer, although the phrase does not appear in either of the two final texts of that novel.[9]

Plot summary

Naked Lunch is a non-linear narrative that is difficult to describe in terms of plot. The following is a summary of some of the events in the book that could be considered the most relevant.

The book begins with the adventures of William Lee (aka Lee the Agent), who is Burroughs' alter ego in the novel. His journey starts in the US where he is fleeing the police, in search of his next fix. There are short chapters here describing the different characters he travels with and meets along the way.

Eventually he gets to Mexico where he is assigned to Dr. Benway; for what, he is not told. Benway appears and he tells about his previous doings in Annexia as a "Total Demoralizator". The story then moves to a state called Freeland — a form of limbo — where we learn of Islam Inc. Here, some new characters are introduced, such as Clem, Carl, and Joselito.

A short section then jumps in space and time to a marketplace. The Black Meat is sold here and compared to "junk", i.e. heroin. The action then moves back to the hospital where Benway is fully revealed as a cruel, manipulative sadist.

Time and space again shifts the narrative to a location known as Interzone. Hassan, one of the notable characters of the book and "a notorious liquefactionist," is throwing a violent orgy. AJ crashes the party and wreaks havoc, decapitating people and imitating a pirate. Hassan is enraged and tells AJ never to return, calling him a "factualist bitch" - a term which is enlarged much later when the apparently "clashing" political factions within Interzone are described. These include the Liquefactionists, the Senders, the Factualists, the Divisionists, who occupy "a midway position". A short descriptive section tells us of Interzone University, where a professor and his students are ridiculed; the book moves on to an orgy that AJ himself throws.

The book then shifts back to the market place and a description of the totalitarian government of Annexia. Characters including the County Clerk, Benway, Dr Berger, Clem and Jody are sketched through heavy dialogue and their own sub-stories.

After the description of the four parties of Interzone, we are then told more stories about AJ. After briefly describing Interzone, the novel breaks down into sub-stories and heavily cut-up influenced passages.

In a sudden return to what seems to be Lee's reality, two police officers, Hauser and O'Brien, catch up with Lee, who kills both of them. Lee then goes out to a street phone booth and calls the Narcotics Squad, saying he wants to speak to O'Brien. A Lieutenant Gonzales on the other end of the line claims there's no one in their records called O'Brien. When Lee asks for Hauser instead, the reply is identical; Lee hangs up, and goes on the run once again. The book then becomes increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, and finally simply stops.

Literary significance and reception

Naked Lunch is considered Burroughs' seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. Extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of obscene language (something Burroughs recognized and intended), the book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in the United States,[10][11] and several European publishers were harassed.[12] It was one of the most recent American books over which an obscenity trial was held. The book was banned in Boston in 1962 due to obscenity (notably child murder and acts of pedophilia), but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.[13] The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes, as it was found to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.[14]

Sections of the manuscript were published in the spring, 1958 number of Robert Creeley's Black Mountain Review[15] and in the spring 1958 University of Chicago student-run publication The Chicago Review. The student edition was not well received, and caused the university administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the publication, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors.[16] When the editor Paul Carroll published BIG TABLE Magazine (Issue No. 1, Spring 1959)[17] alongside former Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including "Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch," a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed "undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit" and initially judged it as non-mailable under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1461.[18]

Upon publication, Grove Press added to the book supplementary material regarding the censorship battle as well as an article written by Burroughs on the topic of drug addiction. In 2002, a "restored text" edition of Naked Lunch was published with some new and previously suppressed material added.

On a more specific level, Naked Lunch also protests the death penalty. In Burroughs' "Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness," "The Blue Movies" (appearing in the vignette "A.J.'s Annual Party"), is deemed "a tract against capital punishment."

Allusions in other works

There have been many references to Naked Lunch in popular culture, the most notable of which are listed below.

