Page 1


JUNK MAIL

WILL SELF


For my father, Peter Self, who kept on at me.


Introduction and Acknowledgements

I

n 1991 i was living outside Oxford and broke. I was paranoid as well, convinced that tax inspectors were surveying the isolated house we lived in from a hide, cleverly constructed to look like an enormous poll-tax demand. In order to persuade officials in the council offices to leave us alone, I went into town shoeless, dressed in a donkey jacket fastened with tow rope, and bought them off with three crushed fivers and a show of imbecility (perhaps not altogether a show). Together with an acquaintance, Phil Robson, an able and humane psychiatrist (not quite an oxymoron) who was then running the Chilton Clinic drug dependency unit in Headington, I conceived of writing a book on drugs that would bring in some cash. Needless to say, nothing came of this meretricious undertaking. Phil and I couldn't really agree on anything much beyond what we didn't believe in; and as for a methodology, it chopped, changed and eventually disintegrated altogether. Drug use and procrastination often go hand in tourniquet, so there seemed a certain justice in this. But further, I had been troubled by the idea of writing a book-length work exclusively on drugs for a number of reasons. First ix


and foremost there was my very English dread of, as De Quincey put it, `twitching away the decent drapery' and revealing personal scars and chancres to the eyes of the world. I knew damn well that a large part of what sold the treatment of the book to its potential publisher was the expectation that I would publicly grass on myself. This in turn led to two further problems: the ever present possibility of harassment by the police; and an allied difficulty, the fact that unlike so many people who write on the subject I was not about to beat my tits and proclaim: `I used to be a teenage werewolf, but I'm all right naooooo!' Or, as Lou Reed so succinctly puts it: `Does anybody need another rock-and-roll singer, whose nose he says has led him straight to God?' And by the same token, does anybody need another piece of drug pornography, aimed at giving straights a hit on the blunt ± yet tapering ± pipe of chemical ecstasy? And to admit to, or attempt to put forward, even remotely serious views on the politics of the subject would be asking for more opprobrium. There's something about sumptuary militancy that doesn't quite come off: `March Now For More CreÃme BruleÂe!' is not a slogan calculated to win many conscientious supporters. But the fact is that the Gordian knot of hypocrisy is now tied far too tight round `drugs' for anyone to be able to cut it, unpick it, or do anything much but gnaw frustratedly at its hempen strands. At different places in the pieces assembled here on the subject, I quote Thomas Szasz, the veteran anti-psychiatrist: `The so-called debate on drugs has become boring.' Quite so. But anyway, when I came to assemble the material for x


this volume I saw that a large part of it was concerned with the culture of drugs, and that scattered throughout the various pieces were all the arguments and points of information that I would have wished to bring together in a book. However, the bulk of the book is not about drugs, but rather represents the fruits of being prepared to do more or less what any editor asks me to do, having calculated the ratio of glibness to money that the commission represents. For the sad fact is that all too often the pieces I have written that have required all the labour of lifting an arse cheek and pooting it out have garnered more attention Âą and more importantly more money Âą than those I worked on for long periods and took seriously. The culmination of this tendency is the state-of-English-culture piece reproduced here, which I agonised over for a full month, and which then was published to resounding silence on all fronts. It is characteristic of collections such as this for the author to preface them with some remarks on how things have changed since they were first written. However, in this case the pieces were written over only three or four years and not much seems to have invalidated them in terms of the march of time. Excepting, I suppose, that a chronic optimist would now view all that I had to say on the conflict in Northern Ireland a year ago as an irrelevance, given the advance of the peace process. I am not a chronic optimist. What the tight, temporal grouping does evince, though, is the preoccupation I have had with various writers and thinkers over this period. Most notably William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Adam Phillips and Thomas Szasz. I make no apology for this, and hope that the reader experiences the xi


