Today marks the 24th anniversary of the passing of William S Burroughs. The hugely influential Postmodernist and key figure in the Beat Generation is loved and revered to this day, as much for his raw & paranoid prose as for his gruff, antiauthoritarian personality. His crowning achievement in literature is surely his nightmarish sequence of vignettes, Naked Lunch. The novel, which famously had to fight several bannings and an obscenity trial, was a nonlinear torrent of vile images and scenes, many taken from Burroughs own personal experiences as a hard drugs user.
As well as his feverish depictions of drug manias and psychoses, Burroughs is well known for his use of the fabled cutup technique which involved cutting up newspapers, magazine articles etc. and rearranging them to form new, bizarre prose. Burroughs believed that he was tapping into something here & potentially seeing glimpses of the future. This method, & Burroughs more generally, were a huge influence on many cultural icons going forward, most notably David Bowie. Lyrics to several of Bowies tunes were written using the Burroughs-esque cutup technique. A particularly great example of this is his Time of the Assassins, a cutup of a full issue of Time Magazine, in response to their review of Naked Lunch.
I myself became enamoured with the cutup technique and created several pieces of poetry using the style.See the Slow News City Poetry Index for links (Cut up or shut up #1-8). You can find a useful online cutup generator here, if you fancy having a go yourself.
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After enjoying the 10 days/10 albums Facebook challenge, I was pleased to be nominated for the 10 days/10 books challenge. I really tried hard here, to think of the books which have had significant effects on my reading habits. I started with the first book I remember been introduced to by my first secondary school English teacher. In hindsight (which is 20/20), I should have perhaps included both The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend & Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl. I remember been particularly fond of these two book during my time at primary school.
Note: The cover images presented here are from the editions I personally read (or read first in cases where I’ve read them multiple times).
Further Note: I have not included any poetry in this list as I interpreted the challenge to mean 10 novels. I am now considering a 10 days/10 poems challenge too.
Day 1: Truckers by Terry Pratchett
I remember being given this to read in year seven by my English teacher, whose name I cannot remember. It was an excellent introduction to the worlds of Terry Pratchett (despite being in a different universe to his hugely popular Discworld series). I don’t remember the details of the book particularly well, which is not surprising as it was around 26-27 years ago that I read it, but I do remember taking the sequel, Diggers, out of the library and then the disappointment that they didn’t have the third and final instalment Wings. I remember ordering Wings and it taking several weeks to arrive. It was in these several weeks that I gave The Colour of Magic a try and my intense love for Pratchett’s works was cemented.
Day 2: Glue by Irvine Welsh
Glue is a book set in the same universe as Welsh’s Trainspotting, which was adapted into an incredibly successful film in the mid ‘90’s. Several Trainspotting characters make small cameos or are mentioned in conversation between other characters. The book follows a group of four lads over four decades and chronicles their friendship through the good times and the bad. The book, like other Irvine Welsh books I’ve read, is written in a combination of standard British English & Scots. This was my first introduction to Scots, and I was surprised to learn that it is recognised as an independent language, distinct from English. It feels familiar enough to read to English speakers because it originates from the same precursor languages and uses the same grammatical structures & systems. I even find myself, after reading a Welsh novel, thinking in Scots for a few weeks.
Day 3: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
When I was a teenager my mum was convinced that I’d like Stephen King and wanted me to try one of his books. She was aware of my love for Science Fiction and thought that this bizarre Sci-Fi/Horror mashup might be the perfect gateway for me into the hyperdetailed worlds that Stephen King creates. She wasn’t wrong. I was instantly won over by the creeping terror of the progressive mutations caused by exposure to the spaceship and the delightfully ramshackle creations that, main character Bobbi, makes out of junk and batteries. From dimensional teleport machines to “ray guns” made from children’s water pistols, I was blown away by King’s imagination. I have particularly vivid memories (and nightmares) about the sentry robot she creates from a Coca-Cola vending machine, particularly the scene where it kills a man by repeatedly throwing itself at him until he is dead. Covered in gore from the murder, the vending machine continues with its patrol. Horrifying.
Day 4: Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac
I’d already read On the Road, and it could very well have made this list, but I think Desolation Angels both stuck with me and influenced my own art more. I loved the bleak but inviting loneliness of the start of the book as Kerouac is writing about his time as a fire lookout on the peak of Mount Desolation. The isolation seemed to be tempered nicely by the immense natural beauty. I almost envied him, if I’m honest. After the lookout section, Kerouac details his various adventures catching up with his friends in the beat scene (albeit thinly veiled by pseudonyms and the occasional slip up which both Kerouac & the editors missed) like William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady & Gregory Corso.
