Through the Obscure Looking Glass #1: David Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’

“A paranoid-schizophrenic is a guy who just found out what’s going on.”
 — William S. Burroughs

The best thing about David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s hallucinatory satire Naked Lunch is that it isn’t an adaptation at all. If you’ve read that novel, you could almost refute Stanley Kubrick’s claim that all visualizable pieces of work can be filmed. It’s a book that’s nearly inaccessible for everyone, and as a naive college student several years back I found it to be the first novel that would take me over 3 months to read because of its dense language. The book also filled me with a greater sense of wonder then, of course, though I do still see it as one of the most important pieces of literature of the 20th century.

For those unfamiliar with the source material or who need a refresher regarding its confusing nature, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was written in what would be his signature style, that of the cut-up fold-in technique, developed by Burroughs and artist friend Bryon Gysin. Burroughs would write two pages of coherent English, and then cut each page in half vertically, and rearrange the pages to form new sentences that would start one way and end another. Sometimes he would rearrange random words to make this even more incomprehensible. Burroughs believed that by doing this he could reach the core truth of his writing, bringing the elements of his subconscious — which is arguably the best writer in each of us — to the forefront of his work in newly constructed sentences that would illuminate concepts previously ignored. This makes the novel’s text feel like an almost impenetrable labyrinth, and add to that the fact that the novel is essentially a series of vignettes intended to be read in any order. There isn’t truly a cohesive story to be assembled, but rather a collection of images of homosexual boys being hanged by grotesque semen-spewing creatures called Mugwumps and the occasional semblance of Tangier and the surreal fictional North African plane of Interzone. Having not read the book since my late teens, it feels like a dream I can hardly remember, receded back into my subconscious just as Burroughs had managed to drag it out from his.

The key importance of this novel is its role in ending the ridiculousness of obscenity trials that plagued art in the U.S. throughout the first half of the 1900s. It was one of the last major novels to go to trial in the early ’60s soon after its publishing, and ultimately helped give art free reign in this country, while others such as Germany and Australia still keep novels like American Psycho wrapped in literal plastic on the shelves. Because of this accomplishment, you can easily perceive Burroughs as the true hero of the Beat Generation, freeing art from the grips of censorship to allow for unlimited expression. He was also the most enigmatic of the Beats, infinitely more cryptic in both his speech and writing than Ginsberg, Kerouac, or Cassady. And it’s Burroughs’s strange life that would shape Cronenberg’s “adaptation” of Naked Lunch, serving as more of a biopic full of schizophrenic visions than anything else.

The film follows Burroughs’s alter ego William Lee, who is the main commonality between the book and the film. He serves to attract both condemnation for Burroughs’s actions (such as the controversial accidental killing of his wife Joan) and sympathy as a junkie losing his sanity in the throes of heroin addiction. This is why the film works more than any true attempted adaptation could have hoped.

As much as I often dislike the term “Kafkaesque” because of its overuse as a label for anything even vaguely in common with Franz Kafka’s work, it’s a term that best describes this film. In fact, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch feels as much like an homage to Kafka as it does a biography about Burroughs, with anthropomorphic typewriter beetles and centipedes abound in almost every other scene. As William Lee’s wife Joan (Judy Davis) indulges in his bug powder that he uses as an exterminator, she even refers to the high it gives as “literary,” clarifying to Lee that it’s “a Kafka high; it makes you feel like a bug,” which of course inspires him to try some. Joan also eventually finds that her breath alone can kill cockroaches scaling the walls because of the stuff.

This legitimately Kafkaesque film begins by following William Lee (portrayed by a mostly stoic and seldom-bewildered Peter Weller, who fits the part perfectly) in New York in 1953 as he completes a mundane extermination job and experiences frustration because of his taunting boss and colleagues. He also converses briefly with fellow writers Martin and Hank, who are thinly veiled stand-ins for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, respectively, as they discuss whether guilt or obsessive rewrites make for great writing. Lee interjects with, “Exterminate all rational thought.” The two buddies also taunt Lee for his unwillingness to share his writing with anyone.

Bill Lee’s first handler.

