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Queer Burroughs by Jamie Russell. Palgrave, 2001.

ISBN paperback  0312239238.

Reviewed by Stephen Perrin Liverpool Hope University College

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Posted 03 April 2003

Once the sole preserve of lone mavericks like Eric Mottram, the William S Burroughs critical corpus has grown steadily over the years, picking up extra pace since the old writer went to meet Elvis in August 1997 [1] , thus enhancing the possibility of a “definitive” study of his oeuvre. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this developing cottage industry, however, is that it has taken until the publication of this book for any critic to grapple meaningfully with the subject of Burroughs and queer sexuality.

Until now Burroughs has been approached by the (male and female) heterosexual critics who have taken on his work as a writer who was queer, rather than as a “queer writer”. Hence their emphasis has tended to be upon formal experimentation, counter-cultural politics or artificially induced altered states. Russell points out that this is a two-way street, Burroughs having been totally excluded from the “queer canon” and in his attempt to redress the balance he confronts some of the issues which have undoubtedly encouraged American and European queer theorists to steer clear of Burroughs’ work – misogyny, effeminophobia, heterophobia, occasional right wing leanings.

In tracing the sources of these tendencies Russell makes a good fist of historicizing Burroughs’ texts within the unfolding social history of homosexuality in post World War II America – the growth of psychoanalysis, McCarthy, the Mattachine Society, Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front, clone culture, AIDS – as Burroughs set about “articulating a masculine gay identity that [was] often at odds with the prevailing mainstreams of both hetero- and homosexual culture”. Then, utilizing the work of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault among others, he comes to the conclusion that the essentialism and separatism at the heart of Burroughs’ “queertopian” vision are ultimately self-defeating.

While his arguments are never less than engaging and his research admirably wide ranging, Russell occasionally falls into the trap of treating Burroughs as a theorist (which, to be fair, he was) rather than first and foremost a novelist. Some examination of Eastern philosophy – especially in relation to the martial arts – might have helped to clarify Burroughs’ tendency to both celebrate and desire to transcend the physical body, which Russell claims to find “confusing” and, ultimately, the conclusion that Burroughs’ vision is out of step with current developments in queer and poststructuralist theory would probably have delighted a writer who took pride in being out of step with most things.

Still, Russell’s book is an important and original addition to Burroughs scholarship, which will undoubtedly provoke debate as to the cultural significance of the writer’s work.

[1] Editor’s note: “going to meet Elvis” is an American euphemism for dying.


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