Queer – William S. Burroughs

I don’t know about all of you but there are some authors that I am always rather intimidated by their name and their reputation. There is no reasoning behind it as you yourself have never read a word you have just heard mumblings that they could be an author difficult to get to grips with or digest or somehow for some unknown reason you have simply created this illusion in your head. William S. Burroughs is one such author for me (thought there are a few) and so when I saw ‘Queer’ on the shelves in the library and how short and manageable I thought ‘well why not?’

‘Queer’ is actually labelled as a love story which is maybe not quite what I would call it, I think a one sided tale of unrequited love might be a more apt description. This is an account of William Lee, who has fled America and is living amongst the expatriates, and his initial chasing and seduction of Eugene Allerton set in Mexico City in the late 1940’s. A time when homosexuality was frowned upon in many circles, and indeed still was which caused the book to remain unpublished for many years as it was deemed to deal with subjects people would not care to read about not should they.

From the moment Lee spots Allerton it is a case of love at first sight though our former heroin addict protagonist can’t quite see it at first. He starts to ask around about Allerton and even starts turning up at the ‘Ship Ahoy’ so he can accidentally bump into him and see what his views are on ‘queers’. Eventually Allerton succumbs to Lee and is seduced however Allerton is a confused soul and one who might just do almost anything to get what he wants. We then follow Lee and Allerton through the resulting games that are played in a case of almost obsessive one sided love and the agonies that can be suffered from such events.

I found this book wasn’t what I expected of Burroughs at all. The writing wasn’t complex or trying to catch me out, it was written with economy and yet all of it packed a punch. Many people actually say this novel is quite autobiographical and that Lee is of course Burroughs and Allerton on a man Burroughs befriended called Marker when he was in Mexico himself which is maybe why the book is so emotionally wrought and filled witha hint of bitterness and anger. I will admit there are a lot of random monologues that don’t always quite make sense and last a page, maybe two, yet it all worked with me.

‘Queer’ is a book that leaves you wanting to know much more and had me slightly annoyed that I hadn’t read it along with several other people so that I could have a really good natter about it afterwards. You could also natter about the introduction which Burroughs wrote himself about the shocking events that happened which made him want to write the book as some kind of therapy. It is a small book which packs rather a large wallop and leaves you wanting to know more, as luck should have it this is actually the sequel to ‘Junky’ and Lee appears in some of Burroughs later works so I will definitely be reading more.

Has anyone else read this or any other Burroughs? Which authors have you wanted to try but have been put off from for worry of their reputation? Have you conquered any authors that you never thought you would and were they much easier than expected or just the trial you had been dreading? I think Bolano might be my next as he intimidates me from name alone and maybe one day I will try something by him. This reading of Burroughs has certainly made me want to try more authors I didn’t think I could.


Filed under Picador Books, Review, William S. Burroughs

28 responses to “Queer – William S. Burroughs

  1. So, the gay protagonist is addicted to heroines, is he? That doesn’t sound right at all… Sorry, couldn’t resist 😉

    I found Burroughs far more accessible than I thought I would when I read The Cat Inside recently; that is also written with economy and I think I gained a feeling for his style.

    Kafka surprised me with how easy he was to read and Coetzee too; both were authors that I assumed would be difficult. It is interesting how often our readerly assumptions are wrong.

    The main author whose reputation intimidates me is Marcel Proust; I have read some of Swann’s Way and it’s not so difficult, just long, Emile Zola is another one and I’m planning on reading at least one of his novels in the coming weeks.

    • Hahaha that was merely a test Claire to see if people are skim reading or not *cough* or something like that.

      I will be interested to see how many people pop by this post today as I think the title of the book might put some people off… we will see, I would like to be proved wrong.

      I am amazed how I got on with Burroughs, mind you this is apparently one of the easier reads in some ways (maybe not subject but definitely in style) so I could have some way to go. I oddly didnt think of Coetzee and should have mentioned Murakami though before I read the latter I had no preconceived ideas about him.

      Proust and Zola are daunting, I agree they might be quite a while away for me.

  2. I hadn’t heard of Burroughs to be intimidated by him. I like to think I will give any book or author a go and not be frightened of them. But now you mention it I have been shirking away from Virginia Woolf haha and can’t think of any other reason than I’m a bit scared of her popularity and reputation!

    • I think his book Naked Lunch is the one that has made me slightly fearful of Burroughs this is quite unlike it so its a nice gentle way in… well maybe not gentle.

      Woolf’s not so bad, you just need to find the right one to get into her writing style. I would recommend Memoirs of a Novelist or Flush.

  3. I’ve not read many books from the Beat Generation, apart from “On The Road” by Kerouac which I read when I was far too young to appreciate.

    I’m fascinated by the fact that Burroughs was a heroin addict for about 50 years… I mean, how did he manage his addiction to stay alive so long?

    I’ve not read any of his books but I have had “Junky” in the TBR for years.

    • I am such a poor literary person, I have no idea what the Beat Generation is, I will have to go off and do some research. I have never fancied reading On The Road and am not sure why not.

      I am amazed Burroughs didnt end up dead from all the drugs, mind you I am also amazed he didnt end up in prison for accidentally shooting his common law wife.

