Having already penned two articles for the PsypressUK journal involving William Burroughs – ‘The Soundless Hum’ (2013 Vol.2) and ‘Beats On Acid’ (2014 Vol.3) – I now have a third coming out in the next issue, which this time is an in-depth review of Barry Miles’ new biography William S. Burroughs – A Life. And it won’t end there, for I also have another review to write of John Long’s Drugs and the “Beats”. I might even get around to commencing the extended study of his fictional oeuvre that I’ve had in mind for many years.
Ever since I first read and re-read Naked Lunch at around the age of nineteen, I’ve been endlessly fascinated by Burroughs, which is why I keep writing about him – there always seems something additional to say, other facets of the life and work to explore. The new Barry Miles biography has thrown up yet more aspects and weird and amusing anecdotes to complement those existing, so I couldn’t resist putting together yet another Burroughs piece that presents the most prominent and intriguing in the form of a list of ten, some familiar some not so.
Having been involved in spirit possession, exorcism, mirror-gazing and some weird cut-up magic involving cameras and tape recorders, Burroughs was as big on the occult as he was on drugs. And his eclectic taste in drugs took him from the visionary secrets of yagé in South America, to Eukodol in Tangier – in his opinion the best and most habit-forming junk ever. He was, of course, a legendary ‘gun nut’, and despite killing his wife in an insane drunken game of ‘William Tell’, his fetishistic regard for weapons never abated. On a more positive note, he was a friend of Paul McCartney in the 1960s, and his namesake grandfather invented the first adding machine, spawning a billion-dollar empire. What wasn’t William Burroughs into? Answers to that question, when posed on a message board were: ‘women’ and ‘gun safety’. Very true!
Read my piece ‘Ten Amazing Facts About William Burroughs’ on Medium.
In this previous memoir, Running for the Hills, Horatio Clare told of his childhood spent on a Welsh hill farm, and Truant – first published in 2008 – continues his life story, moving on through his latter schooldays, university time and peripatetic life thereafter, with alternating periods of employment and bumming around. What marks out Truant for special interest here is that it is styled as a drug memoir, a tale of the Blakeian ‘road to excess’, involving wide-ranging substance abuse and attendant behavioural and mental problems, and ending in the redemptive ‘palace of wisdom’, with Clare having learnt from the errors of such profligacy.
Truant is indeed well written, capturing the mood of grunge-era, live-for-the-moment fecklessness that echoes the romantic, beat and hippy lifestyles. It contains effective thumbnail sketches of the effects of drugs, depression, mania and that uniquely liberated tramp’s eye perspective of the world, when there’s nothing left to lose. As the story progresses, it becomes more an account of Clare’s failure to turn things around as he continues the pattern of linked drug use and getting into trouble, involving brushes with the law and the burning of bridges in jobs and relationships, perpetuating even as he gets older and past the usual window for this kind of ‘truant’ behaviour.
The way the story is presented invites the reader to ‘psychoanalyse’ Clare and decode the nature of his complex problems. Clearly the classic ‘dysfunctional family’ factor plays its part, with Clare’s aberrant behaviour seeming to a degree a rebellion against his father, who left the family and pursued another relationship, and who appears sporadically as a kind of cipher of a father, saying and doing the right things but lacking any real empathy and emotional depth in his relations with his son.
Then there is Clare’s inherent oddity as a character, his seeming compulsion to go against the grain of all that is sanguine and his sometimes crazy high-jinks counterpointed by debilitating lows. Of course these are the symptoms of manic-depression or bipolar disorder, and though Clare has periods of relative normality, either mania or depression crop up periodically to destroy whatever he’s built up in the interim. Read more…
First published in July 2011, To Live Outside the Law is a book of many facets. It is part personal memoir of the ’60s-’70s psychedelic scene, part ‘true crime’-style insider account of the Operation Julie escapade, subsequent bust and jail time, and also a larger meditation on the cultural and spiritual impact on humanity of that most potent and exotic of illegal substances—LSD.
The book is tightly and economically written, telling us enough but without going into burgeoning detail, so that a large swathe of time is covered efficiently in its near 300 pages. The structure takes the time-honoured form of two interwoven strands, the first starting with the Julie bust and continuing on through the legal proceeding and imprisonment, and the second dealing with Leaf’s past life up to the bust. It works very well, with the unrelenting downbeat dourness of the former strand contrasting strikingly with the colour of the latter; and the two synergise together beautifully to answer the book’s central question, poised on its cover: How did I get into this mess?
