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Ghost of Chance
London: Serpent's Tail, 2002.
£6.99 / $11.00, 68 pages, ISBN 1-85242-457-5.
Université de Rouen
Ghost of Chance was originally published for the Whitney Museum of American
Art in New York in a "collector's" limited edition in 1991. Then Serpent's
Tail published it in 1995, and this is their second edition of the slim book
(only 68 pages). Amusingly, the nine-line biography on page iii states: "He
was educated at Harvard, and went on to be a private investigator, a pest-exterminator,
and a drug-addict." He was, of course, mostly a writer, but I like the way
the anonymous author of that note seems to rank drug-addiction as a profession.
Indeed, Burroughs was a full-time drug-addict, and however much you distrust
old-fashioned biographical criticism, you cannot but take that into accountdrugs
always influenced his writing (to put it mildly) and sometimes they were to
a large degree the subject-matter.
Burroughs is one of those authors people either love or hate; I count among his
dedicated aficionados. I was holidaying in Spain in a house with no telephone
line to plug in my laptop and no television set when he died in 1998 and I remember
feeling an acute personal loss and driving miles and miles to grab what American
and British newspaper obituaries I could find. Not that his death went unreported
in the mainstream Spanish press, of course. He is a genius, an icon, a unique
fixture in the landscape of American literature. If in the twenty-second century
Ginsberg and Kerouac are forgotten, Burroughs will remain. He is one of the first
postmodern writers I read, back in my teens, having heard David Bowie praise
his cutup technique and observed his influence on Bowie's songs. The Wild
Boys and The Naked Lunch in particular left an indelible mark and
I still consider them his best work, closely followed by Junkie and Queer.
Admittedly, Burroughs was an uneven writer. Ghost of Chance cannot even
remotely compare with The Wild Boys. But it is a Burroughs novella.
And that alone makes it worth buying, in my opinion. It features a number of
illustrations by the great man himself (paintings? drawings?) which are quite
frankly indifferent. He should have stuck to writing. But maybe it's just mede
gustibus... Most of his usual obsessions are here, although often in embryo
form. For instance, the South American drug called yagé makes an appearance
on page 10, followed by its supposed Madagascan equivalent, indri. So the Burroughs
habitué will be pleased to find himself in generically familiar Burroughsland.
The master is at his best in Ghost of Chance when he rambles on about
gruesome infectious diseases, from the more or less verisimilar to the Science-Fictionally
he notices that he has shed hairs from his forearms and the backs
of his wrists onto the table, a film of fine black hairs, and then with a
chill he notices that the hairs are moving, squirming like tiny
black worms, in fact. (39)
novella seems to take place mostly in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century
Madagascar, and uses a historic pirate cum
explorer, Captain Mission. I gather
little is known about the actual manwho cares?and Burroughs
takes him to philosophical territories he had most certainly not explored.
Frenchman Mission may in fact have been called Misson, but his name admirably
as a generic name, designating him through his function in history and
fiction: the man with a mission (and all sorts of definitions of the
may be ventured, naturally). He established a colony named Libertatia
and wrote its
law, with detailed articles. The novella is a bit disappointing in its
seemingly earnest ecologist preoccupations, as if Burroughs in his old
age had begun
taking some notions seriously, at face value, notions he had only broached
of irony before (or should I reread some of the booksI'm suddenly
worried). Natives, European settlers, the ecosystem, how can they all
it is the lemurs of Madagascar that are threatened with extinction.
When humans first arrived on the island, fifteen hundred years ago,
forty species; now only twenty-two remain, and all are considered endangered.
In some parts of the island the natives hunt slow lemurs for their
meat, although in other places they are protected by a taboo. The
rapidly and may reach twelve million by the year 2000; meanwhile the
ongoing deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture have destroyed
of the original forests, the lemurs' natural habitat. It is projected
that the lemurs
of Madagascar may be gone in a hundred years, the legacy of one hundred
sixty million years destroyed in our lifetime. (58)
this sad state of affairs breaks my heart, but not as much as seeing
turn into this "intense" ecowriter. He was the proto-punk,
for Heaven's sake.
But the passages about the different varieties of lemurs (including
the possibly hermaphroditic ghost of the title) and the mutant
plants are enjoyable
and occasionally evoke The Wild Boys.
grow down into the viscera and glands, curling around bones; vines
the victim's groin and armpits; green shoots
spring from his
tendrils creep out of his nostrils to release deadly seeds that
then spread on the wind; thorns tear out his eyes; his testicles
and burst with
his skull becomes a flowerpot for stunning brain orchids that
grow over dead eyes and idiot face while the skin slowly toughens
narrative is more or less straightforward until page 22, and then
becomes more like early seventies cutup Burroughs.
footnotes. They occasionally please, if only because the reader
is to try to determine
their degree of tongue-in-cheek distance, if not outright parody
of academe. At other
times they are simply boring. Some sentences are good old Burroughs,
such as "And
the ghost of Captain Mission nearly laughs himself solid [
Maybe the best passages are Burroughs's seething blasphemous
attacks on Christianity and Christ himself, which are often extremely
comic. "So, granted that Christ
did work miracles, what he did was not so remarkable. Any competent
magic man can heal [
]" (26) The following extract
was understandably much quoted when Ghost of Chance first
came out: "The Literalistsor 'Lits,'
as they came to be knownactually put the words of Christ
into disastrous practice. Now Christ says if some son of a bitch
takes half your clothes, give
him the other half. Accordingly, Lits stalk the streets looking
for muggers and strip themselves mother naked at the sight of
one. Many unfortunate muggers were
crushed under scrimmage pileups of half-naked Lits." (35)
All in all, a good buy. And now that Burroughs has left us, his
admirers should own the
works, shouldn't they? Including the Letters.
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