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Naked Lunch

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Naked Lunch
Cover of the 1959 Olympia first edition, with misprinted title
AuthorWilliam S. Burroughs
PublisherOlympia Press (Europe)
Grove Press (US)
Publication date
Publication placeFrance
Media typePrint (Hardcover & Paperback)
ISBN978-3-548-02843-9 (reprint)

Naked Lunch (sometimes The Naked Lunch) is a 1959 novel by American writer William S. Burroughs. The book is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, intended by Burroughs to be read in any order. The novel follows the junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the U.S. to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone.

The novel was highly controversial, and its supposed obscenity led to a series of high-profile legal challenges. The novel remains divisive, but both admirers and critics recognize it as one of the defining works of the Beat generation.

Title origin[edit]

Burroughs wrote in his introduction that "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

Burroughs originally used the title Interzone for his manuscript.[1] He also considered several titles involving the Sargasso Sea, including Meet Me in Sargasso and The Sargasso Trail, possibly inspired by William Hope Hodgson's Sargasso Sea Stories.[2] Near the end of the novel, when Lee escapes from Hauser and O'Brien, he describes himself as "occluded from space-time like an eel's ass occludes when he stops eating on the way to the Sargasso".[3][4]

The final title began as a mistake. Reading aloud from the manuscript for Queer, Allen Ginsberg misread the phrase "a leer of nakedlust wrenched" as "a leer of naked lunch", and Jack Kerouac suggested Burroughs embrace this mangled wording as a title. The title originally referred to a planned 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.[5] Ginsberg would later interpret and expand on the title in his poem On Burroughs' Work, published in the collection Reality Sandwiches:[6]

A Naked Lunch is natural to us,
    we eat reality sandwiches.
But allegories are so much lettuce.
    Don't hide the madness.

— Allen Ginsberg, On Burroughs' Work

However scholarly research has also suggested Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) of 1863 as Burroughs' inspiration for the title.[citation needed] The book was originally published with the title The Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959 by Olympia Press. Because of US obscenity laws,[7] a complete American edition (by Grove Press) did not follow until 1962. It was titled Naked Lunch and was substantially different from the Olympia Press edition because it was based on an earlier 1958 manuscript in Allen Ginsberg's possession.[8] The definite article "the" in the title was never intended by the author, but added by the editors of the Olympia Press 1959 edition.[9] Nonetheless The Naked Lunch remained the title used for the 1968 and 1974 Corgi Books editions, and the novel is often known by the alternative name, especially in the UK where these editions circulated.

Political context[edit]

Burroughs moved to the Tangier International Zone in 1954, shortly after the publication of his first novel Junkie. He was attracted by its reputation as a place with few restrictions on drug use or homosexuality, as portrayed in the works of Paul Bowles, and declared his intention to "steep myself in vice".[10] Bowles himself briefly appears in Naked Lunch under the name Andrew Keif.[11][12]

While living in the zone, Burroughs witnessed violent clashes between Moroccan nationalists and French authorities over its political status. Burroughs did not take a strong stance on the conflict, at one point calling himself "the most politically neutral man in Africa". He defended the riots as just and denounced the brutality of European imperialism, but worried about the impact of Islamic rule on individual freedom. As the conflict went on, he seemed to become less sympathetic to the nationalists. This political upheaval and Burroughs' ambivalence informs the depiction of Naked Lunch's Interzone, which is also marked by riots and imperial control. The narration exaggerates and caricatures both sides of the conflict, but avoids moral judgment and does not align itself politically.[13]

Publication history and legal challenges[edit]

Naked Lunch faced legal challenges over its "zealously obscene"[1] language and "scenes of rampant perversion, unspeakable sadism".[14] Michael Goodman notes that these legal challenges represented the end of an era of literary censorship in the United States.[15]

In 1957, Allen Ginsberg submitted the Naked Lunch manuscript to Olympia Press, which had a reputation for publishing controversial novels such as Tropic of Cancer and Lolita. Olympia rejected the manuscript, arguing that it was inaccessible and lacked structure.[15] Ginsberg then sent the manuscript to Irving Rosenthal, editor of the Chicago Review. Rosenthal published excerpts from the novel in the Review's Spring 1958 and Autumn 1958 issues.[16] Jack Mabley, a columnist for the Chicago Daily News, publicly criticized the Chicago Review for publishing "obscenity".[17] In response, the University of Chicago insisted that material from Burroughs and Jack Kerouac could not appear in the upcoming Winter issue.[18] Irving Rosenthal resigned from the Review and founded a new literary magazine with Pete Carroll called Big Table, which published the suppressed material in its first issue.[19]

