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New Left Review I/23, January-February 1964


L.R.

‘Dead Fingers Talk’

Dead Fingers Talk. William Burroughs. John Calder, 25s.

This book is The Naked Lunch in a different order, with some old bits missing and some new bits put in. The publishers explain this (‘Perhaps to spare The Reader stress . . . and keep him Gentle’) by drawing attention to the ‘famous’, ‘fold-in technique’; in fact, of course, it is a ruse to catch the censor on the wrong foot. (Those who are interested in the wherefore of the cut-up and fold-in technique might consider Burroughs’s view of language as the main medium of indoctrination and control and his need to find an out—The Space Age Is Out Age—by terrorist attacks on the means of control. ‘This is practical wisdom on the level of Chesterfield Letters Written for an age of Stable Factors . . . Now the Ouab days are upon us . . . But why Burroughs cut-up Burroughs? Recollect the epigraph to The Exterminator: ‘Let petty kings the name of party know/Where I come I kill both friend and foe.’) And what, then, is the significance (‘“What are you thinking?” says the squirming American Tourist. . .’) of The Naked Lunch? It is an attack on a society, symbolized by Interzone, which is a cancerous degeneration it is a record of junk addiction and a junk cure; it is an exposure of every kind of human paranoia and vulnerability. Does Burroughs have anything positive to say about society or has he merely reached an extreme of nihilism? I notice that a paragraph is not in the new version: ‘A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit.’ And instead there is the ‘End of the Line’—‘Police bullet in the alley—Broken wings of Icarus. . . .’—and the escape into Space, the attempt to ‘rewrite vampirism’, ‘the flesh gimmick’, ‘the whole birth death cycle of action’. But ‘operation rewrite’ is doomed to failure; Inspector Lee of the Nova Police cannot carry through ‘the indicated alterations’. In reality Burroughs is back where he started: ‘No good . . . no bueno . . . hustling myself . . .’ Why read Dead Fingers Talk? Because the book does castigate—the comparisons which have been made to Swift are not inept—a society which is rotten, while preserving, even in vice and junk addiction, a human dignity, a use of intelligence, a sardonic sense of humour. Burroughs himself has gone through a junk cure; he has never lost hope that society can be cured of its own addiction: ‘Selling is more of a habit than using.’ He cannot provide the remedy but he has diagnosed (‘“And what do you conclude from that?” “Conclude? Nothing whatever. Just a passing observation.’) a monstrous disease. And warned us against the wrong cure, ‘technician: “Send in the cured writer . . . He’s got what? Buddhism? . . . Oh, he can’t talk. Say so at first, whyncha?” He turns to Berger: “The writer can’t talk . . . Overliberated, you might say. Of course we can dub him . . .”’ And suggested some kind of remedy: ‘Your plan was unworkable then and useless now. Like De Vinci’s flying machine plans.’ Burroughs has, indeed, a stronger sense of the potentialities of the far future than the chances for present improvement, but he will sure appear more than quaint. Dead Fingers Talk is cheaper than The Naked Lunch, given the cost of American Express, for which we must be grateful. l.r.

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L. R., ‘'Dead Fingers Talk'’, NLR I/23: £3
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