  • The British science fiction magazine Interzone takes its name from the novel.
  • The band Steely Dan takes its name from a dildo featured in the book.
  • Alt-country band Clem Snide is named for a character in Naked Lunch, who reappears in other works by Burroughs.
  • The band Showbread titled one of their songs "Naked Lunch" in their 2006 release Age of Reptiles.
  • In the 1984 Alex Cox film, Repo Man, there is a hospital scene in which Dr. Benway and Mr. Lee are paged. The two are also paged in a hospital scene in the 1998 film Dark City.
  • The instrumental post-rock band Tortoise included a song entitled "Benway" on their 2001 album Standards.
  • The post-punk band Joy Division's debut album Unknown Pleasures featured a song called "Interzone."
  • In 2006, the British electronic band Klaxons released a track called "Atlantis to Interzone."
  • Sonic Youth included a full version of "Dr. Benway's House" on the 2005 deluxe edition of their 1990 album Goo. An excerpt of the track appears on Burroughs' album Dead City Radio.
  • On The Firesign Theatre album Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, the track "Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde" features a story in which the 1960s counterculture has become mainstream, and a bomber drops a load of hardcover copies of Naked Lunch on the last "un-hip" stronghold in the world in Nigeria. The track features a character named Dr. Benway; characters with that name also appear in the group's later albums I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus and The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra.
  • In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Master Ninja I, Joel and his robot sidekicks show their newest invention: pop-up books based on classic literature. Crow tries to show his contribution, a pop-up version of Naked Lunch, but no one wants to open it.
  • The lyrics to Bomb the Bass' track "Bug Powder Dust" make numerous references to the novel.
  • The band The Tea Party's sixth album, The Interzone Mantras, references the novel.
  • The B-side to Ed Rush & Optical's 1997 single Funktion is titled "Naked Lunch".
  • The second album of post-rock band Bark Psychosis, called Codename: Dustsucker, features a song called "The Black Meat".
  • Bart, Nelson, Martin, and Milhouse watch the film in the Simpsons episode Bart on the Road. Upon leaving the theater, Nelson exclaims, "I can think of two things wrong with that title."
  • In an episode of the Sci-Fi show Farscape (Fractures S3E18) pieces of an alien called a Boolite are collected and laid on a table. Part of it moves and it starts making gurgling noises at them. John Crichton: "Can he hear us?" Boolite: "Yes." Jool: "Well...there's an ear here somewhere." John Crichton: "Alright, this is a little too Naked Lunch."
  • In "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky, Naked Lunch is one of the books that is recommended to Charlie by his teacher.

Film adaptation

Ever since the 1960s, numerous film makers considered how to adapt Naked Lunch for the screen. Antony Balch, who worked with Burroughs on a number of short film projects in 1960s, considered making the film as a musical with Mick Jagger in the leading role, but the project fell through when relationships soured between Balch and Jagger.[19] [20] Others, too, wanted to bring the novel to celluloid, but it was ultimately deemed unfilmable.

It was not until 1991 that Canadian director David Cronenberg took up the challenge. Rather than attempt an adaptation of the novel, due to the novel's structure not lending itself to the medium of film, Cronenberg took very few elements from the book and combined them with elements from Burroughs' own life, to create a fiction-biography hybrid and a film about the writing of the book and not about the book itself. The film, however, was presented and marketed as "Naked Lunch." Peter Weller starred as William Lee in this film, Lee being the pseudonym Burroughs used when he wrote Junkie. The voice of the mugwumps, typewriters and Exterminator #2 was provided by actor Peter Boretski.[21]


  1. ^ Burroughs On Cutup
  2. ^ BBC Radio interviews with Burroughs
  3. ^ Time Top 100 Novels
  4. ^ Naked Lunch (1991)
  5. ^ James Campbell, Exiled in Paris. University of California Press, 2003, p. 232. ISBN 0520234413
  6. ^ Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch, the restored text edition, edited by James Grauerholtz and Barry Miles, 2001. Editors Notes, page 242
  7. ^ Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch, the restored text edition, edited by James Grauerholtz and Barry Miles, 2001. Editors Notes, page 240
  8. ^ Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch, The Restored Text, James Grauerholz and Barry Miles, editors, 2001. p. 199
  9. ^ Burroughs. Naked Lunch, The Restored Text, p. 235
  10. ^ Timothy S. Murphy, Wising up the marks. University of California Press, 1997. p. 67 ISBN 0520209516
  11. ^ William S. Burroughs, Naked lunch. Grove Atlantic Press, 1992, p. ix. ISBN 0802132952
    "The only other censorship action against the book outside the State of Massachusetts occurred in Los Angeles, where the novel was cleared of obscenity charges at a trial in 1965."
  12. ^ John Sutherland,Offensive literature: decensorship in Britain, 1960-1982. Rowman & Littlefield, 1983, p. 57f. Girodias got an 80-year publishing ban, a 4-6 year sentence and a 29,000-pound fine.
  13. ^ Alfred de Grazia. "ED DE GRAZIA: ALLEN GINSBERG, NORMAN MAILER, BARNEY ROSSET: Their Struggles Against Censorship Recalled". Retrieved 2011-06-27. 
  14. ^ testimony
  15. ^ William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: The Restored Text. Grove Press, 2004, p. 239. ISBN 0802140181
  16. ^ Chicago Journal: 60-year Review
  17. ^ "The Beat Generation in Print: The Literary Magazines"
  18. ^ The Big Table court decision
  19. ^ - May 18 & 19: NAKED LUNCH
  20. ^ GETTING 'NAKED' ON SCREEN | David Cronenberg | Pop Culture News | News | Entertainment Weekly | 1
  21. ^ IMDb - Naked Lunch

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