The surreal nature of the film begins when Lee is brought in by police for questioning about the intoxicating nature of his bug powder, who then introduce him to a beetle that speaks through what looks like a human asshole on its back. It wades around in a pile of yellow bug powder the detectives leave on the desk in the interrogation room, and proclaims itself to be Lee’s new case officer. This is the first instance of control and manipulation over Lee, which is what Burroughs’s writing was always about. The bug plainly tells Lee that his wife is an undercover agent of the malicious Interzone, and that she needs to be killed, to which Lee hilariously responds with a mild visible interest and vague acceptance. After the bug requests that Lee sensually rub some bug powder on its “lips,” Lee complies and eventually smashes it with his shoe before breaking out of the police station.

From the start, Lee remains grounded enough to realize this was all likely a hallucination, the onset of paranoid delusions, and that he may be schizophrenic. However, the nightmare establishes itself as inescapable when an alien-like creature at a bar with milky eyes, slimy skin, and tubes on its head that secrete white goo announces himself as Lee’s second handler, all the while drinking an orange substance from a glass through its straw-like tongue. This is the film’s interpretation of a Mugwump, and another disgusting representative for the elements of control that dictate Lee’s life. A foreign man named Kiki is also introduced in this scene, as a sort of innocent window into Lee’s repressed homosexuality — a childish pretty-boy who distracts Lee from the female desires in his life. Kiki provides hope of a personal freedom from the grips of the manipulative insects appearing in Lee’s life, but Lee’s actions are not always his to choose, as we find out when he kills his wife.

People familiar with Burroughs’s life know that during a party in 1951 he decided to show off his shooting skills in a game of William Tell with his wife, prominent beat poet Joan Vollmer. The game involves placing a glass on one participant’s head while another attempts to shoot it off, but Burroughs — intoxicated on booze, Benzedrine, or whatever amphetamines were present — missed. Joan died instantly from the single gunshot wound to her forehead, and Burroughs was quickly put on trial and acquitted in Mexico, benefitting from the favorable testimonies of his friends who were present at the time of the shooting. It was dismissed as a tragic accident, but many have still debated about whether or not Burroughs intentionally killed her to get out from under the entrapments of a heterosexual marriage. Burroughs insisted to his grave that her death brought on a great depression, and came to the regrettable conclusion that the event inadvertently made him a writer.

Joan’s death is addressed in the film, in a recreation of the circumstances that supposedly took place in real life. Martin drunkenly reads poetry in a doorway, and Lee drunkenly asks Joan if it’s a good time to demonstrate their William Tell routine. Joan places the glass on her head, and Lee fires only to discover to his horror that he killed her, unintentionally fulfilling the demands of his insect handlers. However, that horror doesn’t last as her death liberates him and allows him to travel to Interzone. Joan’s death quickly becomes a footnote in Lee’s adventure. This lack of emotional impact is conceivably an attack on Burroughs.

Lee is transparently similar to protagonist Max Renn in Cronenberg’s earlier body-horror film Videodrome in both personality and circumstances. It’s easy to see how Burroughs influenced Cronenberg’s early work through Naked Lunch because of both Lee and Max’s vulnerability to manipulation, oftentimes through explicitly sexual hallucinations that pique their curiosity more than they elicit fear, seducing them into slavery. Lured by the promise of endless sexual bliss, both protagonists lose themselves as tools for others to bend and break. In Videodrome the medium of programming is via television; in Naked Lunch it’s writing. Even Burroughs’s theme of the harm of sexual repression is traceable back to one of Cronenberg’s first films, 1975’s Shivers, in which an infestation of parasitic aphrodisiac slugs in an all-inclusive apartment building turn all of its tenants into nondiscriminatory sex-crazed deviates.

The Clark-Nova typewriter dictating to Lee what to write

The principal form of control in Naked Lunch is signified by the brands of typewriters that Lee uses. The manipulators force Lee to use an insectoid Clark-Nova typewriter (presumably referencing Burroughs’s Nova trilogy) to write exactly what the agency wants him to write, including the notion that homosexuality is a great cover for Interzonal agents, and ultimately implying that it’s a sickness in society. On the other hand, a fellow writer that he meets in Interzone, Tom Frost (played by Ian Holm), provides Lee with a Martinelli typewriter which will act as the pathway for rebellion against the control of the Clark-Nova. We almost never see him use the Martinelli before it’s destroyed by the Clark-Nova in a vicious bio-mechanical insect slaughter that Lee can’t do anything to prevent.

