Early on in The Soft Machine, our narrator embarks on a sweet vacation.
But he could never fit all the sights and scenes on a postcard for the folks
Let’s see, he puts on an old Civil War uniform in Monterrey, captures some
prisoners and executes one for kicks. Then he
requisitions a ranch house and holds an orgy
(but never explains how they decide which lucky
soldier gets to hang in the harness). And when
he arrives in town, what a break: "They were
getting ready to burn some character at the
stake…." Our hero finds it a very arousing
experience, but he must move on to Mexico
City, where he has a torrid affair of short duration
with an epileptic boy, which gets even sultrier
when the duo visit a medicine man and our
hero enjoys the benefits of autoerotic asphyxia
—a favorite pastime of many characters in The
We never find out what happens to the epileptic
lad—who disappears in a mystical body-merging experience, and no
bath salts required. But our narrator soon finds another young boyfriend.
Alas, he eventually breaks up with the poor fellow in the most heart-
rending way: I "tossed a cup of mescal in his eyes and side-stepped
and he fell on his face and I rammed the planting stick right into the base
of his brain."
As Shakespeare said: "The course of true love ne'er did run smooth."
Further adventures ensue, some of them hard to visualize or even
comprehend—but readers may have already decided by this point that,
with Mr. Burroughs, the fewer the details, the better.
What, for example, are we to make of the following: "They strapped us in
couches in a room under the temple, and there was a terrible smell in the
place full of old bones and a centipede about ten feet long comes nuzzling
out of one corner—So I turn on something I inherit from Uranus where my
grandfather invented the adding machine…." You can keep on reading if
you like but, despite the magical appearance of the calculator (a reference
to the author's family connection to Burroughs Corporation, a pioneering
computer company now part of Unisys), don't expect it to add up.
And even these passages—are they hallucinations? dreams? drug
trips? fantasies? signs of incipient mental illness? or (hard to
believe) autobiographical sketches?—stand out as paragons of
clarity in comparison with the maddening cut-and-paste sections
of The Soft Machine.
Burroughs did not invent this technique, which comes out of the Dada
and surrealist aesthetic. Experimental author Tristan Tzara entertained
an audience back in the 1920s when he 'wrote' a poem by pulling
random words out of a hat—and a riot ensued. (Unanswered question:
were people fleeing the poem, or flocking to it?) Some scholars even
believe Shakespeare followed a similar approach, occasionally throwing
in a random noun where a verb should go, adding an element of surprise
that spiced up his dialogue. Who knows, perhaps there were riots at the
Globe Theatre? In any event, for ten-foot centipedes and mescal-in-the-
eyes, we must bypass the Avon Bard and turn to the avant-garde
Whatever the lineage, the result is an often impenetrable story, with
narrative sacrificed to sound and isolated blobs of disconnected
meaning. Burroughs does not maintain the cut-and-paste style for
the entire novel—perhaps a little more than half of the work still has
a semblance of continuity—but the collage sections are the parts
that readers will remember most.
Or perhaps wish to forget. Here’s a small taste:
Parrot on shoulder prods that heart—Paralyzed twisting in your movies
for the last time—Out of me from the waist down—I never stand still for
such lookout on street boys of the green—Happened that boy could
keep his gas and violets.
And those who teach students how to diagram sentences: you can give
your class the following to parse:
In his sleep naked Panama nights, the camera pulsing in blue silence
and ozone smells, sometimes the cubicle open out on all sides into
purple space. X-rays photos of viscera and fecal movements, his
body a transparent blue fish….
How do readers respond to this? Based on my personal experience
(an admittedly small sample size, to be sure), Burroughs's The Naked
Lunch is the literary work most frequently started but never finished. In
one instance, I recall an acquaintance telling me that he closed the book
in mid-paragraph and sent it hurtling it across the room.
Yet this author retains a cult following and a certain bohemian mystique
undiminished by the passing years. I suspect that Burroughs's fans prize
his books less for their violation of syntactical conventions, and more for
their sheer rawness. Even after a half century, this prose has not mellowed
with age, and I doubt it ever will. Perhaps this is fitting for a writer who
claimed that the most pivotal moment in his career as a writer came when
he shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head while he was in a state of
intoxication—ostensibly in failed imitation of folk hero William Tell.
In all fairness, he was aiming the gun at a glass of water balanced on her
But, as Shakespeare said: "The course of true love ne'er did run smooth."
Yet there is a plot hidden beneath the dead-end sentences of The Soft
Machine—or several plots, for that matter. The book includes a science
fiction angle, an elaborate ruse of traveling back in time to study the
Mayan civilization first-hand. Here we learn of various hitherto unknown
Mayan rituals and practices—for example, when a Mayan man encounters
another male, man or boy, the traditional greeting is apparently for both to
drop their pants. What follows can't be described here, or I would run
afoul of web filtering software, so I will simply describe it as the 'Mayan
handshake'. And there is a magical realism story here about the narrator's
spirit inhabiting other bodies—as in the interlude related above about the
epileptic boy. Then again, this may simply be a description of a drug-
induced hallucination, akin to what one finds in Carlos Castaneda's Don
Juan books or Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. Sometimes
the same incident is recounted in several different ways—mystical,
quasi-realist and distorted cut-and-paste—imparting a peculiar house-
of-mirrors quality to the unfolding tale (or anti-tale).
Other subplots start up sporadically during the course of The Soft
Machine. We encounter a private eye named Clem Snide, an editor
who works for a news agency that creates stories rather than report them,
and other intriguing characters who briefly show promise of participating
in coherent narratives. But these all fizzle out very quickly, and always in
a similar manner. Characters forget their job, their mission, the very story
they just introduced, and instead pull down their pants and engage in the
'Mayan handshake'. Let other novelists go in search of a great white whale
or big issues of war and peace; Burroughs is content with a love pile on
the floor, and a mess to clean up (or more often, just leave behind) to
mark the occasion.
And that's a good way to describe The Soft Machine. If you like
seeing messes left behind, this is the novel for you. And if you couldn't
finish The Naked Lunch, and want to give Burroughs another chance,
at least this book is shorter. So you might get all the way through it.
And if not, you can always toss it across the room. Fortunately The
Soft Machine, at least in softcover, is a soft book, and you won't hurt
anybody. Which is more than you can say for the characters here
or the novelist himself.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published: July 3, 2013
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
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|William Burroughs's Mexican Adventure
A Look Back at The Soft Machine
by Ted Gioia
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