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NONFICTION : THE ADDING MACHINE: COLLECTED ESSAYS by William Burroughs (Holt: $16.95).

July 06, 1986|Alan Cheuse

Burroughs is one of the anomalies of 20th-Century American letters, and so it should come as no surprise that this collection of his occasional writings of the last few decades should stand as an anomalous gathering as well. Here we have some (all too brief) elegaic recollections of his St. Louis boyhood, a group of essays on politics and drugs, on psychology, on the future, and on writers and writing. Some of this will be of use to anyone with an interest in any of these subjects, but, as a collection, all of it will amuse and entertain, if not enlighten, those who have been Burroughs fans ever since the first electric encounter. I had it--and you--you should have had it then, and if you didn't, ought to try it now--with his singularly explosive and innovative novel, "Naked Lunch."

The most fascinating part of the collection to me is the group of pieces on how to teach "creative writing" to college students. While I had withstood the shock of hearing that Burroughs had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I hadn't been aware that he had become so stuffy--or embalmed--as to have to resort to leaving behind New York and Paris and Tangier and Mexico and wild boys and heroin and age to become as genteel as the rest of us have sometimes have tried to pretend to be and stand up before a class of would-be Burroughses in Lawrence, Kan., and talk about how to make fiction. Trying to teach someone to write, he says, is like trying to teach someone to dream. Thank God he says that it can't be done--but you can, he argues rightly, teach a few things about reading if not about writing.

His wild views fortunately persist in his treatment of the U.S. government and drug laws, his wild imagination shows through in the few fictional pieces contained here, such as the mad but fascinating little story titled "Immortality." Immortality? Burroughs lives at least for now.

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