cross-referencing of ideas that these preoccupations have engendered as a more or less acceptable curdling of the whole dish. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who have published my stuff over the years. My career as a cartoonist was aided and abetted by among others: Anna Coote, Julian Rothenstein, John Fordham, Marcel Berlins, Vicky Hutchings and Cat Ledger. As a journalist I have tended to write for as many different publications as there are pieces in this volume, but there are some people I have maintained a continuing commissioning relationship with, and who have provoked some of the better writing I have done. In particular: Michael Watts, Andy Anthony, Tom Shone, Nick Lezard, Redmond O'Hanlon and Deborah Orr. Thanks are also due to Shane Weller, Mary Tomlinson and all at Bloomsbury who helped with the preparation of the manuscript. But I think the last word on both drugs and journalism must go to an anonymous man in Boston who I had dinner with in May of this year, who looked at me long and dolefully over the rim of his Martini, before pronouncing: `I've given up smoking marijuana Âą it makes me think too much about journalism.' W.W.S. Suffolk 1995

xii


PART ONE ON DRUGS


Junk Mail

L

ast year having been a slap-up one for Burroughsians, it was almost too much to hope that the publication of the Letters 1945Âą1959 would put any more flesh on the junk-atrophied bones of the notorious `Hombre Invisible'. Besides, in the wake of media brouhaha surrounding David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch and Ted Morgan's exhaustive biography Literary Outlaw, how much more weight could the Burroughs myth really bear? Fortunately, the answer is: a lot. The letters collected here by Oliver Harris have been reedited from an expurgated edition long out of print. They are written principally to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs's tireless friend, amanuensis, literary agent and all-round bum-chum, with short culs-de-sac heading off towards Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the other corners of the Beat hotting circuit. Harris has assembled these, together with a somewhat gee-whiz introduction and comprehensive notes, to form what may conceivably be Burroughs's best work of all. Burroughs was aware at the time of the centrality of his correspondence to his literary endeavour: `Maybe,' he remarks to Allen Ginsberg at the core of this volume, `the real novel is in letters to you.' It is. The letters display all the sassiness, the marriage of 3


Mandarin and slang, the shoot-from-the-hip aphorizing of Burroughs's best prose, but decoupled from the rather portentous literary experimentation and attitudinizing that has marked his oeuvre since fame hit with the publication of Naked Lunch, shortly after the chronological end of this volume. These letters are remarkable not least because, as their writer slowly acquires a sense of the possibility of having an input into mainstream culture, so the very cultural avantgarde of which he himself is the last great avatar fades into senselessness and irrelevance. An omnivorous reader and perpetual student, Burroughs studded his correspondence with references both to the wilder shores of esoteric knowledge (his obsessions with Reich, Spengler and Korzybski), and, more surprisingly, to the orthodox canon of English literature: to Spenser and Dryden, Shakespeare and Pope. Burroughs quotes Pope Âą `Willing to wound yet afraid to strike . . .' Âą in describing Bill Garver, the decrepit overcoat thief and addict-model for Bill Gains in Junky. And in this, his narced-out polymathy and propensity to envision grandiose universal schemas (the back-end of this volume is much preoccupied with the cancer/addiction/psychosis biopathy), Burroughs is more of an heir to De Quincey than a godfather to Frank Zappa. The actual topography of the Letters includes all the muddled territories of Burroughs's best works. The journey begins within the sepia hinterland of New York, New Orleans and Mexico City that forms the backdrop for Junky. We then head south into Latin America, with our guide `taking pictures, trying to get the bare dry 4


