William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch

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Naked Lunch Summary

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Based on his own experiences as a drug addict, William S. Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch (1959) employs a nonlinear, nearly-plotless narration and an increasingly fevered and dream-like setting to depict the reality of being a junkie.

William Lee flees the police in New York City. He discards his drug works and runs to the subway, evading the officers. On the train, he notices a young boy who seems to be desperately trying to look cool and worldly, and William reflects on the status of his circle of junkies and drug dealers, all of whom are in trouble in some way due to their addiction. He goes to an Automat restaurant where junkies hang out. He considers the people there in worse shape than himself but realizes he will someday soon be as bad as them. Knowing the police have his drug works and his name from his dealer, William decides it is best to leave town.

William tells the story of a friend known as The Vigilante, who pleading insanity when he is arrested for drug possession, is committed to an asylum. In the hospital, he only becomes worse, his mental and physical states declining as he gains a lot of weight. William describes the physical toll of drug addiction.

William and some fellow junkies, including his friend, Jane, embark on a cross-country trip to Texas in search of drugs. His friend Rube attracts the attention of the police, and they are briefly arrested. Angry, William poisons Rube in prison, killing him. They travel on to New Orleans and buy heroin, then go on to Texas as William describes the stultifying boredom of suburban American life and the agony of an addict in withdrawal.

In Mexico, the group meets a drug source called Old Ike; Jane falls under the spell of a man who doesn’t use heroin but only smokes marijuana. She becomes an acolyte to his spiritual teachings, which William holds in contempt. William heads to Freeland, a featureless state resembling Limbo.

In a sequence whose reality is suspect, William meets Dr. Benway, an employee of an outfit called Islam, Inc., an expert in brainwashing who gives William a tour of his Reconditioning Center, where he witnesses brutal experiments being performed on people. William sees people suffering from Irreversible Neurological Damage, called INDs, zombie-like humans whose minds have been destroyed. Benway tortures William in various ways, including sexual assault. The computer system goes haywire, and all of the patients in the center are released, causing chaos.

William hears about a drug called Black Meat that might be available. Joselito, whom William met at the Center, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, and his treatment is discussed. He is sent to a sanitarium with the help of his friend Carl, who then gets high, hallucinating scenes of Joselito in the sanitarium. William travels to Interzone, a city that exists in a surreal mixture of cultures and eras, in search of Black Meat. Hassan, an old acquaintance of William’s, throws a hedonistic orgy. AJ, another acquaintance, crashes the orgy and disrupts it violently, decapitating several guests, enraging Hassan who orders him to leave and never return. It is revealed that Interzone is the scene of violent political disagreement, with different factions known as Senders, Factualists, Liquefactionists, and Divisionists battling each other.

William witnesses a father taking his son to a prostitute to lose his virginity; the son returns with a hunk of bloody flesh in a literal interpretation of his father’s orders. William finds a house to live in in Interzone, but he receives an eviction notice. He goes to the empty and useless court to fight the order, claiming he cannot leave the house because he is diseased and must be quarantined. He endures an examination by the court, but he cannot get the attention of the clerk who is engrossed in telling racist jokes.

After an exploration of these factions and various characters that align with one or the other in Interzone, William seems to drift back into reality. Two police officers attempt to arrest him, and he kills both. William, deciding it is time to leave, goes to a homosexual bathhouse to buy drugs and hide. When William calls the police to check on the officers, he is told neither one exists.

William’s narration descends into a plotless melange of sequences of increasing depravity and violence as William and his friend Bill travel south to South America, where he apparently dies, although the embassy won’t give any information about his burial. The narrator begins telling his own story of the time he spent in Tangiers, where he met all the characters in the novel. He tells the reader that Naked Lunch is a guide to drug addiction.