Self on Burroughs

Penguin has reprinted the UK edition of William Burroughs’ Junky with an excellent introduction by Will Self


Burroughs wrote ‘Junky’ on the very cusp of a transformation in Western culture. His junkies were creatures of the Depression, many of whose addiction predated even the Harrison Act of 1922, which outlawed the legal sale of heroin and cocaine in the USA. In ‘Junky’ the protagonist speaks scathingly of the new generation: ‘The young hipsters seem lacking in energy and spontaneous enjoyment of life. The mention of pot or junk will galvanize them like a shot of coke. They jump around and say, ‘Too much! Man, let’s pick up! Let’s get loaded.’ But after a shot, they slump into a chair like a resigned baby waiting for life to bring the bottle again.’

Is it too much to hypothesise that as it was to the demimonde, so has it been for the wider world? That as addicts have increased in number and become more tightly integrated into society, so has the addictive character of the collective consciousness become more horribly evident. The mass obsessions with polymorphous sexuality, and the awesome death of affect implied by the worship of celebrity; are matched by a compulsive consumerism, characterised by the built in obsolescence not only of products, but also the ‘lifestyles’ and the ‘mind sets’ within which they are placed. And, of course, there is the ‘War on Drugs’ itself, which has lopped off arm after arm after arm, only for six more, then twelve more, then thirty-six more to grow from their stumps, all of them being shot up into.

Tangentially: Self’s website is featuring a sample from his latest collection of fiction, Doctor Mukti and other Tales Of Woe. The book is yet-to-be-released in the USA, so for those of us on this side of the pond, “Return to the Planet of the Humans” will have to suffice for now.


The humans told him that his weakness was good. They told him that the low cries he increasingly uttered were a sign he was recovering. They encouraged him to take the pills they gave him rather than waiting for the needle, and respectful – as all apes must be – of the hierarchy in which he found himself, he obeyed. As a reward they allowed him out of the cell and on to a ward of others who they assured him were like himself.


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