Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

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Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

Post by tigerterry23 » Wed Sep 07, 2011 11:19 am

I can't find that this has been posted. It's a 1980 review essay on Mottram's Algebra of Need by Thomas Parkinson. Parkinson edited the first critical collection on the Beats and was friends with Ginsberg, primarily, but also knew Kerouac (in Berkeley) and Burroughs (in Paris). His take on Burroughs is quite sensible and well-informed: it shows his knowledge of Burroughs's science-fiction influences and places him outside the Swiftian satire mode and squarely in the American vein of "hilarity"--Henry Miller, Mark Twain and Faulkner (The Hamlet). Overall, in spite of his position as a literature professor, he argues for an appreciation of Burroughs as a humorist and denigrates academic approaches to his work.

The reference Parkinson makes to his medical problems is this: in 1960 (or 1961) a deranged anti-communist attempted to kill him in his offices at Berkeley. Parkinson survived, but lost half of his face in the gun blast; his teaching assistant, a young woman, was killed.

Critical Approaches to William Burroughs,
or How to Admit an Admiration for a Good Dirty Book
Thomas Parkinson

I want to begin by giving a retrospective view of my own relations to Burroughs. First, I saw both the Yage Letters and Naked Lunch before publication. In 1955 Allen Ginsberg lived in a little cottage four houses south of us on Milvia Street in Berkeley. He came to see me first in my office before we realized that we were neighbors, and he enrolled for graduate study at Berkeley. Kenneth Rexroth had advised him to see me, and together we worked out the best possible program that our graduate school would allow: required courses in bibliography and Anglo-Saxon and a special studies course in the prosody of Whitman. At first we talked incessantly about Whitman, and practically every day he came to the house and read Whitman aloud, and we discussed and argued. At that time Ginsberg was much taken with Richard Chase's book on Whitman and kept arguing for Whitman's sense of humor. At first I was amused and suggested that he could also write on intentional jokes in the Faerie Queene. Later we came to agreement, but I insisted he use the term hilarity rather than humor--a concept that I shall return to later.
Ginsberg did not trust academic figures, but he gradually came to the conclusion that I was not really a bad sort and showed me some of his poems. I thought that those weak imitations of Andrew Marvell were pretty dreadful and told him so directly, advising him to follow Whitman. That came as a relief to him, and since that moment we have been good friends. He showed me parts of a long poem that he was working on, and he began talking about Kerouac and Burroughs. He showed me a typescript of On The Road and segments of what would become Naked Lunch. The long poem was Howl, which he would read aloud later in the year at several places in the Bay Area. The little cottage in Berkeley has since been torn down, but though it was extremely tiny, about fifteen by fifteen feet, Ginsberg lived there, Kerouac visited for periods, Phil Whalen was a constant resident, and, when Ginsberg lived for a week or more at a time in San Francisco, the only resident. Gary Snyder was a frequent visitor, and they often overflowed into the old farm house--now torn down--where I lived with my wife and our first daughter. Mine is the melancholy fame of being the professor that the narrator of The Dharma Bums claimed to have scared the shit out of, with his customary elegance. The truth is that I threw Kerouac out of the house one evening because he was drunk, obscene, and was frightening my five-year-old daughter. In those days I stood six feet seven inches tall, weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds, was only 35 years old, quicker than most bears and as strong as some, and it would have been a pleasure to throw Kerouac physically out of the house, but he went mumbling away. Another piece of mythology about that period is that Ginsberg quit graduate school, though I encouraged him to stay, because Kerouac told him to quit. This is simply not true. Ginsberg on the way back from San Francisco one night asked me whether he should leave graduate school because, in his words, he could not twist his mind to work in the grammatical categories of Anglo-Saxon and the systematic procedures of bibliographical study. I told him that if he tried to orient himself toward something alien to his being, he would be making a mistake. But he insisted that he could not let down some of the professors who had been kind to him, and I answered that perhaps he should think of his well being rather than theirs. Finally I lost my temper and told him that he was a grown man, should certainly know his own mind, and should get out of graduate school as soon as possible because he was only making himself miserable. Kerouac may have said something to him, but the day after our conversation Ginsberg withdrew from graduate school.
