William S. Burroughs: Dead Fingers Talk

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Dead Fingers Talk (1963) is a bibliographic oddity in Burroughs’s output. It was a composite text composed extracts from the novels Naked Lunch (1959), Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962). Dead Fingers Talk was the brainchild of John Calder. Calder was the Scottish London-based publisher of Calder Books, which specialised in avant-garde literature. This restored version gives us the text as it was intended to be.

The publication history of Burroughs’s texts in the 1960s is fiendishly complex. Myriad publications in various countries issued by different publishers in forms that ranged from partial, censored, jumbled, poorly proofed and corrected, not to mention revised, expanded and partially re-written forms. At the time Dead Fingers Talk was composed, Naked Lunch had been published twice in two versions, Soft Machine was in its first edition form and Burroughs was finishing the manuscript for The Ticket That Exploded for Grove Press. Dead Fingers Talk was produced as an introduction to Burroughs’s work for British readers, preceding Calder’s publication of Naked Lunch in 1964. Calder had brought Burroughs to the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, where his description of his cut-up technique in a literary panel captured the imagination of consumers of experimental culture and newspaper journalists.

When it appeared, Dead Fingers Talk disappointed those who had already heard responses to the imported Girodias’s Naked Lunch and deemed Dead Fingers Talk “merely pragmatic means to more important ends”, i.e. British publication of Naked Lunch. The book was a curiosity that went out of print and was not published outside of Great Britain. Dr Oliver Harris is the leading Burroughs textual expert. He has produced restored editions of classic early books – discovering missing parts and correcting errors – and now turns his attention to Dead Fingers Talk. His comprehensive and fascinating introduction discusses the initial reception of the book and its absence from critical literature since. “By ignoring Dead Fingers Talk completely, the consensus of the critics is that there’s simply nothing to say for or about it […]” Harris has provided full textual notes, explaining changes, for those wishing to understand what has changed. Of course, given the limited readership of the original book and its reprints, most readers will be encountering this book for the first time.

The book includes parts of the three novels of 1959-62, omitting the most sexually explicit and profane passages. There was also a small amount of new material. The texts were reshaped and re-ordered, forming a new semi-narrative. Notoriously, there is no linear narrative to any of the novels, so chopping up the material did not make the text less comprehensible, simply comprehensible in a new way. Dead Fingers Talks is a collage of recognisable materials; it is a famous symphony played by a chamber orchestra. There are absurd horror, mordant satire and memorable characters. There are passages of exquisite prose poetry in tangled streams of consciousness. “Hands empty of hunger on the stale breakfast table – Winds of sickness through his face – Pain of the long slot burning flesh film – Cancelled eyes, old photo fading – Violet brown souvenir of Panama City –” There are paragraphs of Conradian description. “Aching lungs in dust and pain wind – Mountain lakes blue and cold as liquid air –” There are cowboy-style gunfights. There are sections of science-fiction. The chapters are short. However dense a section, it does not last. Thus there is no grind or page after page of unindented word collage, which renders The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded tedious reads.

Describing the text in any conventional manner would be absurd. We meet again familiar characters such as narcotics agents, junkies, dealers and confidence tricksters. Dr Benway, the maniac physician of dubious means and morals, reappears as a part raconteur, part press agent, part Dr Mengele.  Burroughs’s scepticism about authority leads him to treat religion as the long con – a giant experiment in control. His blasphemy is an expression moral outrage at manipulation. For Burroughs, restrictions on sexual activity are intolerable impositions on natural rights. This would become a core part of his libertarian fantasies of autonomous colonies in Wild Boys (1971), Port of Saints (1973) and The Red Night trilogy (1981-7).

A key element in Burroughs’s writing is discussion of drugs as a means of control and consciousness expansion. He invents fantastic drugs and also describes the reality of addiction. Sometimes fact and fantasy blur. “Shooting Eukodol every two hours. I have a place where I can slip my needle right into a vein, it stays open like a red, festering mouth, swollen and obscene, gathers a slow drop of blood and pus after the shot. […]” Burroughs is no way a hedonistic promoter of drug usage and is unflinching about the danger and squalor of drug taking. “Look down at my filthy trousers, haven’t been changed in months – The days glide by strung on a syringe with a long thread of blood – I am forgetting sex and all sharp pleasures of the body – a grey, junk-bound ghost.”

There is also plangent beauty throughout Burroughs’s writing, all the more striking when contrasted with the high comedy, street slang and horror. There is a persistent melancholy in Burroughs’s imagination. Sooner or later, the atrophying of the heroin high induces sadness. “There is no rich mother load, but vitiate dust, second run cottons trace the bones of a fix.” “Inactive oil wells and mine shafts, strata of abandoned machinery and gutted boats, garbage of stranded operations and expeditions that died at this point of dead land where sting-rays bask in brown water and grey crabs walk up from the mud flats to the silent temple of high jungle streams of clear water cut deep clefts in yellow clay and falling orchids endanger the traveller.”

Pleasure is plentiful in reading such free language and playful ideas, especially in a time when speech is policed so arbitrarily and tactically. That makes Dead Fingers Talk recommended reading for dissidents, critics, free-thinkers and lovers of imagination. Remarkably, for a compromise stop-gap measure meant to sustain notoriety with an eye to commercial considerations, Dead Fingers Talk is perhaps the best entry point for a reader who has never encountered Burroughs’s writings.

William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (ed., introduction), Dead Fingers Talk: The Restored Text, Calder Books, September 2020, paperback, 269pp + XLIII, £9.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 50015

 

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