Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Dream Control : MY EDUCATION: A Book of Dreams, By William S. Burroughs (Viking: $21.95; 193 pp.)

June 18, 1995|Benjamin Weissman | Benjamin Weissman's most recent book is "Dear Dead Person: Short Fiction by Benjamin Weissman" (Serpent's Tail)

William Burroughs has the greatest speaking voice I've ever heard in my life. A gravely deadpan, direct from the chest cavity. Think of a goat with a large vocabulary. Burroughs was and is the wild alternative to his spiritual, stream-of-confessional beat brothers of the 1950s and '60s. With the publication of "Junky" and "Naked Lunch," he locked himself and his readers into a blasted, playful zone, a sort of Jonathan Swift-meets-Marquis de Sade "humanoidspeak." The voice of Burroughs' prose is a profound and prophetic dementia that continually blows people away, and like all great writing it disturbed a lot of people (got banned, of course; this is America), including his immediate fans who had a gut need for disturbance. A surreal maelstrom of sex, violence and drugs all swirled together in a levelheaded cowboy vernacular--an American viewpoint as fresh and unpredictable as a can of gray (his favorite color) paint poured over your head. His sense of humor was another strong feature that threw people off. Writers usually aren't funny about those dire sorts of things, and Burroughs' writing seemed a little like prose from the devil. He was very weird in the most exciting ways, articulated the queerest levels of behavior and narration, and became his own American avant garde, a position he held/holds all by his little lonesome.

At 81 years old he's very much alive but it seems more natural to talk about him in the past tense; maybe because that's where his great books and contributions reside. All the greats who were affected by Burroughs have also, politely, left him behind. What else can you do with a hero but say thanks, kick him in the pants and leave? Think about writers such as Denis Johnson, William Gibson, Jeanette Winterson and Stephen Wright (the list is long and there are more obvious, regularly cited, examples), or underground comics, or rock bands from the Sex Pistols to Sonic Youth. Most of these fiery things came out of the flaming pit of Burroughs. History seems to be muttering that his influence on fiction and pop culture is much more significant than the gargantuan monoliths of the same period (John Barth, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer), or the minimalists (Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley).

"My Education" is subtitled "A Book of Dreams," which it is, in part. It's also a notebook of story sketches and odd little prose chunks. Every Burroughs novel reeks of dreams; the imagery, the illogic, the unexplainable, the violent. "My Education" has moments of being a fragmented memoir with highly distorted sequences. He writes about Joan, his wife, whom he shot and killed accidentally in 1951 during a game of William Tell, trying to shoot an apple off her head--but he writes of her only as she appears in dreams of no particular consequence. It may be a subject too painful and tricky to handle any other way, and it's information that a Burroughs reader craves, especially a version of the story straight from the shooter's mouth. Burroughs explains at the book's beginning that he dreams during sleep and also has waking dreams that are more real than real life or more like dreams than dreams, and that he also experiences a third type of dreaming. This sets the table for the many non-dream entries, general notations on things such as therapy, gun enthusiasts or on being a writer (the world's most natural type of freak).

In the end, the book's strongest feature is Burroughs' language. His blunt, grumpy vocabulary. It's hugely satisfying to read something approaching nonfiction from Burroughs simply because it's good to know what he thinks, curious to see what his language is like with his fictional guard down. He is very straightforward. Here is a recipe for making botulism, "used with conspicuous success by Pancho Villa" against federal troops in Mexico:

"Fill a water canteen to the top with freshly cooked and drained green beans. Close it and put aside for several days. A few slivers of rotting pork are then added, and the canteen sealed tightly. Ten incubators are buried underground. After seven days most will be swollen, indicating a thriving botulism culture.

"Can be smeared on any fruit, meats, or vegetables, dabbed on thornbushes and fragments of glass. Guerrilla children sniped sentries with pottery shards or with obsidian chips dipped in botulism. A little ingenuity. There are many ways and it takes such a little to do the Big Job. A woman opened a can of home-canned beans. Put one bean in her mouth, spit it out and washed her mouth out with mouthwash. She died three days later from botulism poisoning."

And there are wonderfully cryptic moments, like this one, that occur regularly: "All abilities are paid for with disabilities. Perfect health may entail the heavy toll of bovine stupidity. Insight in one area involves blind spots in another. I could not have done what I have done as a writer had I been a gifted mathematician or physicist.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|