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Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch
First Edition 1959 Olympia, misprinted title
Author William S. Burroughs
Country France
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Olympia Press (Europe)
Grove Press (US)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 978-3-548-02843-9 (reprint)
OCLC 69257438

Naked Lunch (sometimes The Naked Lunch) is a novel by American writer William S. Burroughs, originally published in 1959. The book is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes. Burroughs stated that the chapters are intended to be read in any order.[1] The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the US to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The vignettes (which Burroughs called "routines") are drawn from Burroughs' own experience in these places, and his addiction to drugs (heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, majoun (a strong marijuana confection) as well as a German opioid, brand name Eukodol, of which he wrote frequently).[2]

The novel was included in Time magazine's "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".[3] In 1991, David Cronenberg released a film of the same name based upon the novel and other Burroughs writings.[4]


  • Title origin 1
  • Editions 2
  • Plot summary 3
  • Literary significance and reception 4
  • Film adaptation 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8

Title origin

The book was originally published with the title The Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959 by Corgi Books editions, and the novel is often known by the alternative name, especially in the UK where these editions circulated.

Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."[8] In a June 1960 letter to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac said that he was pleased that Burroughs had credited him with the title. He states that Ginsberg misread "Naked Lust" from the manuscript, and only he noticed. Kerouac did not specify which manuscript and critics could only speculate until, in 2003, Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris established that, in his Lower East Side apartment in fall 1953, Ginsberg had been reading aloud to Kerouac from the manuscript of Queer, which Burroughs had just brought with him from Mexico City.[9] For the next five years, Burroughs used the title to refer to a three-part work made up of 'Junk,' 'Queer' and 'Yage,' corresponding to his first three manuscripts, before it came to describe the book later published as Naked Lunch, which was based largely on his 1957 'Interzone' manuscript.

In 1971, the rock group Steely Dan took its name from the name of a sex device that appears in this book.


Upon publication, Grove Press added to the book supplementary material regarding the censorship battle as well as an article written by Burroughs on the topic of drug addiction. In 2002, a "restored text" edition of Naked Lunch was published with some new and previously suppressed material added.

Plot summary

Naked Lunch is a non-linear narrative without a clear plot, but that is Burroughs' intention as a cut-up writer. The following is a summary of some of the events in the book that could be considered the most relevant.

The book begins with the adventures of William Lee (also known as "Lee the Agent"), who is Burroughs' alter ego in the novel. His journey starts in the US where he is fleeing the police, in search of his next fix. There are short chapters here describing the different characters he travels with and meets along the way.

Eventually he gets to Mexico where he is assigned to Dr. Benway; for what, he is not told. Benway appears and he tells about his previous doings in Annexia as a "Total Demoralizator". The story then moves to a state called Freeland — a form of limbo — where we learn of Islam Inc. Here, some new characters are introduced, such as Clem, Carl, and Joselito.

A short section then jumps in space and time to a marketplace. The Black Meat is sold here and compared to "junk", i.e. heroin. The action then moves back to the hospital where Benway is fully revealed as a cruel, manipulative sadist.

Time and space again shifts the narrative to a location known as Interzone. Hassan, one of the notable characters of the book and "a notorious liquefactionist", is throwing a violent orgy. AJ crashes the party and wreaks havoc, decapitating people and imitating a pirate. Hassan is enraged and tells AJ never to return, calling him a "factualist bitch" - a term which is enlarged much later when the apparently "clashing" political factions within Interzone are described. These include the Liquefactionists, the Senders, the Factualists, and the Divisionists (who occupy "a midway position"). A short descriptive section tells us of Interzone University, where a professor and his students are ridiculed; the book moves on to an orgy that AJ himself throws.

The book then shifts back to the market place and a description of the totalitarian government of Annexia. Characters including the County Clerk, Benway, Dr Berger, Clem and Jody are sketched through heavy dialogue and their own sub-stories.

After the description of the four parties of Interzone, we are then told more stories about AJ. After briefly describing Interzone, the novel breaks down into sub-stories and heavily cut-up influenced passages.

In a sudden return to what seems to be Lee's reality, two police officers, Hauser and O'Brien, catch up with Lee, who kills both of them. Lee then goes out to a street phone booth and calls the Narcotics Squad, saying he wants to speak to O'Brien. A Lieutenant Gonzales on the other end of the line claims there's no one in their records called O'Brien. When Lee asks for Hauser instead, the reply is identical; Lee hangs up, and goes on the run once again. The book then becomes increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, and finally simply stops.