Post Office hearing[edit]

Rosenthal and Carroll planned to mail the first issue of Big Table in March 1959. However, the US Post Office considered the magazine obscene, which made it un-mailable under the Comstock laws.[20] On June 4th, 1959, the Post Office launched a formal hearing over Big Table's obscenity, with a particular focus on Burroughs' Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch and a short story by Jack Keruoac titled "Old Angel Midnight".[21]

Joel Sprayregen, Big Table's attorney, advocated for the magazine's literary value and insisted it was not obscene under the criteria established in Roth v. United States.[22] Pete Carroll, the magazine's co-founder, testified that he considered Burroughs a satirist in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Nathanael West[23] and that his social criticism required vulgar language.[24] William Duvall, the hearing examiner,[25] admitted that Burroughs' work had some "intelligible satire", but felt its vulgarity outweighed any literary merit. He ruled that the magazine was in fact obscene and could not be mailed.[26]

In February 1960, Big Table filed a federal complaint, arguing that the Post Office's decision violated the First Amendment.[27] On June 30, 1960, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois overturned the Post Office's findings. The Post Office did not appeal this decision.[28]

European and American publication[edit]

Inspired by the attention around Big Table's excerpts, Olympia Press reconsidered its rejection and published the novel. Olympia first published the English-language Naked Lunch in France in July 1959.[29]

Grove Press bought the American publication rights, and initially planned to exclude the chapters describing Hassan's "Rumpus Room" and A.J.'s party.[30] Burroughs himself had called those sections "pornographic" and expected they would be cut from a US release, although he also felt they constituted a political argument against capital punishment.[31] Ultimately, Grove decided to publish the novel uncensored, encouraged by the praise the book had received from Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy. Naked Lunch was first published in the US on November 20, 1962, and sold over 14,000 copies in the first 4 months.[32] This edition included a new appendix by Burroughs titled "Testimony Concerning a Sickness".[33]

In 1962, the novel was translated into German, but the publishers intentionally left the most explicit sections in untranslated English.[34] In 1964, it was published in the United Kingdom by John Calder. Calder avoided selling the book to wholesalers and only distributed small print runs at a high price to avoid legal attention, and successfully avoided prosecution.[35]

Boston Trial[edit]

Naked Lunch was banned in Boston, and in January 1965 the novel was tried in rem. William Cowin represented the state of Massachusetts, while Edward de Grazia represented Grove Press.[36] Cowin argued the book's vulgarity overwhelmed any literary value it had, and that nearly every page contained something obscene. His prosecution emphasized the novel's lack of structure, arguing that the most explicit passages could be judged in isolation without considering the book as a whole.[37]

De Grazia called authors and professors to testify about the novel's social value and literary merit. Norman Mailer praised Burroughs' literary talent and defended the novel's structure by comparing it to Finnegans Wake.[38] John Ciardi compared the book to a hellfire sermon akin to the works of Dante Alighieri and Hieronymous Bosch and argued its vulgarity was a key part of its effect. He also argued that Burroughs' uncontrolled writing process did not undermine the novel's artistry.[39] Professor Norman Holland agreed with Ciardi's interpretation and suggested Augustine might have written a work like Naked Lunch if he were still alive.[40] Professor Thomas Jackson also compared the novel's explicit passages to Dante Alighieri's scenes of cannibalism and scatology,[41] and the novel's structure to Ezra Pound's Cantos and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.[42] Paul Hollander argued the novel showcased the depravity of addiction,[43] and John Sturrock suggested it helped readers understand drug-induced psychosis.[44] Allen Ginsberg discussed the book as a metaphor for addiction in general, analyzed connections between the novel's depictions of sexuality and drugs, and read his poem "Reality Sandwiches" from the stand.[45]

In his cross-examinations, William Cowin suggested the novel was anti-Catholic,[46][47] quizzed the witnesses on whether they could remember its characters,[48] and challenged them to interpret provocative passages like the talking anus scene.[49] He did not call any witnesses to testify against the book.[50]

On March 23, 1965, the court ruled that the novel was in fact obscene.[51] Grove appealed this decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. On July 7, 1966, based on new obscenity guidelines from the United States Supreme Court in Memoirs v. Massachusetts, the state supreme court overturned the ban, arguing that the testimony had demonstrated the novel's social and literary value.[52] In a dissent, Justice Paul Reardon insisted the book was "literary sewage".[53][54]

