Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs

Half way through The Wild Boys I was already formulating this review and, in particular, its conclusion. The prose is very fine, I was going to intone, but there is a detachment about the style that makes it difficult to engage. The novel, I was going to suggest, left you strangely untouched.

Well, this is an object lesson in the dangers of writing a review before you’ve actually finished reading what it is you’re reviewing....

The novel, published in 1971 (1972 in the UK), is set in the near-future (although since that “near-future” is 1988, through the miraculous passage of time it is now more accurately the near-past), depicting a world something like the future Earth of The Time Machine, with society massively polarised into haves and have-nots. Community as we might know it is reduced to small enclaves where order is total and the culture is stulfifying. Outside this are the Wild Boys, guerillas, free spirits, fighters for some higher truth. It is a highly stylised polarisation, and through it Burroughs makes his characteristic points about human freedom and the triumph (or subjection) of individuality. The Wild Boys’ existence is punctuated by sex and violence, both on epic scales. Moreover, they seem able to transcend the mortal realm and travel to and from what lies beyond our earthly existence: thus they experience the ultimate freedom, the sort that mortal humanity can only dream of. There are no women here either: this is a male-only paradise (or hell), with the obvious problem of the procreation of the species overcome by a mystical ritual through which new wild boys are regenerated from the onanistic rituals of the old.

For three quarters of the novel, my original premise that it tends to distance the reader probably stands. It’s intriguing reading but it feels like a series of observations of (broadly similar) events and engagements. At times, it is one gay sexual encounter after another and in the end the effect probably is to leave the reader feeling remote from both the action and the sentiment behind it. Certainly, for all the sexual encounters, it’s one of the least erotic novels I’ve ever read. That isn’t because the sex is gay: although I am heterosexual, I’ve read and appreciated the erotic charge in works by writers such as Edmund White and Christopher Isherwood, to say nothing of the extraordinary scenes in Moby-Dick featuring Ishmael and Queeqeg. How Melville got such blatant homoeroticism published in that day and age still amazes (and delights) me. Rather, The Wild Boys’ sex at times feels mechanistic, devoid of emotion. But that is deceptive. Emotion may lie dormant in remote and unpromising territory, and so we find here.

Somewhere along the line the novel begins to fold in on itself and become a cohesive whole. Initially, the narrative strands seem so remote and unconnected it is difficult to read the book as in any sense a traditional novel. The violence of the Wild Boys, too, is distancing. But, contradictorily, there is also tremendous tenderness on display at times, beneath all the hard descriptions of the sexual act. Boys lose their virginity and those stories are told and re-told and re-told from different perspectives, in different styles, generating different moods and eliciting different responses. Some of them are beautifully erotic. Some of them are coldly calculating. And yet these different representations may be descriptions of the same act, giving a sense of the disconnection that fuels this novel and that grows increasingly powerful as it develops until, in the last third, when it becomes outright science-fiction and the full, gory violence of The Wild Boys is evident, it becomes almost frighteningly overwhelming. Alongside this growing sense of menace and danger and human anger - a sense of true spiritual, emotional and political anarchy - the strands of the novel gradually coalesce until a work which initially seems so diverse it is almost a succession of short stories comes finally to be seen as a cohesive whole. Given Burroughs’s style, his penchant for cut-ups and disjointedness, that is a remarkable achievement. Alfred Kazin, in his contemporaneous review, notes:

And yet he was so inventive, brilliant, funny in his many wild improvisations (he writes scenes as other people write adjectives, so that he is always inserting one scene into another, turning one scene into another), that one recognized a writer interested in nothing but his own mind.
Kazin is certainly correct about the manic, improvisatory style, but I balk at the suggestion that the corollary of this is that the author was “interested in nothing but his own mind”. That seems to me to overstate things. Kazin also writes:
But his books are not really books, they are compositions that astonish, then pall. They are subjective experiences brought into the world for the hell of it and by the excitement of whatever happens to be present in Burroughs's consciousness when he writes.
This, too, is a little unfair. They are subjective experiences, certainly, but somehow they manage to transcend the subjective to represent a universal. It is the precise opposite of the shallow, meaningless drek disguised (poorly) as social comment that one finds in Hunter S. Thompson, for example. Burroughs connects. Thompson repels. His style is poetic, at times incantatory. The repetitions – often of entire scenes – become hypnotic. The violence is extraordinary, the sex excessive in every regard, the whole novel becomes an appeal to the senses – sight, sound, smell, hearing, touch, all of them drawn into engagement over and over to pull the reader out of the comfort of his or her own armchair and own existence into a world that is unedifying but frighteningly prescient. It is a battle of the senses, in exactly the same way that the guerilla warfare of the Wild Boys is a battle between order and freedom. In order to choose, one must first experience.

Reading William S. Burroughs, one is forced to experience.


Jim H. said...

Met Burroughs once. As a sophomore at University (see what I did there? with the whole British 'University' thing whereas the American locution is usually 'college'), he and Ginsberg spearheaded an arts festival, along with Kenneth Anger, John Cage, and other avant garde types. This was 75 or 76. Robert Creeley might've been there too (or later, I can't remember. It was the 70s, after all!) B & G came to speak in my creative writing class. G kept trying to pick up the boys. B was distant, sardonic, bizarre.

Never read this book, though. Thanks for the review.

Jim H. said...

I was the sophomore, not Burroughs.

Grammar fart. Sorry.

Tom Conoboy said...

I like the "University" thing, but "sophomore"? We don't use that either. That's either a first year or second year student isn't it?

Would have been fascinating to have met Burroughs. He strikes me as an extraordinary guy. He just went his own way, in literary terms.

I do like a bit of grammar pedantry, too...