The answer is complicated, but the honest and candid writing, coupled with the willingness to reveal intimate details, build into a lucid and fascinating portrait of a talented individual whose youthful waywardness and ‘rebellion’ ultimately stretched too far for his own good. The roots, as ever, lie in childhood, and Leaf’s, though middle class and not ‘deprived’ in the usual sense, had huge shortcomings. From the age of seven onwards, with an army officer father often serving overseas and no mother, Leaf had virtually no proper family life and was subject to the institutionalised sadism of boarding school, where he didn’t fit in. What with having to fight the school bully to prove himself, enduring vicious canings from the headmaster and slipperings from prefects for the most trivial of ‘offences’, he became radicalised early. Through George Orwell he got interested in the Spanish Civil War and developed an anti-fascist stance that both alienated him at school but secured him a place at Reading University. Read more…
It’s always heartening to discover another writer who, perhaps by taking a very different path, has nonetheless arrived at a very similar creative place to oneself. This happened when I saw David Shields being interviewed on a BBC arts programme about his book Reality Hunger and the broader implications of the concept. He talked about the impoverishment of traditional fictional techniques and how today’s writers are incorporating more and more ‘reality’—that is, what really happened as opposed to what they made up—into their work. There is, he reckoned, a larger ‘reality hunger’ out there, manifesting in other media, such as reality television and the less adorned, more immediate communication afforded by the internet. Listening to Shields, I thought: that could be me talking, and I was amused by the discussion session following the film insert, where several panel members disagreed with him.
So I approached the book Reality Hunger with considerable excitement, while at the same time anticipating some mild disappointment due to my high expectations. But I wasn’t at all disappointed: the book proved to be everything I had hoped it would. It’s subtitled ‘a manifesto’, and it takes the form of numbered sections of varying lengths, which each have an aphoristic or epigrammatic quality. Many of the shorter ones are actual quotes from a wide range of writers and other artists, which Shields, acting like a DJ or MC, ‘samples’ and incorporates into the overall ‘mashup’. It is very effective and underscores the book’s textual points in a textural way, much like a plastic work of art. And as for the accusation of plagiarism, he answers that in the form of a quote from Picasso: art is theft. Who can argue?
As a drug memoirist, I had a special interest because I knew from the interview that this is an area Shields touches upon, and to my mind drug writing is an important component in the spectrum of this push toward ‘reality’. Indeed he mentions the Vedas—citing them as the earliest examples of written storytelling—and also De Quincey, Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson before getting stuck into James Frey and his infamous tome A Million Little Pieces. Here is one of the finest examples of an ideological clash between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ in a contemporary book. Telling the story of a hopeless, burnt-out, twenty-three-year-old drug addict, who mends himself in a rehab centre, Frey firstly wrote the book as a novel, and when he had no success at marketing it, he rebranded it as memoir, after which it was outstandingly successful, selling in the millions.
Around three years after its first publication, details emerged of falsifications within the book, primarily that Frey had greatly exaggerated his criminal past, creating jail time that didn’t actually exist. This put his publisher in an embarrassing position, regarding the definition of ‘non-fiction’ and opened up a debate on the latitude of factual reportage within memoirs. It reached a climax when Frey and his publisher appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and the result was a public crucifixion for the heresy of daring to place lies into a so-called work of fact. Afterwards Frey was dropped by his agent, and his publishers made him insert an apology into future editions. Past readers were even offered a refund, such was the furore the incident created.
As reported in Reality Hunger: ‘Oprah has created around herself a “cult of confession” that offers only one prix-fixe menu to those who enter her world. First the teasing crudités of the situation, sin or sorrow hinted at. The entrée is the deep confession or revelation. Next, a palate-cleaning sorbet of regret and repentance, the delicious forgiveness served by Oprah herself on behalf of all humanity… I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.’
Oh, that rings so many bells. Having written about my twenty- to twenty-four-year-old self in The Mad Artist, I discovered that however much you try to stick to the truth or the facts, you cannot help but turn yourself and others into ‘characters’, and characters start to assume a destiny of their own on the page. For me the writing of a ‘novelistic memoir’ was both an act of serving up reality and one of full literary performance at the same time. Read more…
Originally published independently in 1997, Stephen Smith’s Addict has gone through fourteen printings, and according to publisher Westworld International’s website it has sold 1.4 million copies worldwide. Seemingly it is the only book published by that outfit and the only book Stephen Smith has written. It does appear regularly in the Amazon.co.uk bestsellers list in the category ‘Alcohol & Drug Abuse’, which is what first brought it to my attention.