Grove Press leveraged the trial as a marketing strategy. Grove compared Naked Lunch to Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Tropic of Cancer, which had also been challenged for obscenity, and included transcripts of the court testimonies in a new edition of the book.[55]

Los Angeles Trial[edit]

On January 28, 1965, the city of Los Angeles tried two people for selling copies of Naked Lunch, arguing they had violated California's obscenity statute. Municipal Judge Alan Campbell described the novel as "repugnant" and argued that the chapter describing A.J's Party may have qualified as obscene, but found that the book as a whole did not appeal to a "prurient interest" and therefore did not violate the statute. Instead, the judge wrote that "its predominant interest is to complete boredom".[56]

Plot summary[edit]

In New York City, William Lee hides from a narcotics agent. He and fellow heroin user Bill Gains agree that law enforcement has become too aggressive and decide to leave New York. Lee travels to Mexico City, then to the surreal city of Interzone.

Lee finds that Interzone is centered around a black market of drugs and giant centipede meat, and its residents include monstrous creatures called Mugwumps. The city is contested by four rival political parties: Liquifactionists, who want to merge everyone into one protoplasmic entity; Senders, who want to control everyone else through telepathy; Divisionists, who subdivide into replicas of themselves; and Factualists, who oppose the other three.

A.J., a Factualist, and Hassan, a Liquefactionist, both support a mysterious organization called Islam Inc. This organization hires Lee to find and recruit the sociopathic Doctor Benway, who previously established a dystopian police state in Annexia. Lee meets Benway in Freeland, where he performs psychological experiments at a "Reconditioning Center". He agrees to work for Islam Inc. These events are interspersed with non-chronological vignettes about Lee's criminal history and drug use, A.J.'s and Hassan's sadomasochistic parties, Benway's unethical experiments, other characters' grotesque transformations, and abstract cut-up sequences with no clear narrative arc.

Back in New York, Lee shoots two police officers who try to arrest him, then calls the police department, which tells him those officers didn't exist. Lee considers himself "occluded from space-time" and believes he will no longer interact with the surreal world of Interzone.

The novel ends with an "Atrophied Preface" about the book itself, followed by a sequence of disjointed and impressionistic closing lines.

Style and themes[edit]

The majority of Naked Lunch does not follow any clear structure, chronology, or geography.[57] Instead, it abruptly jumps between a series of loosely-connected episodes (called "routines" by Burroughs), which can be read in any order.[58] Although the novel is book-ended with a realistic crime story, most of these routines are abstract and surreal, blurring any distinction between fantasy and reality.[59][1] These routines are sporadically interrupted by parenthetical asides, which comment on or clarify the text. For example, when describing a scene as taking place "...under silent wings of the Anopheles mosquito," Burroughs adds the parenthetical "(Note: This is not a figure. Anopheles mosquitoes are silent.)"[60][61] This structure builds on that of Burroughs' incomplete previous novel Queer, which began as a conventional narrative before fragmenting into its own series of episodic routines.[62]

The novel describes Interzone's four political parties: the Liquefactionists want to physically dissolve and absorb other people, the Senders want to control other people's minds via telepathy, and the Divisionists want to endlessly replicate themselves. These parties each represent threats to individualism, and are opposed by the fourth party, the Factualists, to which Lee belongs. The novel is especially critical of the Senders, describing them as "the Human Virus", interested in control solely for its own sake, and the root cause of "poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, [and] insanity".[63][64] According to Thomas Newhouse, the novel is postmodern and parodic, forging complex conspiracies by combining tropes from detective fiction, science fiction, and horror fiction. These conspiracies underlie the core struggle between authoritarian, bureaucratic control, epitomized by Dr. Benway, and individual freedom, represented by the Factualist Party. AJ and Lee, both Factualists, fight back against these systems of control with violence and absurd humor. However, Burroughs undermines these characters' heroism: AJ and Lee work for Islam Inc., which has unclear goals of its own, AJ may be a double agent, and Lee is himself controlled by addiction.[65]

Burroughs mostly arranged the novel's chapters following the "arbitrary" order in which he received the galley proofs, but he consciously moved the "Hauser and O'Brien" chapter to the end, creating a frame narrative in which William Lee evades "the heat" of the law.[5] Lee's escape from the agents at the end of the book is portrayed as "spiritual and linguistically radical" freedom.[3]

