By William S. Burroughs
Published February 1, 1990
Reviewed April 16, 2009
It’s a writer’s curse that out of everything they write and devise and concoct, they will be lucky if even a quarter of it sees publication. Stories and essays can be rejected by dozens of publishers before they finally give up trying, a first novel sits in a desk drawer for years, and projects will be raised and rejected before something finally sees acceptance. Past that, there are first and second and third drafts, letters to friends floating ideas, and countless notebooks and scraps of paper filled with notes that are sometimes not even legible to the writer.
Every so often though, an author’s thoughts and drafts are the audience for a complete revolution of style, finding something new and experimenting with it in a variety of curious ways. Few writers have undergone such a revolution as William S. Burroughs, who went from drug novelist to visionary in only a few years, and whose transitional work has been collected in “Interzone.” Essentially the bridge between “Junky” and “Naked Lunch,” “Interzone” is a truly energetic piece of work that shows an evolution (or possibly mutation) of thought.
Fittingly for an author who pioneered the “cut-up” technique, “Interzone” is more a loose scrapbook than a proper collection, consisting of journals and stories Burroughs wrote from 1954 to 1956. At this time, he was living in Tangier, indulging his opium addiction and trying to sell short stories through his friend Allen Ginsberg. As time went on he began to go deeper into his subconscious, using his writing to fracture and rebuild the world in his own surreal image.
What makes “Interzone” such a fascinating part of the Burroughs canon is it reflects all sides of his brilliant persona. His first books “Junky” and “Queer” were straightforward, almost deadpan novels that took a historical view to drugs and homosexuality in 1940s New York; while “Naked Lunch” and successive novels ripped apart those topics into sci-fi depravity. “Interzone” is a work that maps the process of coming to that viewpoint, as well as seeing the hints of literary theory and spiritualism that marked much of his later works.
Fans of Burroughs’ more conventional style will be rewarded by the early short stories and articles, pitched to Ginsberg in the hope he could sell them. “The Finger” has an almost Kafkaesque humor to it, relating a real-life anecdote wherein he cuts off a finger joint to impress a girl and finds himself committed as a result. “International Zone,” written as a magazine feature on Tangier’s strange situation (split up between four countries) has “Junky’s” anthropological eye for a place, while “In the Café Central” captures the cast which populates it.
Use of opiates and the withdrawal symptoms began to alter Burroughs’ viewpoint, and the style change gradually makes itself clear in the journals and later stories – a move that builds a terrific energy as the book progresses. Characters begin to take on a more inhuman angle, resembling insects and growing “auxiliary assholes” in their foreheads (“Spare Ass Annie”). The borders between dreams and reality gradually break down, with “The City” gradually turning into a living thing and paranoia an everyday occurrence. Burroughs himself acknowledges the shift, speaking of an abstract novel constructed as a mosaic, a work that has a life of its own, a guide for the future.
Even with this gradual evolution, the tonal shift was so extreme that a breakthrough effort was needed, and “Interzone” contains this in the section “WORD.” Essentially a rough draft of “Naked Lunch,” the section is a rapid profane stream-of-consciousness effort mixing all the images of sex, drugs and control that would come to dominate his later work. This section isn’t for the faint of heart – or for anyone who thought “Naked Lunch” was too nonsensical or garbled to enjoy – but it continues the build of energy the journals started and is fascinating from an aesthetic standpoint, seeing the castoff embryonic thoughts that led him to reach his conclusions.
“Interzone” is chiefly a historical curiosity and a book for Burroughs devotees who want to track their hero’s evolution, but it’s also a useful primer for anyone who wants to experience his thought process in smaller doses. It’s a book that is at varying times dryly humorous, intentionally shocking and borderline illegible, but never able to hide the crackling energy of the voice that was finding itself.