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Ghost of Chance
William Burroughs
London: Serpent's Tail, 2002.
£6.99 / $11.00, 68 pages, ISBN 1-85242-457-5.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
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 account—drugs 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 me—de 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 wild.

[…] 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 living filaments, little black worms, in fact. (39)

The 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 man—who cares?—and Burroughs takes him to philosophical territories he had most certainly not explored. The Frenchman Mission may in fact have been called Misson, but his name admirably functions 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 said mission 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 with tons of irony before (or should I reread some of the books—I'm suddenly worried). Natives, European settlers, the ecosystem, how can they all coexist? Yawn.

Today it is the lemurs of Madagascar that are threatened with extinction. When humans first arrived on the island, fifteen hundred years ago, there were some 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 human population is growing rapidly and may reach twelve million by the year 2000; meanwhile the ongoing deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture have destroyed ninety percent 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)

Well, this sad state of affairs breaks my heart, but not as much as seeing Burroughs 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 enough and occasionally evoke The Wild Boys.

Roots grow down into the viscera and glands, curling around bones; vines sprout from the victim's groin and armpits; green shoots spring from his penis tip; tendrils creep out of his nostrils to release deadly seeds that then spread on the wind; thorns tear out his eyes; his testicles swell and burst with roots; his skull becomes a flowerpot for stunning brain orchids that grow over dead eyes and idiot face while the skin slowly toughens into bark. (47)

The narrative is more or less straightforward until page 22, and then becomes more like early seventies cutup Burroughs. For this book, he indulged in 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 […]" (31) 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 Literalists—or 'Lits,' as they came to be known—actually 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 complete works, shouldn't they? Including the Letters.


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