The novel's first chapter retells events previously described in Burroughs' semi-autobiographical first novel Junkie, but with a new character called "the fruit", who serves as a parody of the implied reader of Junkie; the fruit presents himself as hip and street-smart, but Lee mocks his naivety and plans to sell him catnip by claiming it's cannabis.[66] Other routines are also based on Burroughs' real life, such as Lee's visit to the County Clerk[67] and his addiction to Eukodol.[68]

These routines emphasize addiction, especially to heroin, which can be read as a metaphor for broader social problems and obsessions.[69][1][57] David Ayers interprets heroin as Burroughs' "paradigm" for understanding systems of control.[3] However, Frank McConnell argues that Naked Lunch is straightforwardly about heroin addiction in itself, and should not be read as symbolic.[59] Lydenberg argues that Burroughs' parenthetical asides challenge the reader's instinct to "evade" the darkness of the book by treating its disturbing elements as symbols or allegories, and instead show that Burroughs insists on a literal reading.[61]

The novel has been described as "an essentially nihilistic work"[70] and "consistently hostile, contemptuous, forcefully hateful [...] without joy."[71] Robin Lydenberg suggests that the novel advocates "a violent rejection and undermining of the entire dual system of morality."[72]

Burroughs' writing aims to provoke disgust.[73] The novel contains many explicit sexual scenes, emphasizing "sterile, inhuman, malevolent" acts of castration, sodomy, pederasty, and sadomasochism;[74][75] in particular, the novel features recurring imagery connecting hanging with orgasm.[76][77] Many "routines" involve body horror, especially grotesque transformations of humans into insects or amorphous blobs.[74] Many of the novel's grotesque images revolve around consumption: people are described as animals like vampire bats and boa constrictors, trade giant centipede meat, and depend on monsters called Mugwumps, who "secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism".[78][79] In one of the novel's most famous chapters, a man teaches his anus to talk, only for it to take over the rest of his body, including his brain. Tony Tanner sees this routine as a paradigm for Burroughs' general theme of humans decaying into lower forms of life.[80] Burroughs himself considered the scene a metaphor for ever-expanding bureaucracy.[12]

Naked Lunch has sometimes been classified as dystopian science fiction in the tradition of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.[81][82] Marshall McLuhan considered the novel an "anti-Utopia" response to Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations.[83]

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Along with Howl and On The Road, Naked Lunch is considered one of the defining works of the Beat generation.[84]

Mary McCarthy was an early proponent of the novel. She wrote that Burroughs was one of only two authors who had recently interested her (along with Nabokov), defended his crudeness by placing him in the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift, and praised his "broad and sly" humor by comparing it to vaudeville.[85] John Ciardi, defending the book against charges of obscenity, praised it as "a masterpiece of its own genre" and "a monumentally moral descent into the hell of a narcotic addiction."[86] Norman Mailer praised Burroughs' "exquisite poetic sense" and considered Naked Lunch a powerful religious work, describing it as "a vision of how mankind would act if man was totally divorced from eternity" and akin to the work of Hieronymus Bosch.[87] J. G. Ballard considered the novel (along with The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded) to be "the first authentic mythology of the age of Cape Canaveral, Hiroshima and Belsen" and favorably compared Burroughs' work to Finnegans Wake and The Metamorphosis.[88] Richard Kostelanetz, while admitting the novel was "wildly uneven" and "among the most horrifying and terrible books ever written", praised its intensity and imagination, calling it by far the greatest novel of the Beat movement and "perhaps among the greatest literary works of our time".[89]

In contrast, John Wain called it "a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust" and "the merest trash, not worth a second glance".[90] Lionel Abel compared the work to a film that spliced together pornography with footage of Nazi concentration camps, writing "Now it is foolish, I think, to justify Naked Lunch as literature. Its descriptions of hallucinatory states under drug addiction are neither beautiful nor exquisite nor brilliant nor informative. I even wonder whether they are true."[91] David Lodge admitted that Burroughs had "a certain literary talent", but felt that the novel's initial excitement quickly became boring, confused, and unsatisfying. He considered comparisons between Burroughs and Swift "either naive or disingenuous".[92] John Willett wrote an anonymous review in The Times Literary Supplement simply titled Ugh..., in which he called the book disgusting and monotonous and wrote "If the publishers had deliberately set out to discredit the cause of literary freedom and innovation they could hardly have done it more effectively."[93] This led to the longest set of responses the Literary Supplement had ever received.[94]

