Book Nook: Interzone by William S. Burroughs

Image Credit: Josephin Bauer

Jonathan Daleo explores one of the most controversial writers of the twentieth century, his early pieces of work, and recommends the best place to enjoy reading it.

If contradiction was personified, it would manifest itself as the Beat Generation writer, William Seward Burroughs II. In addition to being a Harvard graduate, queer author, and heir to a wealthy sum of money, Burroughs also possesed a darker side as a mystic, being fascinated with the occult, a heroin addict, and an unapologetic wife beater. The Beat Generation germinated from the stomping grounds of Columbia University in New York City, though its permeation took place in a smoky hotel room in Mexico City. Burroughs had shot his wife in the head, but this event would inspire Burroughs’ writing and change the fabric of science fiction forever. We enter one of the basest and most primordial writings of the twentieth century, Interzone.

“William S. Burroughs, despite being one of the most controversial men to have ever walked the planet, is one of the most influential figures on modern pop culture.

Interzone is a three-part collection of stories which contain much of Burroughs’ early works prior to his involvement with the Beats. The stories contain short writings and poems, including Burroughs’ first experiment into literature, a story entitled ‘Twilight’s Last Gleamings’. ‘Lee’s Journals’, on the other hand, discusses something much more important to William: his drug addiction. His exile to the Tangiers’ International Zone for the pursuit of easy access to narcotics left William in a position to write the surrealist automatism cut ups and automatic writings that he bestowed upon paper. ‘Word’, the last section of Interzone, is brilliantly avant-garde on an immeasurable scale.

Interzone is not something that can be recommended enough, either as a series of short stories or as a larger look into a man as psychologically damaged as Burroughs himself. In one of the shorter stories, ‘The Finger’, Burroughs uses his mother’s maiden name, Lee, depicting him going to a hotel room to amputate his small finger to impress a girl. This incident occurred in real life. However, Burroughs was attempting to impress a man. ‘The Junky’s Christmas’ is a personal favorite of most, which is why it is suggested that the reader experiences it on their own, without spoilers. A dark, yet wholesome tearjerker, a trademark of William S. Burroughs.

Orgone energy, a sexual energy or life force distributed throughout the universe which can be collected and stored for subsequent therapeutic use, is mentioned in The Interzone, as well as other works by Burroughs’. These occult elements of his work became prominent especially after the accidental killing of Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’ wife, though Burroughs’ is thought to have had more sinister ideas – that of a demon which possessed him and influenced him into killing his own wife.  

I highly recommend reading ‘Spare Ass Annie’, in the second part of the book. Take note that Burroughs’ writing style is based on a rhythm. You will never really appreciate Interzone or any of Burroughs’ work until you hear his voice and how he reads out his own words. Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales is an album created by Burroughs and hip-hop group, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which is a spoken-word compilation of Interzone’s content. I would highly recommend that you read with the pace of Burroughs’ voice rather than your own, particularly to understand his unsavory characters and their drawling voices.

I cannot recommend Interzone enough, either as a series of short stories or as a look into a man as psychologically damaged as Burroughs.

William S. Burroughs, despite being one of the most controversial men to have ever walked the planet, is one of the most influential figures on modern pop culture. His infamy inspired artists such as David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Ian Curtis. “We will not listen to you,” Burroughs once said, cold as ice. “We’ve had enough of your common bullshit.”

And where to read it…

To immerse yourself into Burroughs’ signature style of writing, I highly recommend reading the novel curled up in a coffee shop with a cup of coffee or tea. As his writing style is so unique, and the stories ranging from gruesome to heartbreaking, you will find yourself sucked into the novel, making it difficult to break away for a sip of water or a bite to eat. So, where else to enjoy the stories than sit, perhaps in the café in the popular bookstore, Books Upstairs on D’Olier street, a helpful waiter or barista there on call to bring you the steaming hot cup of tea of your dreams. It is a short and sweet book, one which you can finish in a single afternoon, making it a good choice to read while waiting on the bus or at a table before your food arrives. Interzone demands your full attention, rather than exist as background noise in the recesses of the mind.