Lee isn’t particularly upset about the destruction of Frost’s prized possession, laughably telling Frost’s wife Joan (also Judy Davis as his late wife’s doppelgänger) that he “probably threw it on the ground and destroyed it,” not denying his current unstable state of mind. Joan suggests he use Frost’s Arabic typewriter that’s rarely touched. The two begin to sensually type together on the thing as Lee’s hallucinations start up again, turning the typewriter into a moaning amalgam of female sex organs, opening up to reveal wet vagina-like components that immediately churn memories of similar imagery in Videodrome and Existenz.

Once the typewriter has turned completely into a Giger-esque living sculpture of sex, the tough maid walks in the room and scolds Joan for her promiscuity before literally whipping the typewriter until it jumps out the window and falls to the street, where Frost sees it in normal pieces and becomes immediately despondent. It’s a scene representative of the return of Lee’s female desire and subsequent extinguishment of his sexuality.

Frustrated and enraged, Frost threatens Lee and visits his apartment to find out what happened to his Martinelli. Upon finding that typewriter in pieces on the floor, he holds Lee at gunpoint as he and his assistant steal the Clark-Nova, stuffing it in a bag as it squirms and protests. And with that, Lee’s writing has left him entirely for the moment. Sexless and artless, he’s fallen into total desperation with his only remaining vice being his drugs. It’s at this point that Hank and Martin find him sleeping outside with a bag of used-up drug paraphernalia, and return him to his hotel room wherein they look at pages of Lee’s writing, discovering that despite Lee not having recalled writing them, they are entirely publishable as great works of art. These pages are to be Naked Lunch.

Centipedes, who were the bugs acting as ruthless judges in the novel Naked Lunch, also make an appearance late in the film. The Martinelli, back in Lee’s possession and repaired as a Mugwump head, warns of a centipede named Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands), who appears first as a normal human before Lee catches him in his true form as he viciously rapes and murders Kiki in a scene that’s reminiscent of something from The Thing (I was actually kind of surprised that Rob Bottin wasn’t responsible for any effects in this film). Centipedes are symbols of ultimate hostility, which is reinforced when Dr. Benway (Roy Sheider) reveals himself to be the mastermind of a drug ring that sells a dangerous substance called black meat, which is supposedly made using centipedes. He’s also revealed to have turned Mugwumps into slaves whose sole purpose is emitting that semen-like slime to intoxicate people hopelessly addicted to it. Everywhere Lee looks, everything is being controlled by something or someone else, whether it’s by Benway, Interzone Incorporated, drug addiction, or the nameless agency using Lee as a spy. Everyone is just a tool.

Ultimately, Lee turns in his final report and flees to Annexia with Joan, and is asked by the guard at the gate to prove that he is a writer before being allowed entry. Lee amusingly shows him a pen as his only proof, but the guard says it’s not good enough. Lee then commits the act that Burroughs had claimed made him a writer, and plays yet another fatal game of William Tell with Joan, much to the guard’s satisfaction. Even when he thinks he’s finally found his window to freedom, he’s controlled once again by tragedy.

Much like how Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation turned from an adaptation of a book about an orchid thief into a metafictional masterpiece about the frustrations of making such an adaptation, Naked Lunch is about the torment that Burroughs’s life put him through to culminate in Naked Lunch. It’s also as much about the inspiration of tragedy and the very tragedy of its necessity for art as it is a satire about control. Whether or not Burroughs viewed the film himself is something I can’t find out, but I can imagine he put together a relatively complete picture based on how often he appeared on set, mentoring Weller for his performance. It’s not a flattering picture of Burroughs’s life, but it’s probably more of an honest one than any direct biopic might paint. I consider it to be one of Cronenberg’s best, if not most misunderstood.

Now for one of my favorite pictures from the set, Cronenberg in his Mugwump chamber: