Not everybody’s taste, perhaps, but to my mind William S. Burroughs remains one of the greats of Twentieth Century literature. Some aspects of his work have ceased to seem as relevant as perhaps they once did; the cut-up techniques which won so much attention in his lifetime now seem merely interesting curiosities, similar to the techniques of the Dadaists or OuLiPo; and the charges of “obscenity” simply look silly. There is plenty to shock here, but it’s in the ideas, rather than the sex and violence (of which, it must be said, there is a fair amount).
His best work remains endlessly re-readable: the ice-cold noir of Junkie, the melancholy passion of Queer, and the phantasmagoria of the late novels (Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands) all maintain an extraordinary power. Like Ballard in the UK, his take on the world was unique; but there’s little trace of Ballard’s fierce logic. Burroughs’ essays, for example, are a strange, sometimes infuriating mixture of razor-sharp perception, intelligence, and unhinged lunacy – often on the same page.
He’s buried in a beautiful cemetery in St.Louis, in the family plot. We got there just after a storm. There were broken branches lying on the ground, cluttering the roads, and the great obelisk dedicated to his grandfather – the inventor of the adding machine – loomed over the whole scene. Tucked away around the back is a little plaque dedicated to the wayward son Billy, himself an accomplished memoirist, but a more accomplished drinker: he died long before his dad.
I don’t know why, but there was something somehow wonderful about being there – my wife felt it, too, and she’s not such a fan.
I left him a pen. Wherever he may be, out there in the Western Lands, I hope he’s using it.