Exterminator! by William S. Burroughs
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
Exterminator! is a loosely-related collection of 30 short stories, all neurotically obsessed with the American human condition before & during the 1960s. Like many of his other works, these stories are threaded with themes of “Control” (the American government over-reaching its power and invading privacy, commanding blind obedience and assimilation to “normalcy”), Drugs, Violence, and Sexuality. In this collection, a boy named Audrey makes repeated appearances. Audrey is the writer or, perhaps more appropriately, the creator – and one can assume that he is ultimately the narrator who is ultimately Burroughs. There is a deep sadness to these stories, and also a great sense of strength. Though the stories are bleak – offering little hope for or admiration of humanity, particularly America- they also assert the hope, however bizarrely, that people will discover and maintain their own unique individualities. Burroughs (or the narrator) of course identifies with seedier elements which most would hardly call admirable – the pederast, the junky, the rioter, the terrorist; yet, the extreme personas are meant to be obvious, “in your face” examples of the variety of mankind. Burroughs always romantics the unromantic, sexualizes the unsexy, and glorifies the unholy – Exterminators! is no exception to this tradition.
3 – Characters well developed.
While most of the stories are far too short to demonstrate any real character growth or development, even for those which include recurring characters, there is still a sense of well-crafted characterization. This is due in large part to the stories acting as characters themselves – they are the example, the personification, of the characters portrayed briefly within. Like many of Burroughs’s works, these stories are developed in such a way as to believe they almost exist – that they are living, breathing things. This is a thing of beauty, although most of the stories are not what most would consider “beautiful” at all. I speak, for example, of two particular stories: “They Do Not Always Remember” and “Seeing Red.” The first is a type of meta-fiction (which makes a strong impression throughout this collection) wherein a man, the main character, believes himself to be a type of detective, only to be confronted by a detective who turns out not to be a detective when exposed by a third detective, who reminds the first that he is not who he thought he was either. In contemporary terms, we might equate the story’s confusion to Alzheimer’s disease, but it is rather clear that, here, the culprit is likely drug addiction and the resulting brain damage. The story itself is the character – explaining an event – a general event- to the reader through a specific recounting. In the second story, “Seeing Red,” the story is again a grander story, applicable in wide swipes of the brush, but demonstrated through one specific instance. A man returns home to America and is searched by customs – the officers discover a photograph of a naked boy (age not disclosed) and are so distraught, disgusted, and horrified by this fact (that a man would have in his possession the photograph of another nude male) that they are drawn to it like flies to a bug zapper. They come in droves, from all across the county, to stare and to die. Burroughs is, in creepy and disturbing fashion, mocking law enforcement and the government’s obsession with invasion of privacy and prosecuting people for their sexual proclivities but, again, it is more the story in action than it is the characters described.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
Although Burroughs’s themes, subject matter, and language are oftentimes disturbing and raw, there is always a type of beauty in them. Like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Burroughs’s works often expose the strange loveliness of the primal and romance of the ignored. As with his particular style of characterization, Burroughs’s prose takes on a life of its own. He is a master of the “cut-up” style – often beginning or ending a thought in the middle of a completely different thought, or starting a story in the middle of a sentence. He employs, somewhat, a stream-of-consciousness method, but it is the consciousness of the drug addict, random but almost cosmically interconnected – something one only understands on a large scale, but whose meaning disappears when examined too closely. The language itself and the imagery it creates are not going to appeal to everyone. This is not a book one would recommend to his grandmother, for instance, but though it can be disturbing, one cannot deny that it is masterfully crafted, genuinely constructed, and meaningfully employed.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.
There are so many raw and painful moments in this collection, the majority of which have to do with the theme of “tarnished mirrors” – regret over one’s lost youth, muddled self-worth and confused identity. The combination of insect/infestation and drug use is to be expected, as many “junk” addicts are afflicted by hallucinations of bugs but, in this collection, there is also a relationship between the insects and humankind in general. We are all scurrying from the exterminator – trying to survive by hiding in the dark, forced to live in fear, to devour when we can, and to leech off of those who tolerate us or who are too weak to get rid of us. That relationship correlates to the relationship Burroughs sees between the U.S. government and the American citizens, particularly the marginalized ones. Anyone who is different is therefore dangerous and must therefore be eliminated. Brief moments of hopefulness arise – images of human flight and tender friendships; however, ultimately, the book is not one of hope. The final message is one of death and dying – the idea that we hold on to false memories and perceptions of our lives, in denial of what we have done, what we have become or what we have left unaccomplished.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: 1960s America, American Counter-Culture, Beat Generation, Drug Culture
“Do you begin to see there is no face in the tarnished mirror?”
“As a young child Audrey Carsons wanted to be writers because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.”
Thanks for an interesting post! Though I’ve never read “Exterminator,” your review arouses my interest. Especially, “They do not always remember” seems intriguing in that everybody can ( not ) be a detective and we all can (not) observe / be observed by one another. You ( or Burroughs ) compare this confusion to Alzheimer’s disease or drug addiction. This may be also related to the themes of “Control” as you suggested at the beginning and in this sense, these stories might have predicted the modern condition almost similar to panopticon.
That particular scene was likely more related to damage caused by drug addiction; HOWEVER, since you bring up predictions, there is a mess of social predictions and similarities in this book – Burroughs’ descriptions of 1960s America are eerily similar to the current state of affairs – particularly economically (money won’t be worth a damn) and politically (right-wing conservative christian fundamentalists trying to destroy the world in the name of a holy god and crusade).