In 1957-58 Ginsberg spent several weeks at our house in London, where Donald Carne-Ross recorded the whole of Howl for BBC and I included part of it in a broadcast on American poetry. In spring of 1958 I met Burroughs in the hotel on 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur and found him charming, gentle, and kind. He had just returned to Paris from London where he had undergone the apomorphine treatment and was free of drugs, very calm and gently didactic in conversation with Ginsberg, who was deep in the writing of Kaddish and in one of the manic phases which affected him occasionally during that period. That was my only meeting with Burroughs, though I have followed his career with attentive respect.
In 1959 while writing my second book on Yeats, I was also compiling the Casebook on the Beat. When I was being considered for a promotion my then chairman asked for a description of recent publications and current research, and after I handed him a bibliography, I remarked that I was compiling an anthology on the Beat writers. He replied that it would be wiser not to mention it because there might be somebody on the Budget Committee who lacked a sense of humor. I have always treasured that moment. That was the first critical approach to the Beat writers--ignore them, don't take them seriously, they are a bunch of clowns. But the fact is that they could not be ignored, that they went on to become the common reading of millions of young people, and my chief pride in the Casebook is that not one of the writers included in it has failed to be continuously productive, that Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize and Ginsberg the National Book Award and that, alas, those writers have become part of academic study.
I say alas, because there is something mildly depressing in considering the distance from 1959 to 1977, from the chairman who thought the Beat writers were funny to the full majesty of the Modern Language Association turned toward the study of William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch is now, in Chaucer's terms, to be considered by the members of "A solempne and a great fraternitee," rather than in unpublishable form by a few young people reading a typescript.
The danger in making the contemporary respectable is that we might at the same time make it dull. Serious study tends toward solemnity, and I have the uneasy feeling in reading Eric Mottram's William Burroughs that a handful of very uneven books and a rather goofy theory of composition are being treated as if they were the major works and theories of a Conrad, Hardy or James. I am mildly relieved when I note that Mottram has absolutely no clue about how to handle routine matters like bibliographies and notes and is no scholar, but when the question of Burroughs' world view is given so Germanic a presentation, I become irreverent, as I do at times with Professor Tytell's excellent long essay on Burroughs in his Naked Angels.
The primary critical problem is what is the ground of the appeal of this work? Does Ulysses, for instance, get its overwhelming charm from the series of literary and philosophical and historical correspondences that can be found through patient labor and a little bending of the truth? Does Yeats' later poetry appeal to us because of the endless delight of comparing perfectly clear poems with irrelevant and obscure prose selected from A Vision? Do The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn command attention because of their Emersonean vision of individual value? Do we read Naked Lunch because it is one phase in the development of a vision of defiance against cosmic authoritarianism? Do we read the notes to The Waste Land rather than the poem because we don't want to face the funny frightening poem that Eliot actually wrote? I suspect that we read Yeats because he is bold, sexy, and wise, and that we read Naked Lunch because it is outrageously funny.
This brings us back to Ginsberg's perception of the funny side of Whitman. What he had in mind can be epitomized in a single line: "I dote on myself. There is that lot of me and all so luscious." This is on the surface as hilarious as Mark Twain's essay on the literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper or Faulkner's "Spotted Horses" episode from The Hamlet. The English are capable of humor, the French of wit, but only Americans are capable of hilarity: boisterous merriment. I am speaking of literature not life; the English are capable of boisterous merriment, but except for the Anglo-Irish, notably Joyce, it is beyond them in literature. "No, Sir; wine gives not light, gay, ideal humour; but tumultuous, noisy, clamorous merriment" (O.E.D.). Outrageous fun.
Humor for Dr. Johnson was ideal; he loved Shakespeare's comedies and had little use for the tragedies. Burroughs is frequently compared to Swift, especially the Swift of A Modest Proposal, but there is a more appropriate sense in which he should be compared to Twain and Faulkner, and perhaps most of all to Henry Miller, all part of that special tradition of hilarity that distinguishes American literature and would seem hopelessly out of place in English or French, not to mention our earnest German and Russian friends. When Russian writers are hilarious, the tone is entirely different, and there are many times when to think of their work as hilarious is to insult them. Woody Allen's Love and Death is a marvelous parody of an American trying to keep a straight face when he treats characteristic situations and plots in Russian fiction. Even so solemn a fellow as Woody Allen cannot quite bring it off.