mountains, the wind in the white dusty poplar trees, the sad little parks with statues of Generals and cupids'. It is this landscape, full of the `stasis horrors', that gave Burroughs the material for Queer, his nostalgic roman-aÁ-clef. But it was also in South America that he took yageÂ, or ayahuasca, and in a hallucinogenic trance `called in' the mondial bazaar that would be the `all cities, of all times and in all places' of Naked Lunch. No wonder that, when Burroughs actually reached Tangier at the beginning of 1954, he was miserably disappointed: `What's all this old Moslem culture shit?' he writes to Ginsberg with sublime incorrectness. `One thing I have learned. I know what Arabs do all day and night. They sit around smoking cut weed and playing some silly card game.' But German efficiency in synthesizing opiates kept him there ± he was soon heavily hooked on Eukodol, a particularly nasty hypnotic/analgesic morphine substitute ± and Tangier gradually swam into view, its lineaments congruent with those of the other `Cities of the Red Night'. Part of the Burroughs mythology that he himself wilfully cultivated was the idea that Naked Lunch was written on junk. In the introduction to the Olympia Press edition (for a long time standard, and one which we now learn Allen Ginsberg objected to at the time), Burroughs wrote that he could `barely remember' taking the notes that grew into the corpus of the book. In the Letters this confabulation is rectified. While the letters written during his pernicious Eukodol phase are relatively spare and constrained, after his revolutionary apomorphine treatment in London with Dr Arthur Dent (the founding editor of the British Journal of 5


Addiction), they become lapidary, freighted with the almost hysterical material that made up the very best of his `routines'. When he was finally clean from junk, Burroughs was, in Hemingway's coinage, `juiced'; and like Georges Simenon, another great high-speed typist, Burroughs felt the work `coming almost like dictation'. For the Burroughsian these later letters from the Tangier period are the most satisfying. They contain almost verbatim several of the most important routines in Naked Lunch, including the `Talking Asshole', `Dr Benway's Interzone Clinic' and the genesis of `A.J.', as well as providing far more effectively than Ted Morgan's biography the primary atmosphere out of which Burroughs distilled his great sense of millenarian miasma. However, for committed non-Burroughsians these Letters are an even better investment. Whether it was drugs, homosexuality, gratuitous yuckiness, stylistic sloppiness or wilful obscurantism that in the past drove you away from the corpus of Burroughs's work, I can confidently predict that the spare wit of the letters alone may well draw you in at last. Who else but Burroughs could write of London, a city he cordially detested: `[It] drags me like a sea anchor. I want to see bright blue sky with vultures in it. A vulture in London would be an Addams cartoon . . .' Quite so. Independent on Sunday, August 1993

6


The Literary Monkey

W

illiam burroughs's Junky is an oddity of a book. Ostensibly an account of heroin addiction in 1940s America, related in a deadpan style that owes much to the hard-boiled prose of Dashiell Hammett, it contains within its slender Trojan-horse narrative a veritable army of literary innovations. Cast in the form of a confession, Junky is as far from being a moral condemnation of heroin addiction as it is possible to imagine. Rather, it is an amoral discourse that inverts the practice of confessing, to reveal the impossibility of redemption in the modern world. In order to counter possible objections Âą legalistic and otherwise Âą to publishing such a bald account of willed depravity, A. A. Wyn of Ace Books, Burroughs's original publisher, insisted that he append a prologue to the book which gave some explanation of how someone such as he, a Harvard graduate from a social-register family, came to be a junkie. But despite the flimsy tales of adolescent delinquency and homosexuality, William Burroughs's prologue is remarkable for introducing a picture of sensual memory, linked to narcotics, that in every way echoes Thomas De Quincey's concept of the `involute'. Burroughs writes, in his authorial guise as William Lee: `My earliest memories are colored by a fear of nightmares. I was afraid to be alone, 7


and afraid of the dark, and afraid to go to sleep because of dreams where a supernatural horror seemed always on the point of taking shape.' He hears a maid talking about how `smoking opium brings sweet dreams' and resolves to smoke it himself when he grows up. When Burroughs begins his account of his actual heroin use, in the gloom and depression of wartime New York, this involute is recast. After his first shot of morphine, he experiences `a strong feeling of fear. I had the feeling that some horrible image was just beyond the field of vision, moving, as I turned my head, so that I never quite saw it.' The fear that adumbrates Lee's experience of junk is never directly named; instead, it is indicated by the way the narrative voice itself swims into the reader's consciousness, as if out of some indefinable darkness, an inchoate place where stories are begun but never completed. For Junky is a book not simply about heroin addiction, but really about the existential predicament of modern man in its broadest sense. It is no accident that one of the most commonly employed words in the text is `subject', which Burroughs uses to distinguish his shadowy narrator from the `object' or `other'. The bulk of the book is concerned with flat pronouncements about the nature of the heroin addict's life, his stratagems for obtaining money and drugs, his confreĂ res and his sexual mores. In this area, Burroughs is masterful, never speaking with less than full authority. His opening apophthegm on the essential character of heroin addiction can serve as a model of all those that follow: `Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.' 8