Charles Poole, reviewing the book for The New York Times, criticized its "glaringly gaudy" approach of "using shocking words by the shovelful and concentrating on perverted degeneracy to a flagrant degree."[95] A review in Commentary described Burroughs' novel as a more readable version of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, but felt that Burroughs' writing fell short of works by Henry Miller, George Orwell, and the Marquis de Sade, and that the novel ultimately resembled a child's tantrum.[96]

Fans of Beat Generation literature, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named their band Steely Dan after a "revolutionary" steam-powered dildo mentioned in the novel.[97][98][99] Lou Reed also identified the book as a major artistic influence.[100]

Naked Lunch is considered a key influence on the cyberpunk genre.[101] William Gibson has cited it as one of the novels that most influenced his own writing.[102]

The novel was included in Time 's "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".[103]



From the 1960s, numerous film-makers 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.[104][105] 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.[106]

In May 1991, rather than attempting a straight adaptation, Canadian director David 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.

Comic Books[edit]

Italian comics artist Gianluca Lerici, better known under his artistic pseudonym Professor Bad Trip, adapted the novel into a graphic novel titled Il Pasto Nudo (1992), published by Shake Edizioni.[107]


Unabridged readings of both the original text and the Restored Text edition have been made available through services such as Audible. Burroughs himself made many recordings over the years of excerpts from the book, many released on albums from Giorno Poetry Systems (GPS) and on Burroughs' later pseudo-musical albums Dead City Radio and Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales.

A recording of Frank Zappa reading the book's "Talking Asshole" body horror vignette was made during the Nova Convention of 1979 and later included on the GPS soundtrack album of the event.


  1. ^ a b c d Sterritt, David (2013). The Beats: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 60–61. ISBN 978-0-19-979677-9.
  2. ^ Murphy, Timothy S. (2009). "Random Insect Doom: The Pulp Science Fiction of Naked Lunch". In Harris, Oliver; MacFadyen, Ian (eds.). Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 223–232. ISBN 978-0-8093-2915-1.
  3. ^ a b c Ayers, David (1993). "The Long Last Goodbye: Control and Resistance in the Work of William Burroughs". Journal of American Studies. 27 (2): 223–236. doi:10.1017/S0021875800031546. ISSN 0021-8758. JSTOR 40467261. S2CID 145291870.
  4. ^ Burroughs 1992, p. 180.
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  6. ^ Ginsberg, Allen (1963). Reality Sandwiches. San Francisco: City Lights Books. p. 40. Retrieved 4 August 2023.
  7. ^ Campbell, James (2003). Exiled in Paris. University of California Press. p. 232. ISBN 0-520-23441-3.
  8. ^ Burroughs 2001, Editors Notes, p. 242
  9. ^ Burroughs 2001, Editors Notes, p. 240
  10. ^ Finlayson 2015, pp. 185–187.
  11. ^ Finlayson 2015, p. 212.
  12. ^ a b Goodman 1981, p. 113.
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  14. ^ Tanner 1966, p. 553.
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  76. ^ Tanner 1966, p. 550: "And the torments of deprivation are portrayed by the image of "the orgasm of a hanged man when the neck snaps" which becomes a veritable obsession in Naked Lunch."
  77. ^ Stimpson, Catharine R. (1982). "The Beat Generation And The Trials Of Homosexual Liberation". Salmagundi (58/59): 373–392. ISSN 0036-3529. JSTOR 40547579. Repetitive images of necrophiliacs getting it off as young men ejaculate on the gallows are meant to gag
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  • Burroughs, William S. (1992). Naked Lunch. Grove Atlantic. ISBN 0-8021-3295-2.
  • Burroughs, William S. (2001). Grauerholtz, James; Miles, Barry (eds.). Naked Lunch (the restored text ed.). Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-4018-1.
  • Harris, Oliver (2003). William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-2484-9.
  • Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays, edited by Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen (Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009).
  • Finlayson, Iain (2015). Tangier: City of the Dream. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks. ISBN 9781780769264. Retrieved 25 July 2023.
  • Goodman, Michael Barry (1981). Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Metuchen, N.J. London: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-1398-X.
  • Lydenberg, Robin (1987). Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs' Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-01413-8.
  • Tanner, Tony (1966). "The New Demonology". Partisan Review. Vol. 33, no. 4. pp. 547–72.

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