Sunday, May 14, 2006

Reading. Burroughs.

Strangely, I've never read Naked Lunch. Somehow I'd always skipped by it, my eye slipping past to other writers on the bookshelf. I suppose some day I'll get to it. But not just yet. I started with something else.

I came across Junky late one night during my weekly bookstore prowl. I think the original title was Junk, but then it was published under another title (and a pseudonym). Personally I prefer the original Junk, and my copy (the 50th anniversary edition) makes an interesting choice for the cover - the letters J U N across the top, and then the K underneath the N, followed by the author's name in small letters, and then the final Y at the bottom. At first glance it seems to say JUNK, in keeping with the writer's original title while technically retaining the title imposed by the publisher. I have to admit it was the cover that caught my eye, the foolishly, quirkily, cartoonish drawing of a needle, the face of the writer/addict, the title in big letters.

Growing up in America in the late 80's and early 90's we were educated from third grade onwards that DRUGS! ARE! BAD! In sixth grade I found Go Ask Alice in the library and was permanently put off drugs for life. (Later I found that the book was a fake, not actually the real-life journal of a teenage runaway, and I was so mad. Think of all the drugs I could have taken, the wildly promiscuous anonymous, unprotected sex I could have had. Or not). I have been around people who drank, who smoked, who did drugs (not in front of me). None of it ever interested me. Literature was my drug, my wine, my addiction. Words were enough to intoxicate me, make me high, make me feel things in a way I can't begin to explain. But maybe I think this only because I've never done drugs.

If Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych gives you an understanding of what it means to die, then Junk gives you an understanding of what it means to be an addict. How innocently it all begins. Once, twice, a few times a day. But you're not an addict. Then suddenly you can't live without the junk, you are always searching for the next fix, making contacts with dealers, becoming a dealer, doing whatever you have to do to score another gram. It was a bright sunny day today when I read this book, and it made the air around me go cold and gray. Burroughs makes you see what his life was like, what it was like to be addicted to heroin at that time. It is a novel, but a novel so autobiographical that when you read it you feel that surreal blurring feeling, when fiction and reality merge into one indistiguishable whole. His writing is so clear and unflinching and bare that when I put the book down I feel like his words are my drug and I am in withdrawal.

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