What is the special hilarious quality of American humor? It has not been defined, though my suspicion is that many members of this audience have an immediate reaction to the effect that, yes, the same tradition that produced Hemingway's "Today is Friday" could as properly produce the famous hanging cum buggery/fornication scenes of Naked Lunch. It is hard to believe, however, that Hemingway would excuse his travesty of the crucifixion as an argument against capital punishment. Burroughs says of the disgusting and fascination hanging cum buggery/fornication passages that they were written ". . . as a tract against Capital Punishment in the manner of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal. These sections are intended to reveal capital punishment as the obscene barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is. . . ." Now this is hogwash. Swift's Modest Proposal is written in a somberly rational tone, and it is a kind of hoax writing--like [Daniel] Defoe's The Shortest Way with Dissenters (suppress them totally, even if the cost is mass slaughter)--that was taken literally by part of its audience, even though it was written by the Dean of Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral, just as Defoe's ironic tract was written by a notorious dissenter. Now nobody in his right mind would take Burroughs' "tract" as in any way a literal or probable recommendation. It boggles my mind to imagine any reader of the text, without Burroughs' intervention, stumbling unaided on the notion that those obscene, barbaric and disgusting passages are anything more than an exhibit of the kind of depravity that the human mind can sink to, and of which to the guilt and sorrow of humanity, we are all capable. But the text itself gives no clue to Burroughs' intended effect. If Burroughs really intended to write an attack on Capital Punishment, what he managed was a much more fundamental indictment of humanity. That he did so through savage hilarity superficially comparable to that of Apollinaire's The Debauched Hospodar and his Memoirs of a Young Rakehell (which have absolutely no redeeming social importance, except that they were written by a great poet) places him firmly in the tradition of Miller and the late Twain. Burroughs is not a social critic but a nihilist intent on wiping out all conventional and civilized human values.
The appeal of Naked Lunch resides in the fact that it expresses the plight of a decadent capitalist culture in which the audience does not believe. The conventional and civilized values that it flouts are accepted superficially by the audience, and they delight in seeing them reduced to sexual and violent horror. The same principle makes the figure of Doctor Benway so numbingly funny:
Dr. Benway is operating in an auditorium filled with students: "Now, boys, you don't see this operation performed very often and there's a reason for that. . . . You see it has absolutely no medical value. No one knows what the purpose of it originally was or if it had a purpose at all. Personally I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning.
"Just as a bull fighter with his skill and knowledge extricates himself from danger he has himself invoked, so in this operation the surgeon deliberately endangers his patient, and then, with incredible speed and celerity, rescues him from death at the last possible split second. . . . Did any of you ever see Dr. Tetrazzini perform? I say perform advisedly because his operations were performances. He would start by throwing a scalpel across the room into the patient and then make his entry like a ballet dancer. His speed was incredible: 'I don't give them time to die,' he would say. Tumors put him in a frenzy of rage. 'Fucking undisciplined cells!' he would snarl, advancing on the tumor like a knife-fighter."
A young man leaps down into the operating theatre and, whipping out a scalpel, advances on the patient.
Dr. Benway: "An espontaneo! Stop him before he guts the patient!"
(Espontaneo is a bull-fighting term for a member of the audience who leaps down into the ring, pulls out a concealed cape and attempts a few passes with the bull before he is dragged out of the ring.)
The orderlies scuffle with the espontaneo, who is finally ejected from the hall. The anesthetist takes advantage of the confusion to pry a large gold filling from the patient's mouth. . . .
Now, does anybody in the audience think that this is an argument for socialized medicine? It is an hilarious presentation of all our unconscious fears of doctors, their absolute authority over life and death, their indifference to their patients, their pride in their skill, even their vainglory, and finally the opportunistic greed of the anesthetist. Since modern medicine has saved my life on three separate occasions because of its recent technological developments, I respect it immensely, and number among my friends several devoted radiotherapists and surgeons. But this episode makes me laugh heartily and with a sense of relief. Burroughs writes many such brilliant scenes in Naked Lunch, including the unprintable (!) section on the day that Roosevelt appointed nine baboons to the Supreme Court. Is this a satire on the judicial system? Or is it a terribly funny presentation of the fears that Roosevelt haters had of him and his intentions? Anybody who understands or remembers the New Deal will also understand why otherwise rational men in their seventies will drool with rage at the mention of NRA, WPA, and FDR. And much of Naked Lunch is full of such topical fun. I find it hard to think of it, however, as satirical. Burroughs and his readers are just having a good time. But since this means that we share low motives and are capable of being moved by gleefully unrestricted obscenity, we try to convince ourselves that we are reading a noble tract against Capital Punishment or the AMA or the judicial system. I think that one deficiency in criticism of Naked Lunch is that critics are wary of being caught appreciating the book for laughs. Hence the "solempne" tone. And until some serious critic of Burroughs writes a frank and uninhibited appreciation of the book, really serious criticism of Burroughs cannot begin.
