So, I've been revisiting W S Burroughs lately: I found an audiobook of The Soft Machine at the library the other week, and I've been listening to it in the car on random play (sometimes with other discs, sometimes on its own). And I've got to say, I fucking LOVE the cut up method. There's a lot of people who can't stand it (my delightful love partner and best friend Nalin among them), but it speaks to me in some barely-articulable way, like it's speaking directly to the part of me where dreams are made. The thrill some people get out of poetry, I get out of cut-ups. The surreal flashes of imagery, the non-connected moments juxtaposed at random! It's the closest thing to actual dreaming I can feel (in a reading or writing capacity).
I still remember when I first discovered the book Minutes to Go: it was 1993, the Baillieu Library at Melbourne Uni. The book not only outlined the process and thoughts behind the cut-up as a compositional tool, but was also filled with examples of the cut-up (and fold-in) approach. It blew my fucking mind. I immediately rushed home and started making my own cut-ups (in a project that I still revisit now and then, some twenty six years later, eep).
Anyway. Point is, I loved the cut-up then and there. But that's not all I love about Mr Burroughs and his writing. His deadpan descriptions of completely fucked up situations and people, his grey prose detailing the most colourful antics, is such an excellent voice. His time-travelling body-possessing achronic multi-dimensional cosmology is superb. His humour is so dark, so black, and so perfectly delivered. The idea of this ultradimensional Agency of fucked up antiheroes chasing down this conspiracy of fucked up criminal gangs through the very weave of space and time is just excellent. His thoughts on addiction and language and reality and brainwashing/education/indoctrination are all fascinating. I pretty much love everything about his writing (to be honest, I could do with fewer descriptions of morally-dubious sexual encounters, but y'know, comes with the territory).
So, re-immersing myself in that world has been a delight and an inspiration. And when I'm inspired, I'm liable to do poorly-thought-out things. The poorly-thought-out thing I'm embarking upon now is, chucking a cheeky August Derleth and completely ripping off the Burroughsian mythos (and approach) myself.
(For those not in the know, August Derleth was a friend of H P Lovecraft, and he’s the guy who pretty much helped Lovecraft become posthumously famous – it was Derleth who coined the term “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the “ancient beings who once ruled the universe and will rule again someday” cosmology that Lovecraft invented (Lovecraft himself used the term “Yog-Sothery”, which is pretty cute). But as well as anthologising a bunch of Lovecraft and publishing it, Derleth also took a bunch of Lovecraftian idea scraps and turned them into fully-fledged stories, and then started just jamming out his own stories set in Lovecraft’s glorious setting. I’ve never actually read any Derleth Cthulhu stories, but allegedly they’re pretty shit, utilising all the exciting amorphous unintelligible Yog-Sothery of Lovecraft but then de-ambiguousing it into simple “good vs evil” tales (Derleth apparently was a fervent Christ-lover) and adding very little new of his own.)
Anyway, so, if Derleth can unashamedly steal someone else’s universe and set their own stories in it, so can I. If Derleth can be a second-rate Lovecraft, I am allowed to be a second-rate Burroughs.
Because, let's face it, not a lot of people are doing this kinda shit at the moment. The cut-up approach has been around for 60 years (ooh, a quick Google says that it's 60 years exactly in September of 2020!) and yet no-one's really doing it any more (there's one Japanese dude who writes cut-up-like cyberpunk, can't remember his name, but I don't know if it's actual cut-up or just incomprehensible).
And let's also face it, Mr Burroughs himself was a little... "problematic" is the word they use these days. As in, he was almost certainly a murderer, a misogynist, and perhaps maybe a teensy bit paedo-adjacent, if not a full-blown kiddie-fiddler (in a private letter to his definitely-paedophilic friend Allen Ginsberg, he wrote of paying "two Arab kids 60 cents to watch them screw each other ... They did it. Made me feel sorta like a dirty old man"). I mean, if that’s the shit you’re sharing with your friends, I can’t help but wonder what you’re hiding. Eep. Anyway – so, yeah, Old Man Burroughs is most definitely no saint, and in this age of cancel-culture, is most likely completely null and void.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who’s a bit less problematic update the Interzone Mythos? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone, say, maybe a bit like me, for instance, write some awesome stories in the Burroughsian mould? Well, nice or not, I’m doing it, so there.
I’m definitely qualified. And I promise I’ll do it justice. And after all, the cut-up technique frequently cuts other people’s material into itself, if not makes new material entirely out of other source material – so, if Old Man Burroughs can cut up a newspaper and call it his own, I can cut up some Burroughs and call it my own. Surely. Thing is, I won’t even be cutting much Burroughs into what I’m writing, I don’t think – definitely will be some, but it’ll primarily be all new material written from scratch – I’ll mostly be cutting up my own writing, I think.
But I really do want to be true to the spirit of what Burroughs was doing with his work. It’s not just “stories set in the same mythos” that I want to do, but embrace the whole approach. So, as he cut up newspapers from his era, I’ll be cutting up articles from mine. As his writing was semi-autobiographical in lots of sections, so will mine be. As his writing slipped in and out of narrative comprehensibility, so shall my own. And that voice! I’ll do my best to recreate that deadpan, alienated, observationally-detached voice he did so well (although I can’t help but think I won’t be able to – I’m too much of a softy to remove all human emotion from my writing, I think). I’m even writing it in small chapterlettes – and calling them “routines”, as Burroughs himself did. (Let’s face it though – he and I are very different writers, living very different lives, in very different times, and it’s not going to be an “imitation” as much as an “homage” – I don’t want it to be “like” a Burroughs work, but “on the same trajectory” or something. I’m not ghostwriting him, but writing from a place of love and inspiration. So let’s get that clear – it won’t actually be all that Burroughsy – but it will hopefully do the things that I love about his writing, and be some kind of suitable tribute.)
It’s a stupid project, and one that I know will only appeal to a very very very small number of people (even Nalin, my biggest fan, will never read this – she loathes cut-ups with a passion that feels almost pathological), but I’m going to do it anyway. And I’m going to post the routines up on my blog as I finish them (but maybe not in order), so they’re just “out there”. Maybe if I ever get to a place where I feel like “it’s finished”, I’ll compile them into a novel or something, but that day may never come (although, now that I know that September 2020 is a significant milestone in the cut-up timeline, maybe that could be some kind of deadline or something – who knows?).
So. Who’s with me? Anybody?