Bill Self

I would be disturbed and dismayed if Will Self ever wrote an essay on Evelyn Waugh or Clark Ashton Smith. In fact, I hope he has never even heard of CAS. But I’m happy to see Self writing in the Guardian on William Burroughs. It’s a perfect setting for a perfect pairing. And Self, like Christopher Hitchens, raises a very interesting question. What is his mother-tongue? Quechua? Tagalog? Sumerian? Whatever it is, it’s not even remotely related to English.


William Burroughs — the original Junkie — Will Self, The Guardian, 1/ii/2014.

Entitled Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict and authored pseudonymously by “William Lee” (Burroughs’ mother’s maiden name – he didn’t look too far for a nom de plume) …

[Self missed his chance there: nom de guerre would have been much better.]

The two-books-in-one format was not uncommon in 1950s America …

Despite its subhead, Wyn did think the book had a redemptive capability …

Both Junkie and Narcotic Agent have covers of beautiful garishness, featuring 1950s damsels in distress. On the cover of Junkie a craggy-browed man is grabbing a blond lovely from behind; one of his arms is around her neck, while the other grasps her hand, within which is a paper package. The table beside them has been knocked in the fray, propelling a spoon, a hypodermic, and even a gas ring, into inner space.

This cover illustration is, in fact, just that: an illustration of a scene described by Burroughs in the book. “When my wife saw I was getting the habit again, she did something she had never done before. I was cooking up a shot two days after I’d connected with Old Ike. My wife grabbed the spoon and threw the junk on the floor. I slapped her twice across the face and she threw herself on the bed, sobbing …” That this uncredited and now forgotten hack artist should have chosen one of the few episodes featuring the protagonist’s wife to use for the cover illustration represents one of those nastily serendipitous ironies that Burroughs himself almost always chose to view as evidence of the magical universe. …

… if you turn to his glossary of junk lingo and jive talk – you will see how many arcane drug terms have metastasised into the vigorous language. …

Burroughs viewed the postwar era as a Götterdämmerung and a convulsive re-evaluation of values. …

An open homosexual and a drug addict, his quintessentially Midwestern libertarianism led him to eschew any command economy of ethics …

For Burroughs, the re-evaluation was both discount and markup …

… and perhaps it was this that made him such a great avatar of the emergent counterculture. …

Janus-faced, and like some terminally cadaverous butler, Burroughs ushers in the new society of kicks for insight as well as kicks’ sake. …

Let’s return to that cover illustration with its portrayal of “William Lee” as Rock Hudson and his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, as Kim Novak.

When I say Burroughs himself must have regarded the illustration – if he thought of it at all – as evidence of the magical universe he conceived of as underpinning and interpenetrating our own …

Much has been written and even more conjectured about the killing. Burroughs himself described it as “the accidental shooting death”; and although he jumped bail, he was only convicted – in absentia by the Mexican court – of homicide. …

When Burroughs was off heroin he was a bad, blackout drunk (for evidence you need look no further than his own confirmation in Junky). …

By the time Burroughs was living in Tangier in the late 1950s, his sense of being little more than a cipher, or a fictional construct, had become so plangent …

Burroughs was the perfect incarnation of late 20th-century western angst precisely because he was an addict. Self-deluding, vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed, and yet curiously perceptive about the sickness of the world if not his own malaise, Burroughs both offered up and was compelled to provide his psyche as a form of Petri dish, within which were cultured the obsessive and compulsive viruses of modernity. …

In a thin-as-a-rake’s progress …

… a deceptively thin, Pandora’s portfolio of an idea …

It is Burroughs’ own denial of the nature of his addiction that makes this book capable of being read as a fiendish parable of modern alienation. …

For, in describing addiction as “a way of life”, Burroughs makes of the hypodermic a microscope, through which he can examine the soul of man under late 20th-century capitalism.

William Burroughs – the original Junkie, The Guardian, 1/ii/2014.


The big disappointment is that he didn’t use in terms of.