When it does, I think that certain results will follow, and one of them will be a depreciation of the succeeding books. I am a tireless reader of science fiction, and Burroughs apparently has also read E. E. (Doc) Smith's Lensman series. Those books with their Intergalactic Patrol, their Arisians contemplating the Cosmic All, the monstrous Eichs who cut their victims to pieces molecule by molecule and then assimilate them by a gruesome method that a Burroughs character would characterize as "disgustin"--they are the exact and adequate parallel to the "serious" novels that follow Naked Lunch and strike me as pretentious bores.
As for critical approaches to Burroughs, my own feeling is that the central need for determining the ground of the work's appeal has not been satisfied. First, I should suggest that evaluations of the individual books have not seriously been entertained. The negative critics merely call names; the friendly critics take refuge in allegories that, to my mind, inhabit the banks of the Nile. The special humor of Burroughs has not been defined, and his place in the history of the peculiar American tradition of hilarity not approached. In contemplating the subject for the purposes of this brief chapter, I have concluded that wit divides man from man; humor brings them together in a community of biological good sense; hilarity destroys the individual person as the author transcends and violates reality by a sense of outrageously uninhibited fun. Burroughs is no Swift or Defoe. Works like the Bickerstaff Papers, A Modest Proposal, or The Shortest Way with Dissenters are rational wit with a certain extravagance. Burroughs belongs with the authors of The Mysterious Stranger, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn, and Faulkner's classic The Hamlet.
Beyond that, there simply has to be some more rational examination of science fiction that would clarify what Burroughs is up to in his cosmic works. There is a special genre of science fiction that can only be called fascist--some of the works of Robert Heinlein (especially Farnham's Freehold), most of the grand panoramic works, but especially Doc Smith's Lensman series. Burroughs uses many of Smith's devices for anarchist purposes, and this seems to have evaded sensible notice.
Finally, there is the entire question of Burroughs' theories of composition. They are goofy, and the cut-up method and all the nonsense about electronic fooling around neglect the fact that Burroughs' sensibility is what makes the work interesting, not all the gimmicks. The trouble is that there is no young Kenneth Burke around to make a responsible analysis of the folly of the entire theory. My own experience with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs is that they rationalize their practice when they theorize, and with the exception of Ginsberg--who has real knowledge of the poetic tradition--they lack the training and good sense to shape any kind of rational and usable theory. There is something dreary in watching that chameleon Norman Mailer try to use Burroughs' style in Why We Are in Viet Nam. All that Mailer proves in that book is that Burroughs' manner is peculiarly suited to his sensibility, not to Mailer's.
In my view the best description of Burroughs' idea of the novel is Wyatt Blassingame's conclusion that Mark Twain "was not so interested in the novel as a compact whole as in the individual scenes on which he could release his full flamboyant genius."
Hence there is a great deal to re-think about Burroughs, evaluatively, with some sense of literary continuities and parallels, socially with some sense of the post-fascist nature of the later works. A good Marxist critique of Burroughs might also clarify matters. But above all, I should like to see the serious students of Burroughs confess that they like Naked Lunch because it is outrageously funny, hilarious in the manner of Faulkner, Miller, and Twain. Seriousness about hilarity becomes unconsciously hilarious. Years ago I consented to do an individual study project on Miller with a rather solempne student. Finally, at one of our weekly conferences, I asked him with a feeling of despair, why he liked Miller. He looked shifty and said, "Well, remember the passage at the Paris Opera where the soprano has an immense menstrual flow that inundates the orchestra and boxes and leaves the audience floundering for their lives? Well, I used to have visions like that all the time, and until I read Miller, I thought I was abnormal." All right, I could understand that, but he was deeply offended when I said that I liked Miller because he was hilariously funny. I hope that nobody in the audience is offended when I affirm that in approaching Naked Lunch, we should keep our real motives in mind.
(Source: Thomas Parkinson, "Critical Approaches to William Burroughs, or How to Admit an Admiration for a Good Dirty Book," in Poets, Poems, Movements, UMI Research Press, 1987.)