Literary significance and reception

Naked Lunch is considered Burroughs' seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. Extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of obscene language (something Burroughs recognized and intended), the book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in the United States,[10][11] and several European publishers were harassed.[12] It was one of the more recent American books over which an obscenity trial was held. The book was banned in Boston in 1962 due to obscenity (notably child murder and acts of pedophilia), but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.[13] The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes, as it was found to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.[14]

Sections of the manuscript were published in the Spring 1958 edition of Robert Creeley's Black Mountain Review[15] and in the Spring 1958 edition of the University of Chicago student-run publication The Chicago Review. The student edition was not well received, and caused the university administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the publication, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors.[16] When the editor Paul Carroll published BIG TABLE Magazine (Issue No. 1, Spring 1959)[17] alongside former Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including "Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch", a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed "undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit" and initially judged it as non-mailable under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1461.[18]

On a more specific level, Naked Lunch also protests the death penalty. In Burroughs's "Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness", "The Blue Movies" (appearing in the vignette "A.J.'s Annual Party"), is deemed "a tract against capital punishment."

Film adaptation

Since the 1960s, numerous filmmakers considered adapting Naked Lunch for the screen. Antony Balch, who worked with Burroughs on a number of short film projects in 1960s, considered making a musical with Mick Jagger in the lead role, but the project fell through when relationships soured between Balch and Jagger.[19][20] Burroughs himself adapted his book for the never-made film; after Jagger dropped out, Dennis Hopper was considered for the lead role, and at one point game-show producer Chuck Barris was considered a possible financier of the project.[21]

In 1991, Canadian director David Cronenberg took up the challenge. Rather than attempting a straight adaptation, Cronenberg took a few elements from the book and combined them with elements of Burroughs' life, creating a hybrid film about the writing of the book rather than the book itself. Peter Weller starred as William Lee, the pseudonym Burroughs used when he wrote Junkie.


  1. ^ Burroughs On Cutup
  2. ^ - 20:00 (1970-01-01). "Four - Best Of". BBC. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  3. ^ Time Top 100 Novels
  4. ^ Naked Lunch (1991)
  5. ^  
  6. ^ Burroughs 2001, Editors Notes, p. 242
  7. ^ Burroughs 2001, Editors Notes, p. 240
  8. ^ Burroughs 2001, p. 199
  9. ^ Oliver Harris, William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (2003), 39.
  10. ^ Timothy S. Murphy, Wising up the marks. University of California Press, 1997. p. 67 ISBN 0-520-20951-6
  11. ^ Burroughs 1992, p. ix
    "The only other censorship action against the book outside the State of Massachusetts occurred in Los Angeles, where the novel was cleared of obscenity charges at a trial in 1965."
  12. ^ John Sutherland,Offensive literature: decensorship in Britain, 1960-1982. Rowman & Littlefield, 1983, p. 57f. Girodias got an 80-year publishing ban, a 4-6 year sentence and a 29,000-pound fine.
  13. ^ Alfred de Grazia. "ED DE GRAZIA: ALLEN GINSBERG, NORMAN MAILER, BARNEY ROSSET: Their Struggles Against Censorship Recalled". Retrieved 2011-06-27. 
  14. ^ Maynard, Joe; Miles, Barry (June 1965). "The Boston Trial of Naked Lunch".  
  15. ^ Burroughs 2001, p. 239
  16. ^ Chicago Journal: 60-year Review
  17. ^ "The Beat Generation in Print: The Literary Magazines"
  18. ^ The Big Table court decision
  19. ^ "May 18 & 19: NAKED LUNCH". 2007-04-16. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  20. ^ Weinreich, Regina (1992-01-17). "Getting 'Naked' On Screen". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  21. ^ Bill Morgan (ed.), Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1959-1974 (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), pp.360-386.


  • Burroughs, William S. (1992). Naked Lunch.  
  • Burroughs, William S. (2001). Grauerholtz, James;  
  • Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays, edited by Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen (Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009).

External links

  • Naked Lunch title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
  • Naked LunchThe Boston Trial of
  • @50Naked Lunch
  • : the First Fifty YearsNaked Lunch An online exhibition at Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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