Day 5: Roadside Picnic by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky
Roadside Picnic is a dark and gritty sci-fi novel which introduced some amazing new tropes & archetypes to science fiction. Most importantly, the profession of the Stalker. The stalker is a person who, legally or illegally (illegally in the case of Roadside Picnic’s main character, Red Schuhart), spends their time scavenging for exotic technology in ‘the Zone’. ‘The Zone’ is an area which was visited by an alien species and has now become infected by the visitation. Physics in ‘the Zone’ do not match the physics of the outside world and the aliens have left many artefacts behind which Stalkers can sell for a lot of money. Their profession is both illegal & profitable. The idea of a Stalker has been used in various other media such as the videogames of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series (which transposes the alien visitation to a post-incident Chernobyl) & the novel’s in the Metro series by Dmitry Glukhovsky (which are perhaps better known for the spinoff series of videogames). The 1979 film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is loosely based on the novel, with a screenplay written by the Strugatsky brothers.
Day 6: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
This drug-fuelled rampage across the Nevada desert and Las Vegas was an eye-opening book for me. I had already seen the Terry Gilliam movie starring Johnny Depp & Benicio del Toro when I read the book. I read the book in one night with no sleep. I can neither confirm nor deny that I was high on LSD at the time. I may or may not have taken it before going to stay over at my then-girlfriend’s house. As we were quite young and she lived with her parents, we slept in separate rooms and I may or may not have been incredibly ‘up’ from the LSD. Left alone in her room I found Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas on her bookshelf and my love for Thompson began. It was an intense night; I don’t mind admitting.
Day 7: Time by Stephen Baxter
Time is the first book in the Manifold Space trilogy. This cosmic tale is pretty high concept stuff. Genetically engineered, super intelligent squid to pilot spacecraft; network of portals which carry people between universes; universes evolved stars to turn into black holes, which is how universes reproduce; universes without blackholes are evolutionary dead ends; “Feynman radio”, which can pick up signals sent backwards through time from the far future; last vestiges of life in the universe clinging on amid the heat death by farming energy from black holes.
This book was a huge influence on the music and poetry I was creating at the time I made it and this poem is just one of many which this book inspired.
Day 8: Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
This terrifying look into the mind of a heroin addict is dark and uncomfortable to read. It is, however, also a pleasure to read. The stream of consciousness effect is used to brutal effect here and it explores the main theme through a broken, twisted, almost sci-fi narrative. Legend stated that as Burroughs was typing Naked Lunch in his apartment in Tangier, he just threw each finished page on the floor. Later when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg & Allan Ansen visited him, they helped him organise these typewritten pages in to the 200-page Interzone manuscript, which eventually became Naked Lunch.
This was part of the legendary Word Hoard which also went on to provide raw material for The Nova Trilogy.
Day 9: The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F Hamilton
The Reality Dysfunction is the 1200+ page first volume of an epic trilogy. This is where space opera and hard sci-fi collide, head on. This is a book about colonising new worlds, sentient & organic living star ships, salvage of extinct races, cyberization and a mish mash of all of the sci-fi tropes you know and love, particularly the “scruffy looking nerf herder” smuggler/salvage agent lead character. The central plot revolves around the mysterious origins of a long extinct (or at least vanished) alien civilisation and what it means for us, humanity. There is an event which all of alien races encountered in the novel have been through which humanity is only just beginning to experience. Any more information than that would constitute spoilers.
Day 10: Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
In a near future, where the world is run by a computer known as THE MECHANISM, violent crime is non-existent. Humanity, with Africa as the world’s leading superpower, has repaired the climate and begun to colonise much of the solar system. The central characters journey to Mars in this book was incredibly influential to me. I wrote & performed a conceptual piece of electronic music about it in 2013, at a community music event with the theme of “journeys”. I found the imagery of the several month trip in cryosleep and the Martian railroad particularly evocative, basing the two longest sections on those sequences in the book. It’s a rare example of a science fiction novel with no real violence and only mild scenes of personal conflict. A positive future, a near utopia (albeit with a dark undertone) which makes a refreshing change in a genre crowded with dystopias.