'The ugly spirit': Burroughs and the Naked Lunch

On the fiftieth anniversary of a contemporary masterpiece
Author William Burroughs, an ex-dope addict, relaxing on a shabby bed in what is known as a Beat Hotel. Paris, 1959. Photograph: Life/ Loomis Dean.
James Campbell writes in this weekend's Guardian newspaper on the 'gestation and strange life' of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a novel celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year:
Naked Lunch is a savage satire on "control" in various forms, from sexual censorship to McCarthyite anti-communism to the worldwide spread of narcotics. Half a century ago, Burroughs created Islam Inc, issuing from the Mecca Chamber of Commerce, a fundamentalist racket that sends out "nationalist martyrs with grenades up the ass" to mingle with rank and file Muslims "and suddenly explode, occasioning heavy casualties". Part of the action takes place in Freeland, a sterile Scandinavian utopia where the urgencies of instinct and hunger are removed. Scientists work to isolate the "human virus". When eventually they succeed, as they are bound to, homo sapiens can be perfected and messy old life brought to an end. Freeland is an ideal police state, in which "there is no need for police", since every citizen is under constant surveillance by every other.

The composition of Naked Lunch has its origins in what Burroughs called "routines", surreal sketches which were included in letters to Allen Ginsberg. As the pages piled up on the floor around his desk, some soiled by footprints, Burroughs saw a book taking shape. "Horrible mess of longhand notes to straighten out," he told Ginsberg, "plus all those letters to go through." Even the author of "Howl", then being prosecuted in California for obscenity, was put off by the extremism of some routines. "Can't see why they should have upset you," Burroughs wrote back. "I am impressed by my reasonableness."