William S Burroughs takes experimental literary techniques and controversial subject matter to their ultimate extremes. Cutting and pasting pieces of other works, his earlier books and previous paragraphs within the novel, Burroughs creates a patchwork of non-linear, non-narrative sexual obsession and mindless babble.
An entity known as Mr. Bradley cavorts about vaguely in a skin-tight spacesuit having sex, getting raped and experiencing drug-trips. The pattern repeats in rather abstract recombinations. Eventually we are introduced to the “main story” involving the Nova Police and their criminal rivals, the Nova Gang, who uses sex, drugs, media and more to control dupes and marks.
However, don’t be misled by the fact that a few narrative straws can be grasped at: there is no plot.
Due to a strange coincidence, I went from one descendant of John Dos Passos’s influence (“Stand on Zanzibar”) to another (“The Ticket that Exploded”). The results could not have varied any more. Brunner uses the cut-up technique in a figurative way to provide a prismatic array of information formats and alternative angles that challenge the notion of objective knowledge even as it seems to inundate us with more information than we can digest.
Burroughs has a much more avant-garde take on the cut-up technique, literally wielding scissor upon the works of other authors, his earlier career and his own book and then pasting the pieces back together in semi-random order. He also develops a "fold-in" technique whereby he merges two halves of seperate texts and transcribes the resulting nonsense sentences. The finished gibberish is a total disaster, failing (as I think it intends) to tell a story and only marginally limping along with a stagnant atmosphere (where it presumably hoped to succeed).
Burroughs’s finds his artistic possibilities trapped inside the narrow focus of his own sexual obsessions and limited vocabulary. His dense non-sentences only rarely rise to inspiration (as in the diary style chapter) above the surging tides of interchangeable imagery. After twenty pages of mindless saturation, all emotion, insight and even shock value are dissolved by the endless repetition (exacerbated by the cut-and-paste technique’s further duplication) of drug-colored homosexual encounters and discussions of amorphous mutable body halves. The same visual cues (white smoke, phalluses, green skin), olfactory descriptions and textures are cycled for dozens of iterations. Burroughs’s bare themes repeat like a broken record.
The disturbing Freudian transparency only makes me appreciate Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream” yet more.
There is hardly anything here to recommend except that the length is mercifully short. Worse than simply a bad book alone, it makes me realize that Burroughs’s imagination is painfully limited, casting new doubts on my previous experience with the author’s work (“Naked Lunch”). My skepticism in his talent increases as my fascination with his legend plunges.
In Burroughs defense, I read his original 1962 version, never released in the states. The revised 1967 Grove Press edition is generally considered superior. I don't have the will power to confirm.