Conned into a state of despair

ANNE COLLINS March 23 1981

Conned into a state of despair

ANNE COLLINS March 23 1981

Conned into a state of despair



by William S. Burroughs (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $19.25)

Abandon hope all who enter here. Proceed at a slow insect crawl, all feelers out and waving. Cast aside conventional wisdom—what the author should do, what the reader should do, who owes what to whom. For William S. Burroughs, as he has told us

repeatedly and demonstrated to the point of nausea in his novels: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

For a time you will forget this warning. The beginning of Cities of the Red Night lulls you into a comfortable, addicted sense of security. Why, this is a thriller about an ancient plague that is wiping out mankind, a mutating sex virus that is the heritage of six mysterious cities in the Gobi desert destroyed in a hundreds-of-thousands-of-yearsold nuclear disaster. True, there is something kind of weird about it (the virus, which has truly awful sexual symptoms, is called “the human virus everyone is drug-addicted and/or homosexual), but there are easily identifiable good guys and bad guys. Burroughs, at 67, must have mellowed; age has melted some of the dry ice in his eyes. This is still the Naked Lunch vision (“that frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”) but he seems to be offering us, at last, a way to digest.

His lure is the notion of utopia—William Burroughs, the most wicked satirist of the 20th century, playing at saving graces. His starting point is the “retroactive Utopia” of a real 18th-century pirate, Captain Mission, who founded a colony called Libertatia on the coast of Madagascar where men at odds with the world could come to live under a set of articles that guaranteed them freedom from debt and slavery, freedom of religion and from the “tyranny of government.” Captain Mission, of course, was killed, his articles being too unrealistic for ruling powers, but


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Burroughs resurrects him in the body of a pirate named Captain Strobe and his army of homosexual boy recruits, all slim-hipped and endlessly virile.

The exploits of Strobe and crew are told in the before-the-mast-style diary of one of the boy warriors, Noah Blake, a gunsmith who invents a firecrackercannonball that gives the guerrillas the edge over the Spaniards in freeing South America from colonial rule. Intercut with the boys’ war is a parallel narrative set in the ’70s, a detective story starring Clem Snide, the “private asshole” (who popped up in earlier novels). He has been hired to find two missing boys and discovers instead the virus and a cast of bad actors—evildoers, lusters, murderers and hangmen. With science-fiction sleight of hand, the villains pop from century to century and both Snide and the boy army are out to get them. This is a righteous war, like one conducted against cockroaches, and all the structural signs of the detective novel and the boys’ adventure story allow the reader to think that justice will be done. Quite deliberately, Burroughs sets us up as happy warriors in a just war—the better to manipulate us into a maximum state of despair. For in the last third, the book itself gets infected with the virus as the narrative explodes into pieces and all the characters meet

in the time-warped Cities of the Red Night. In the stranglings, stabbings, hangings, copulations and riots of the cities, there are no good guys or bad guys, only people afflicted with varying degrees of the power disease. Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

Burroughs leaves us where he always has—helplessly disgusted with self, with society, with the urge to consume, the need to dominate or be enslaved. We may be able to fend him off with the tattered remnants of humanism, a belief in love, in community. Burroughs can’t find refuge. The image that haunts him is the orgasm of the hanged man, the last spasm of the body as the neck is broken. Public execution in honor of the final sexual frenzy of the dying is the major spectator sport in the cities; silk nooses as neckties are all the rage. For Burroughs, procreation and the trappings of love are turned into the drugs of the terminally death-addicted. He wants out of his body because it contaminates, subjects us to the power struggle of sex, to fear and the need for rescue through drugs, gods, tyrants. For Burroughs there can be no hope, no community of man, no happy ending, unless there is biological mutation. Better mutation than the hard discipline of unselfish love. Love is the drug Burroughs doesn’t know how to score.