Bill Self

I would be disturbed and dismayed if Will Self ever wrote an essay on Evelyn Waugh or Clark Ashton Smith. In fact, I hope he has never even heard of CAS. But I’m happy to see Self writing in the Guardian on William Burroughs. It’s a perfect setting for a perfect pairing. And Self, like Christopher Hitchens, raises a very interesting question. What is his mother-tongue? Quechua? Tagalog? Sumerian? Whatever it is, it’s not even remotely related to English.


William Burroughs — the original Junkie — Will Self, The Guardian, 1/ii/2014.

Entitled Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict and authored pseudonymously by “William Lee” (Burroughs’ mother’s maiden name – he didn’t look too far for a nom de plume) …

[Self missed his chance there: nom de guerre would have been much better.]

The two-books-in-one format was not uncommon in 1950s America …

Despite its subhead, Wyn did think the book had a redemptive capability …

Both Junkie and Narcotic Agent have covers of beautiful garishness, featuring 1950s damsels in distress. On the cover of Junkie a craggy-browed man is grabbing a blond lovely from behind; one of his arms is around her neck, while the other grasps her hand, within which is a paper package. The table beside them has been knocked in the fray, propelling a spoon, a hypodermic, and even a gas ring, into inner space.

This cover illustration is, in fact, just that: an illustration of a scene described by Burroughs in the book. “When my wife saw I was getting the habit again, she did something she had never done before. I was cooking up a shot two days after I’d connected with Old Ike. My wife grabbed the spoon and threw the junk on the floor. I slapped her twice across the face and she threw herself on the bed, sobbing …” That this uncredited and now forgotten hack artist should have chosen one of the few episodes featuring the protagonist’s wife to use for the cover illustration represents one of those nastily serendipitous ironies that Burroughs himself almost always chose to view as evidence of the magical universe. …

… if you turn to his glossary of junk lingo and jive talk – you will see how many arcane drug terms have metastasised into the vigorous language. …

Burroughs viewed the postwar era as a Götterdämmerung and a convulsive re-evaluation of values. …

An open homosexual and a drug addict, his quintessentially Midwestern libertarianism led him to eschew any command economy of ethics …

For Burroughs, the re-evaluation was both discount and markup …

… and perhaps it was this that made him such a great avatar of the emergent counterculture. …

Janus-faced, and like some terminally cadaverous butler, Burroughs ushers in the new society of kicks for insight as well as kicks’ sake. …

Let’s return to that cover illustration with its portrayal of “William Lee” as Rock Hudson and his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, as Kim Novak.

When I say Burroughs himself must have regarded the illustration – if he thought of it at all – as evidence of the magical universe he conceived of as underpinning and interpenetrating our own …

Much has been written and even more conjectured about the killing. Burroughs himself described it as “the accidental shooting death”; and although he jumped bail, he was only convicted – in absentia by the Mexican court – of homicide. …

When Burroughs was off heroin he was a bad, blackout drunk (for evidence you need look no further than his own confirmation in Junky). …

By the time Burroughs was living in Tangier in the late 1950s, his sense of being little more than a cipher, or a fictional construct, had become so plangent …

Burroughs was the perfect incarnation of late 20th-century western angst precisely because he was an addict. Self-deluding, vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed, and yet curiously perceptive about the sickness of the world if not his own malaise, Burroughs both offered up and was compelled to provide his psyche as a form of Petri dish, within which were cultured the obsessive and compulsive viruses of modernity. …

In a thin-as-a-rake’s progress …

… a deceptively thin, Pandora’s portfolio of an idea …

It is Burroughs’ own denial of the nature of his addiction that makes this book capable of being read as a fiendish parable of modern alienation. …

For, in describing addiction as “a way of life”, Burroughs makes of the hypodermic a microscope, through which he can examine the soul of man under late 20th-century capitalism.

William Burroughs – the original Junkie, The Guardian, 1/ii/2014.


The big disappointment is that he didn’t use in terms of.

4 thoughts on “Bill Self

  1. The comments section has a terminally cadaverous number of HATERS.

    Will Self-Aggrandizer and his favourite subject. Drugs.

    I must ask: why do you use dense, elaborate sentence structures and long unusual words to the extent that you do?
    It’s perverse rather than clever, alienating and tiring this reader and I suspect many others.

