Will Self on Burroughs and Junky

British author celebrates William S. Burroughs' autobiographical debut
William Burroughs writing at his desk

From Will Self's preface to the 2002 Penguin edition of William S. Burroughs's Junky:
[...] Certainly, Burroughs himself viewed the postwar era as a Gotterdammerung and a convulsive reevaluation of all values. With his anomic inclinations and his Mandarin intellect, Burroughs was in a paradoxical position vis a vis the coming cultural revolution of the 1960s. An open homosexual and a drug addict, his quintessentially Midwestern libertarianism led him to eschew any command economy of ethics, while his personal inclinations meant he had to travel with distastefully socialist and liberal fellows. For Burroughs, the reevaluation 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 kick’s sake. In the final paragraph of ‘Junky’ he writes: ‘Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the ageing, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh.’ He might have added that kicking is what you do to God’s ribs once he’s down on the ground and begging for mercy.

By all of which you can take it as stated that in a very important sense I view Burroughs’s Junky not to be a book about heroin addiction at all, anymore that I perceive Camus’s The Fall (1956) to be about the legal profession, or Sartre’s Nausea (1938) to be concerned with the problems of historical research. All three are works in which an alienated protagonist grapples with a world perceived as irretrievably external and irredeemably meaningless. All three are trajected at the reader in the form of insistent monologues. As Burroughs writes of the hoodlum ‘Jack’ in Junky: ‘He had a knack of throwing his voice directly into your consciousness. No external noise drowned him out.’ The same could be said of ‘William Lee’ himself, or Clemance or Roquentin. [Read More]

Will Self, Preface to William S. Burroughs, Junky