  4. I’ve had this one on my desk ever since I finished Junky last year, which I loved. I really need to get to this!

    I read most of the authors I was most intimidated by over the last couple of years (Burroughs, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, etc.), and I’ve now found that if I go in with the attitude that I just want to experience the read rather than “get” it, I’m much more relaxed and can just enjoy it for what it is.


    • Hi Lezlie, I normally get really annoyed if I have read a book thats a sequel before the predecessor but have heard they are so different that I don’t mind so much in this instance. I will definitely have to give ‘Junky’ a whirl.

      I like the idea of reading for the experience rather than to get it, though sometimes if the experience is a nightmare I just have to say enoughs enough!

  5. I’ve heard of this author obviously, but didn’t know enough about him to be intimidated. What DOES intimidate me are really old classics (like Homer, which I had to read in college and hated!), as well as Proust and Woolf. I’ve not faced my fear with them yet.

    • Woolf isnt as much of a problem as people seem to think she is, I think its the inbred reports we hear of her complexity. She isnt easy either, it depends how patient you can be and if you come to her work. If you start with something like the Waves then you might end up a cropper.

  6. Virginia Woolf is the author I most feared, so I was glad to find out she’s not at all hard to read when I tried ‘To the Lighthouse’ this year. Philip Roth is probably the other main author who I think sounds good, but extremly hard.

    You might like ‘As Meat Loves Salt’ if you liked this book, which is described as a love story by it’s narrator, but is a dark tale of obsession in many ways and it’s all set duing the English Civil War.

    • Oh I didnt find To The Lighthouse easy I have to say, wonderfully written but not the easiest of reads and I couldnt work out what I was getting from the experience but am most pleased that I tried her a few more times.

      I have never heard of As Meat Loves Salt, I shall look that one up.

  7. I haven’t read any Burroughs in years, Simon, but he’s the sort of guy who makes me sit up and pay attention whenever bands mention him or he pops up in random documentaries. Quite the interesting fellow! I read parts (and maybe all of) of Junky and Naked Lunch years and years ago, but I can’t remember enough from either to offer a definitive yes or no recommendation. I seem to remember the writing being more in-your-face than interesting, but I might have been too young to appreciate it at the time.

    • He was indeed a most interesting man was William S. it would appear. I do wonder if there are any great biographies about him as I think I want to learn about him just as much as I want to read more of his works.

      I had a copy of Naked Lunch once… no idea where on earth it went. Fortunately I do have another of his already on the TBR pile, I must sort that page out today.

  8. My copy of “Hamlet” oozes with bizarre pencillings, mirroring the effort of my high-school brain struggling with the seemingly-strange word order and long clauses: it really felt like I was reading another language. Same thing with Chaucer in uni. Both times, even though I was learning in a classroom setting, I felt like I was on my own with the text, every sentence a gargantuan challenge. So the works that intimidate me now? Older classics like those, which seem like they should be accessible because yes, they’re in English (at least in translation) but it feels like a foreign English, and one just out of reach (from Ovid to Dante, say) ::sigh::

    • Shakespeare didnt intimidate me at school rather bored me really, I just didnt care about Romeo and Juliet in the same way I didnt care about Children of the Dust or Animal Farm. In fact really its quite amazing I became a reader at all in the end.

  9. gaskella

    I read The Naked Lunch over ten years ago and remember not liking it much, but can’t comment further – so no use there.

    There are authors who intimidate me and they’re the usual suspects – Joyce, Woolf, etc, but I am willing to try shorter works by them to test the waters before deciding whether to read the biggies – when I can fit them in (ie putting it off yet again)!

    • Joyce is another one who intimidates me but have written him off the list as both Dubliners and Ulysses are books I started but have come to terms with never finishing.

      I do the exact shorter before longer thing too with authors am wary of.

  10. There are a lot of authors who intimidate me out of reading them. I really like it when I learn something to their discredit, because then I can stop feeling guilty for not having read them. Norman Mailer near-fatally stabbed his wife in an argument, for instance, and William Burroughs shot his wife in the head by accident when they were both drunk in Mexico.

    So um, I have never read Burroughs.

  11. winstonsdad

    i remember enjoying this many moons ago ,but not favourite burroughs cites of red night i really enjoyed and junkie .he did some great spoken word stuff as well

  12. Naked Lunch is one of my favorite books but it’s definitely not for everyone. The language is brilliant and the satire is hilarious, but it’s also VERY graphic and VERY disturbing. You can literally tell Burroughs was on about ten different kinds of drugs when her wrote it. Reading your review of Queer I’m surprised by how totally different the two books sound.

    I’ve also read his “Nova Trilogy” and hated it. Those books just incomprehensible. They were like degraded versions of Naked Lunch, if that makes any sense.

    • I think from what I have read today Naked Lunch is a rather mixed bag as it seems people love it, loathe it or sort of forget it. I never thought it would be a forgettable book!

      I think that Queer is a novel that is quite different from his others, yet oddly was one he was the most wary over puiblishing for many reasons.

  13. Pingback: Simon’s Bookish Bits #12 « Savidge Reads

  14. Brandy

    I have not actually read any Burroughs, but own Naked Lunch. After seeing the movie about 15 or so years ago, I can’t imagine what the book must be like! I am really not familiar with any of his other work, but that is probably b/c the Beat Generation is quite a bit before my time and not a point of interest for me.

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