    You’ll probably need this
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/plangent

    ‘Like some terminally cadaverous butler’

    Like an example of terrible writing.

    More proof that Self can expound for hours while trying to think of something to say.
    Self is the definition of ’empty wind-baggery’; one of those Marcel Proust must have had in mind when Proust wrote, “Like many intellectuals, he was incapable of saying a simple thing in a simple way.”

    One overrated author writing about another overrated author. Such is life in the land of London-centric letters where self-indulgence is king.

    I dislike the way Will Self writes very much. He never quite seems to manage to the right word for the thought he wants to express.There’s always this gap between the signified and the sigifier. Or put less pretentiously: His stuff is muddle-headed and confused.

    The author of this piece is talking to himself unintelligibly at times. He waves around ideas so badly written and of such vagueness that I had no idea what he was talking about. It should have been reviewed by a firm editor.

    I wish editors would be a little less timid around Self and tell him when to shut the hell up!

    School Report
    Self. W
    Form upper IV
    Will continues to make progress towards comprehensibility, he is reigning in the tiresome loggorhea and convolution and moving towards clarity, indeed, often complete sentences are now understandable.
    At this rate I am confident, as he moves up to the Fifth, that his essays in their entirety might approach a state of clarity.
    Socially he is still rather awkward.

    How rude. Don’t they realise he’s an artist??

    • You have to be a pretentious left-wing adolescent to be a Burroughs fan. But Self is third-rate even as a pseudo-intellectual. It’s bad that he liked Ballard and that Ballard put up with him, but J.G.B. wasn’t wholly an unpretentious post-adolescent himself. And he was knocking on a bit by the time Self latched onto him.

      • You have to be a pretentious left-wing adolescent to be a Burroughs fan.

        Which is strange, because Burroughs wasn’t really left-wing himself. He liked guns (too much, it would seem) and was anti-immigration, so it’s funny who one’s heroes become. I wonder what George Orwell would have thought if he’d known he’d be so popular among conservatives.

        It’s bad that he liked Ballard and that Ballard put up with him, but J.G.B. wasn’t wholly an unpretentious post-adolescent himself. And he was knocking on a bit by the time Self latched onto him.

        To be honest, I don’t know what happened to Ballard. It’s wasn’t just that he got worse, it was like he became a different writer. Read The Drowned World next to “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”. Two different men. And “pretentious” is the word for later Ballard stories. I feel like I should be wearing trendy box-framed glasses and listening to Radiohead for reading some of them.

        U2 described one of their albums as “reapplying for the job of best band in the world.” That describes later Ballard’s work to me. They’re not stories. They’re job applications. They’re written for the primary purpose of showing everyone how shocking and edgy he is. Some of the nu-Ballard stories are entertaining, but a lot of them are stiff and cold, like he’s trying to write something that isn’t true to him. That’s the impression they leave, anyway.

        If you need more I.T.O. in your life, this article has one.

      • You have to be a pretentious left-wing adolescent to be a Burroughs fan.

        Which is strange, because Burroughs wasn’t really left-wing himself. He liked guns (too much, it would seem) and was anti-immigration, so it’s funny who one’s heroes become.

        Someone has also told me that Burroughs didn’t think whites and blacks could live together. It doesn’t stop Burroughs being a counter-cultural icon. He appeals to Guardianistas and people like Kurt Cobain. Adolescents, iow.

        U2 described one of their albums as “reapplying for the job of best band in the world.” That describes later Ballard’s work to me. They’re not stories. They’re job applications. They’re written for the primary purpose of showing everyone how shocking and edgy he is. Some of the nu-Ballard stories are entertaining, but a lot of them are stiff and cold, like he’s trying to write something that isn’t true to him. That’s the impression they leave, anyway.

        As I said in my review of a Ballard bio:

        I think if Ballard had been born ten or twenty years later, the question wouldn’t arise. A younger Ballard would have been sucked fully into the macroverse of Guardianista subversion, radicalism, and counter-cultural twattishness and I’d never have liked him at all. As it was, he was too big to entirely fit. Crash got sucked and does suck. Vermilion Sands didn’t and doesn’t. — Vermilion Glands

        If you need more I.T.O. in your life, this article has one.

        CAS fans are almost always a disappointment. That I.T.O. should have been in Self’s article on Burroughs.

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