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This article is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

The Land Where Anything Goes Oliver Harris
 
Which, I wonder, would be worse: having to defend William Burroughs, or not needing to? For, having been contemptuously marginalised by academia for so long, America's bête noire, now in his seventies, is in some danger of emasculation en route to literary status and acceptance. Burroughs is offensive. He both assaults and outrages. In between the extremes of dismissal and reverence with which he has been greeted, the verdict may eventually resemble Thackeray's perverse opinion of Swift; that, great though the Dean was, for his blasphemous morality, 'I say we should shoot him'. In the meantime, as his Western fantasy, The Place of Dead Roads (1984, John Calder, £5.95) reveals, it is Burroughs who is doing all the shooting. His crusade, in part, is against the uptight atavisms of censorship and decorum, a campaign waged from his earliest fiction, which includes the long-unpublished Queer (1985, Picador, £8.95). These two books, in virtually spanning the entire oeuvre, afford the opportunity for a restrospective assessment.

As Burroughs has often remarked, all his books are one book. They are incomplete episodes and fragmentary mutations of a single artifice of eternity, the author himself. The problem here is one of context. Lacking one, Burroughs has invented his own. Therefore, to judge his works in isolation risks missing the point of his enterprise. Whereas Joyce compacted everything into Finnegans Wake, Burroughs has dispersed his fictions into a structure that accrues and enlarges piecemeal. His career describes a parabolic trajectory that reached its ...


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