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William Burroughs: Naked Lunch

In the introduction to the book, Burroughs described the meaning of the term naked lunch as the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork. The book was originally published by the Olympia Press in Paris. When it was subsequently published in the United States by Grove Press, a different manuscript was used so the two versions are different. This is particularly because Burroughs used the cut-up technique, whereby chapters are inserted in random order and can, according to Burroughs, be read in any order. There is not much of a plot but more the ramblings of the junkie William Lee (an alias that Burroughs used to write some of his books) as he travels around the world, ending up in Tangier. Lee is escaping the police and trying to get his next fix. He kills two policemen who, apparently, don’t exist. We meet strange creatures, learn of mysterious conspiracies and meet Dr. Benway, who will appear in other Burroughs’ books and who may or may not be evil. Burroughs use of tortured humour, drug-induced scenes and a non-plot, involving assorted creatures, has made this book a cult novel and it is certainly a fun book to read, more so than his later novels. As he tells us in the preface (which appears at the end) You were not there for The Beginning. You will not be there for The End. In short, it is all to be taken with a pinch of salt. Time Magazine put it in its list of 100 best English-language novels since 1923, not a view I would agree with.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Olympia