With its single-word title in large shaky capitals on a lurid cover, including a pair of crazed eyes staring out at the reader, Addict does, at first glance, rather fulfil the expectations of the stereotypical tale of drug misadventure. Written in a basic, non-literary style, replete with copy editing errors and typographical oddities, it also has a very ‘homemade’ quality. Yet as a book it works. As E.M. Forster said in Aspects of the Novel, a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’
And many of the things that happen in Addict are just too weird and too farfetched not to be true: it’s full of stuff you just couldn’t make up. But again, conversely, it isn’t entirely believable either, having, in certain sections, something of the air of the drunkard’s tall tale told in the pub, piling on the exaggerations till breaking point is reached. When you consider that here you have a narrator who was so completely out of his tree for most of the story that he didn’t know what was happening even as it was happening, who was constantly in and out of mental hospitals, at one point undergoing electroshock therapy that wiped out his entire memory for several years, the term ‘unreliable’ takes on a whole new level of connotations!
But whatever criticisms one may make of the broad strokes of Addict’s storytelling and the embellishments that feel like fabrication, ultimately the portrait of addiction that it paints is authentic. And it perfectly conveys one essential quality of the addict/alcoholic: that of being a compulsive fantasist, unable to resist the appeal of fantasy over reality.
Simultaneously initiated at the age of fourteen into gay oral sex and dexedrine, Stephen proceeds to spend decades taking lethal quantities of the little yellow pills, together with drink and other drugs, whilst pursuing a life of petty crime and rent boy activities, as well as having several tumultuous relationships with women. He makes huge amounts of money and either squanders it or hides it and forgets where. He gets involved in London’s ’60s gangster underworld, which is fun at first but eventually lands him in serious trouble. Forever darting from one project to another, he leads a madcap fly-by-night existence, continually stuck in amphetamine overdrive.
There are many manic and psychotic episodes as loss of control, paranoia and mounting dysfunctionality take their toll. Familiar events from history, such as the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landings and various Beatles’ hits whiz by, signposting the passage of time, and we begin to wonder how Stephen can possibly still be alive and have a functioning heart, brain and liver in the face of such prolonged excess. There is much repetitiveness in the swinging from high to low, and as a true addict Stephen just cannot stay clean and get off the rollercoaster. Inevitably skid row beckons, and he descends further through the various strata of the underclasses, into his own Hieronymus Bosch-like hell.
Such an account of unbridled craziness, misery and hopelessness does make for a breathless compulsive read, and despite its lack of literary charm Addict is never boring. It has much to tell us, not only about the surface of drug addiction but also about the mechanics of the addictive personality, where anything and everything is grist for the mill—be it money, relationships, risk taking or plain lunacy for its own sake. In its own very idiosyncratic way Addict is a serious work.
(Note: This review is based on the 1996 Citadel Press Edition, translation and introduction by Stacy Diamond. All photographs are in the public domain.)
The 1821 publication of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a watershed event, injecting into the Romantic era a commentary on what opium addiction actually involved, its effects on the mind, body and spirit, and effectively establishing the genre of drug literature as we know it today. The phenomenon of narcotic fancy was an integral part of the Romantic mindset, best exemplified by Colleridge’s opium-inspired epic poem ‘Kubla Khan’, and poets of the next generation over in France, notably Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, caught the vibes. In the 1840s, these two were members of the ‘Club des Hashischins’, a loose group of artists and writers who gathered in the Hotel Pimodan in Paris in order to partake of cannabis orally in what we would now describe as ‘heroic doses’. Of western countries at that time, France was the best acquainted with cannabis, due to its invasion of Egypt in the Napoleonic era and the subsequent interest in and importation of the drug by its soldiery. These poets would now put cannabis on the drug-lit map, alongside opium and its derivative laudanum.
In his 1843 account ‘Le Hachich’, Gautier beautifully captures the sensations: ‘My body seemed to dissolve until it became completely transparent… My eyelashes lengthened immeasurably and wrapped, like gold threads, around a small ivory spindle which then began to spin with astonishing speed. Shimmering cascades of multi-coloured gemstones, arabesques and flowers presented themselves in endless succession, in effects which I can only compare to those of a kaleidoscope…’
Baudelaire penned his first piece on the lyrical nature of intoxication in 1851: ‘Du Vin et du hachish’. It uses a poet’s eloquence and ironic perspective to explore man’s love affair with firstly wine then hashish, tracing the contours of the highs and lows with a subtle judgemental air hovering in the background. ‘How radiant are those wine-induced visions, brilliantly illuminated by the inner sun! How true and burning this second youth which man draws from wine. But how dangerous, too, are its fierce pleasures and debilitating enchantments. And so I ask the judges, legislators, and worldly men, all of you on whom good fortune smiles, to tell us truly: Would you, in your soul and conscience, have the pitiless courage to condemn a man who drinks of genius?’ Read more…