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Re: Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

Post by Graham Rae » Thu Sep 08, 2011 7:48 am

A very interesting article; thanks for posting it. I think Parkinson is right with regard to the humor in Naked Lunch being undervalued. But that doesn't mean the rest of the criticism of the book that has been written can automatically be discounted because the critic supposedly doesn't 'get' it. Literary criticism is a notoriously humor-free environment, it has to be said, but Parkinson seems to be letting his personal memories of the Beats cloud/shape his judgment; otherwise he's pulling the old 'the other critics don't get it and I do' bait-and-switch trope, elevating his perceptions above all others for the sake of vanity and career and supposed integrity and insight. Still a fine article though.

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Name a Burroughs book: Junky

Re: Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

Post by Racky » Mon Sep 12, 2011 11:23 am

good to make the point that no form of art of any kind must or should have so called redeeming features-but the rest of the article is, i think, moot

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Re: Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

Post by davee_mac » Tue Sep 13, 2011 7:39 am

"I think that one deficiency in criticism of Naked Lunch is that critics are wary of being caught appreciating the book for laughs"

that might have been true back then, but i think a healthy awareness of the basic HUMOUR content of Burroughs' work is very much present in more modern criticism. Some of it just sounds like it takes it too seriosuly because, well, that's what academic-type criticism DOES :D

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Re: Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

Post by tigerterry23 » Tue Sep 13, 2011 4:43 pm

Most interesting to me is Parkinson's dismissal of Burroughs's explanation of his "technique" of writing, which he says is so much after-the-fact justification of the work. Poe is accused of doing the same thing with his "Philosophy of Composition" essay--writing a poem (The Raven) and then an essay that describes such a poem as the "perfect poem." With Ginsberg, he says, he sees evidence of a knowledge of poetic tradition that would allow Ginsberg to theorize about poetry; with Burroughs (and Kerouac) he doesn't believe either writer understands the tradition well enough to write outside of it. He's mistaken, in my opinion. Both writers obviously knew what they were up to, quite consciously. What he does point to, though, is a continuing debate over the seriousness and literalness of Burroughs's theory of language as a virus and of writers as "secret agents" or hosts to a parasite. To me, it's obviously metaphorical, and richly so, but I wonder at times if Burroughs is absolutely straightforward about these matters and hardly talking in terms of analogy. Parkinson also sees the cut-up method as a joke. Not me: I use it sometimes to get at what I'm really trying to say.

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Re: Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

Post by Paul Sempschi » Thu Sep 15, 2011 2:15 am

Form with the Beats is an interesting topic. Like Parkinson says, the Beats are/were dismissed because their work is formless. It's weird that on the point of form, he doesnt put Ginsberg on the same level. Yeah, they were all well-read and knew what they were, at least, trying to do, but other than rhythm, I'd classify HOWL and most of his work as formless on the same level as Kerouac's experimental writing.

