Naked Lunch (sometimes The Naked Lunch) is a novel by American writer William S. Burroughs, originally published in 1959. The book is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes. The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the U.S. to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone.
The best known of Burroughs’ prophesies is that of his African-originated, sexually-transmitted disease which is chillingly similar to AIDS. Written a quarter of a century before the first recorded case of AIDS, Burroughs introduces a “virus venereal disease indigenous to Ethiopia,” which “shows a distinct predilection for Negroes… Not that Caucasians are immune.” It was spread from Africa via sailors and quickly spread through anal sex, though it was not limited solely to that method of transmission. His disease has spread all over the world, including New Orleans and Capetown – two cities with historically high occurrences of AIDS – and there is no treatment.
More than fifty years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and sixty years prior to the rise of ISIS, Burroughs imagined Islam Inc., a shady organization, “the exact objectives [of which] are obscure.” This is a group of radical Islamists who engage in suicide bombing: Nationalist martyrs with grenades up the ass mingle with the assembled conferents and suddenly explode, occasioning heavy casualties… Their “gatherings invariably culminate in riots,” he says, which is likely an allusion to actual Arab riots Burroughs witnessed in Tangiers in 1955-56, which he described in his letters—though not in Naked Lunch—as “jihad jitters.”
Though of course this existed prior to the writing of Naked Lunch, and appeared in literature before Burroughs’ time, perhaps few works have ever or will ever be as famous as Burroughs’ masterpiece for portraying orgasm by hanging…
There is a fleeting reference to “the stomach tuck,” which appears to describe a form of cosmetic surgery known as liposuction. It “is a surgical intervention to remove stomach fat,” Burroughs explains. Actual liposuction as we now know it was first introduced a little over two decades after Naked Lunch, in 1982. “I think I’ll have my stomach tucked… I may be old but I’m still desirable,” one character announces, prefiguring the casual attitude to cosmetic surgery that would become common towards the end of the century.
Addiction was an obsession of Burroughs’, and it is explored thoroughly through numerous sections of Naked Lunch (and his other books). Indeed, variants of the word “addict” appear 138 times throughout the book, and there are references to substances both real and imagined. Various commenters have suggested that the apparent epidemic of drug addiction in the book mirrors the crack epidemic that blighted the United States in the 1980s.
Although LSD was synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hoffman, and used in experiments throughout the fifties, it was essentially unknown to the wider population until the sixties. However, in 1959, Burroughs mentioned it repeatedly in Naked Lunch, once in connection with “a cool hip young doctor.” Could this have been a vision of Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who would become a proponent of LSD use during the hippie era?