Review: The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs

The Soft Machine is a semi-continuation of what Burroughs began in Naked Lunch and also seems to be a prelude to Nova Express, though I have yet to read the latter. This novel, in typical Burroughs fashion (read: shocking, course, disturbing, blunt, incoherent, etc.) rants on the abuses of power, the “Red Scare,” racism and segregation, sexism, homophobia, drug abuse, and more.  They cut-up style of prose is interesting and certainly ground-breaking for the time (reminded me of Gertrude Stein, except less poetic sensuality and more raw sexuality), though it is not particularly novel to those familiar with Burroughs’ work.  I did find this novel more in-line with Naked Lunch than, say, The Wild Boys, which is to say that it is less accessible to the general public.

The Good:
Burroughs is still hilarious, and still refuses to pull any punches.  His writing style – prose and language – are incredibly blunt and “in your face.”  As are the themes being discussed.  I enjoyed how Burroughs ended many of the chapters by re-phrasing or summarizing what had been said/done throughout the chapter in a brief, chopped-up retelling, as if the narrator is having flashbacks, incomprehensible and out-of-focus.  These moments are seemingly drug-induced or drug-hazed memories, incapable of being fully grasped, and typically without meaning for the narrator (“Johnny” – they’re all “Johnny”).  And, since I’ve mentioned “Johnny” – I’ll go on to say that I found it incredibly amusing that all of the many characters of many nationalities, located in many parts of the globe (mainly Latin-American) referred to the American boys as “Johnny” – a nice, satirical, throw-back to the All-American G.I. “Johnny”.  Clean-cut and wholesome.  Well, except when Burroughs gets his hands on him.

The Bad:
I can’t honestly pretend to understand Burroughs’ genius.  I would like to, and I do get certain aspects of it – but I can’t go all the way.  Joan Didion said of Burroughs, “[his] voice is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure….it is precisely this voice — complex, subtle, allusive–that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine…” Okay.  Serious, inventive, free, and funny?  I see it.  As far as imagination and free-expression go, I would be hard-pressed to name many authors who rise above Burroughs.  Peculiar optimism?  Subtlety?  I’m lost on this one.  I also find it hard to wade through a lot of Burroughs’ nonsense without getting lost.  Perhaps that’s my short-coming, or perhaps it’s Burroughs’ intent (most of his novels are told through the eyes of drugged-out narrators, after-all).  I must admit to tiring of the crass language, though, and the crude, repetitive descriptions of “rectal mucous” and vaseline, for goodness sake.  I understand that language is power and that, particularly during the time of McCarthy-era oppression, writing was freedom – but I couldn’t help but wonder if Burroughs is even capable of reigning himself in, of tightening up his ideas, of delivering a well-conceived, purposeful, and understandable plot.  Would it matter?  Maybe.  Would it get Burroughs’ point across to deliver the message in a pretty package?  Probably not.

The Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0
While I still applaud Burroughs’ honesty, imagination, and bold social-conscience, I just didn’t enjoy the book very much.  I laughed at certain lines and references; I nodded along at certain moments where Burroughs lashed-out (in his way) at bigotry and ignorance; but, overall, I just got tired and I wanted to be through with the book.  When I finally did get to the end, it was more rectal mucus, tapeworms, and cannibalism. Blech!

One Comment on “Review: The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs

  1. Totally agree! I’m half way through and am literally lost for words- it’s definitely out there for the time but i don’t know what I’m supposed to be getting from it than being disturbed.


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