Though it's a pity Jack didnt force himself into focused narrative. His experimental writings come off as desperate attempts to prove he's a genius. Reading Visions of Cody, gave me the impression of this struggle. And the more he wrote, the more his genius unravelled under him. Works like The Subterraneans and Tristessa come off as flailing, like he's panicking on stage, hitting the wrong notes while the psychic crowd's booing him. As opposed to the more polished pieces like On the Road and Dharma Bums.

I think the problem stems from Jack being stuck inside himself. He wasted so much energy on trying to write himself and his myth into existence. Defining himself alongside Neal, and later, Buddha. Wonderful topics, which got him those two aforementioned books, but by losing control and alienating the reader for the sake of "innovation" was a major fuck up.

But, as Mr. Pound said in ABC's, it's not enough to write something amazing, a true genius must invent a style.

I think it was the opposite of Burroughs. It's an understatement to say that his work reads like a man totally uncomfortable with himself. It's like he wanted to write his experiences and explain himself and interests, but could never peg down a protagonist; the I which the reader must look through. The closest he came was with the early trilogy, Lee but he was obviously uncomfortable with it and could never follow-through with the plot. Three fragments which recede from first to third persons into epistolary artifacts in a hotel drawer.

The routines in Naked Lunch show that he could've been an incredible short story writer. I think that if Allen & co. took him to task and made him follow through on these fragments (maybe chop out the prose poetry in favor of the scenes), he would've developed those muscles to write traditional narrative. Though he did succeed where Jack failed, in Naked Lunch, he did create a mosaic style, which he also exhausted. If he wrote another Naked Lunch, he'd just be repeating himself.

Reading Oliver Harris' intro to the Letters, he implies that Burroughs was hunting for a muse, a teacher and a style. He thought he found it in Stern, but instead found it in Gysin + The Cut Ups, which would act as a means to avoid the EYE and short-change the muse: he could get out of finishing or fleshing out his stories.

Sure, the Cut Ups are a wonderful addition to Concrete Poetry, but, as I've said before, no matter how many diamonds in the muck, the novels (as novels) are failures. Plots drift off and never come back. The captain has deferred responsibility. The ship is adrift.

Sure, the essays ("The Job") are fascinating and make a wonderful read, arguably THEY are the true novel. The Cut Ups as presented in tapes, films and the 'littles' back up the essays and act as a counterpoint.

It's like Burroughs was unable or unwilling to work out his stories, one story at a time. He has the characters, their motives, and he sort of knew where the story is going (if does GO) but lacked the filters and hooks needed for a sustained narrative. And sustained interest in the reader.

Look at his most popular books: Junky and Naked Lunch, the rest of the works are usually acknowledged in the Burroughs myth while being shrugged off or dismissed: they are not read as much. And that's the name of the game, writing to be read. That doesnt mean you produce a bestseller, but when you have fans of some of your work cringe at the rest of it, that says something.

Yeah, I know a lot of people who enjoy Naked Lunch. Who find it profound and funny, but it's also often criticized for its incomprehensibility. I dont think it is, but I think it could've been clearer. There is a lot in The Atrophied Preface that comes off as besides the point and reads as some sort of weird filler the pad the book out. A theory I've also heard about the Cut Up novels.

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Re: Thomas Parkinson and William S. Burroughs

Post by Graham Rae » Thu Sep 15, 2011 4:38 am

Some brilliant points, Paul. I must say, though, that Atrophied Preface is one of my favorite parts of Naked Lunch, especially the last couple of pages, vivid portraits of 'soft mendicant words falling like dead birds in the dark street' (got that one memorized) and 'a heaving sea of air hammers' and suchlike, a choppy random beautiful abstract images sea to be tossed happily around in. I don't care that it's not linear or seems like filler, I just love to read it time and again. And hearing WSB read it is a joy too. I mean, who else would ever think to describe killing the heroin monkey on their back with obtuse stuff like:

white flash, mangled insect screams...
I woke up with the taste of metal in my mouth back from the dead
trailing the colorless death smell
afterbirth of a withered grey monkey
phantom twinges of amputation'

I love reading the Word section in Interzone too, just for the pure heady mainline lustrush of headswimages I get from it, pure filth and fury and terrible beauty, guttersniping from the half-aware headspintellectual psychic depths. There's never been anything like it before or since, and that's all I want or need.

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