But these plangent sections of philosophy are interspersed with a gallimaufry of grotesque characters and gobbets of demotic speech which bring the drug world to life beautifully. A hoodlum tells a story of how he beat a man to death, which ends with the memorable line: `My girl was waiting out in the car. She called me ± ha-ha-ha! ± she called me ± ha-ha-ha! ± a cold-blooded killer.' When Burroughs's narrator is trying to `push tea' (deal marijuana), and the woman in whose apartment he keeps the stash has had enough, she expels him in this fashion: ` ``Take this and get out,'' she said. ``You're both mother fuckers.'' She was half asleep. Her voice was matter-of-fact as if referring to actual incest.' In other parts of the book, characters are summoned up by slender shards of sharp observation. Of one junkie: `The cheek-bones were high and he looked Oriental. His ears stuck out at right angles from his asymmetrical skull.' Of another: `He looked like one of those terracotta heads that you plant grass in. A peasant face, with peasant intuition, stupidity, shrewdness and malice.' And describing a psychiatrist who attempts to treat him, the narrator says: `He had long legs and a heavy body shaped like a pear with the narrow end up. He smiled when he talked and his voice was whiny. He was not effeminate. He simply had none of whatever it is that makes a man a man.' The story, such as it is, describes a line of great resistance, maintained by William Lee against a hostile world full of stool-pigeon junkies and short-count pushers; with `the people', the Federal narcotics agents everywhere, waiting to pounce. From New York, he sets off on an odyssey that takes him via a sojourn at the Lexington `drug farm', to 9


New Orleans and, eventually, to Mexico City. Here the book ends, with Lee concluding that, just as he cannot divine what made him take up heroin in the first place, he has no idea why he has decided to give it up. This is, of course, the logical conclusion. For in describing addiction as a way of life, Burroughs creates a synecdoche through which he can explore the being of man under late capitalism. His descriptions of the `junk territories' of the cities his narrator inhabits are, in fact, depictions of urban alienation itself. And just as in these areas junk is `a ghost in daylight on a crowded street', so his junkie characters, who are invariably described as `invisible', `dematerialized' and `boneless', are, like the pseudonymous William Lee himself, the sentient residue left behind when the soul has been cooked up and injected into space. Sunday Times, May 1993

10


‘Prodigiously original and very funny’ Observer

COCK AND BULL

JUNK MAIL

GREY AREA

GREAT APES

MY IDEA OF FUN

THE QUANTITY THEORY OF INSANITY

THE SWEET SMELL OF PSYCHOSIS

THE BUTT

For the first time from Bloomsbury Paperbacks


A NOTE ON THE AUTHOR WILL SELF is the author of many novels and books of non-fiction, including How the Dead Live, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2002, The Butt, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2008, and, with Ralph Steadman, Psychogeography and Psycho Too. He lives in South London.


BY THE SAME AUTHOR FICTION The Quantity Theory of Insanity My Idea of Fun Grey Area The Sweet Smell of Psychosis Great Apes Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys How the Dead Live Dorian Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe The Book of Dave The Butt Liver Walking to Hollywood NON-FICTION Sore Sites Perfidious Man Feeding Frenzy Psychogeography (with Ralph Steadman) Psycho Too (with Ralph Steadman)


This collection first published 1995 This paperback edition published 2011 Copyright # 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 by Will Self The moral right of the author has been asserted Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 50 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 1 4088 2743 7 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh Printed in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc www.will-self.com www.bloomsbury.com/willself


JUNK MAIL by Will Self  

Read the first chapter of JUNK MAIL by Will Self

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you