William S. Burroughs: The Place Of Dead Roads
I gave Burroughs a fighting chance with this novel, bought from a discount bookstore, perhaps because I was interested by a deceptively intriguing summary on the back. But I gave him a fighting chance, and tried hard to reserve my initial judgment.
However, the odds of me liking this novel were slim from the beginning. After all, weíre talking about an author here who thought it was a good literary idea to take books he didnít like, cut the novel up into thousands of pieces, and randomly rearrange it using the cut-and-fold technique.
In essence, Burroughs was a writer so obsessed with deemphasizing the importance of the text itself, which is ostensibly what literature is about, that he went to extreme lengths to remove the possibility of intentional narrative and linear patterns. This isnít Faulkner, writing some brilliant piece like Benjiís section from The Sound and the Fury, (a second that is actually excruciatingly well plotted out by Faulkner, with time-jumps in the narrative that are carefully chosen and directed towards a greater goal), this is a guy essentially mish-mashing prose together.
At a certain point, I see such an intense, postmodern obsession with reinventing the wheel of literature, as damaging to what I see as literatureís heart: itís creative and desire to create a human connection through narrative. This is the difference between a work of literature, and a seasonal guide to gardening in South Carolina. Not only is such obsession with originality missing the proverbial forest for the trees, but itís part of a greater movement, (postmodernism), which as far as I can see, attempts to turn the creative process into an act of conscious referential word engineering, (Burroughs discussed the Nova Trilogy as a mathematical extension of his iconic novel Naked Lunch).
Beyond anything, William S. Burroughs just doesnít seem like my kind of person. He got drunk in 1951 and shot his wife in the head by accident, and she died afterwards. He had lifetime addictions to alcohol and other substances, and most of all was part of the Beat writers, a group that, with a few exceptions, I find to be hopelessly shallow people who have promoted many of the negative misconceptions mired in the America conscious about literature. That is the man, and more said than I probably should, and already enough to risk sparking some tiresome aesthetic debate.
There are a few things I have to say about The Place of Dead Roads, none of them particularly flattering, (though I did like this passage, from the beginning of the third chapter: ďNow, American boys are told they should think. But just wait until your thinking is basically different from the thinking of a boss or a teacherÖ You will find out that you arenít supposed to thinkĒ Pg. 23). Now, to its credit, the book, part of the Cities of the Red Night trilogy, isnít a grab bagóI mean cut-up novel, but it doesnít seem to be about what it claims to be about.
I could bitch about conflicting dates in the novel, conflicting plot summations that Iíve read; I simply came to the conclusion that the Wild West setting was the delusion of a young Midwestern boy in the 20th Century. And the novel is honestly funny at places, and at others, an absolute mindfuck and in such a way I donít even feel up to describing, Sex changing aliens, pink-winged fairies, a western outlaw who writes French poetry, these things just donít work insofar as describing the utter lack of cohesion, which is often quite funny, and which is the reason for my conclusion that the novel itself is a collection of the delusions and fantasies of its main character Kim Carsons. This passage, ďKim sees dreams as a vital link to our biological and spiritual destiny in space. Deprived of this air we die. The way to kill a man or nation is to cut off his dreams, the way the whites are taking care of the Indians: killing their dreams, their magic, their familiar spirits.Ē Pg. 44.
This is, in of itself, an interesting topic. But it goes nowhere. The story goes nowhere. Itís dull, bored bit of meandering text. I got caught in by the humor in places and recommended it to a friend, only to have to withdraw that recommendation as the story simply turned into a long stream of disconnected gay sex scenes and their buildup, with plenty of gun-lore mixed along. Several were the literary equivalent of a Pizza Delivery Guy porno, and while quite steamy, I didnít feel like they really accomplished anything, other than as serving for Burroughs continual over-the-top anti-establishment rhetoric.
So, as a reader, youíre probably thinking now, ďOkay, repetitive, disorganized, meandering, thatís why he quit reading it.Ē And youíd be wrong. I can handle all of those flaws, in fact to read some great stuff sometimes putting up with or dealing with such stylism is necessary. No, the truth is, I quit reading at page 90 because I couldnít handle one more passage like this:
Beyond the hackneyed Faulkner imitator air it has, the passage seriously annoys me on multiple levels. Take punctuation for instanceóstylistically, as a writer, either use it or donít, donít selectively omit it, because then you just create a scrambled, disorderly mess. More than that, this passage, (and I almost think this might have been Boroughs intention), is a descriptive monstrosity on such a scale that it approaches Dean Koontz, and is almost so bad that it is funny, (almost). This is something of particularly annoyance to me, a writer who very conscious and careful about description.
There is a swamp with a nest of white beasts in the melancholy golden wash of the setting sun the arched wooden bridge down by the river luminous skulls among the peas, roads boarded by walls and iron fences that barely hold back the undergrowth, wind from the south excited the evil odors of desolate gardens in a puddle some very little fishes. Pg. 34
This is part of Burroughs style; itís essentially how he anchored the Nova Trilogy (the three books made up of sliced and diced and tossed in a hat novels); flowery description that attempts to sound deep. For me, itís just annoying, and there are worse examples than that. This, in combination with the lack of any compelling incentive to continue on, led me to close the book. This is my summer after all, and I have other things to do. Like continue on Henry Greenís Loving, practice my German and attempt, (in the words of my German friend), ďunspeakably horribleĒ translations of Paul Celan, and search for a part time job, and write review pieces like this, hehe. To say the least there is plenty of more amusing Manga and anime out there to take to if my other books are too exhausting or fail to interest me.
So I dumped the book like Lebron James dumped Cleveland. With a ten-mile long reading list and two or three languages I want to learn over the next twenty years, I wonít be getting back to it. As dumped book, now relegated to an eternity on the island of unwanted toys, it gets no rating.
"I am not young enough to know everything" -Oscar Wilde
"The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all." -From Ikiru