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Excerpts of: William Burroughs, “The Western Lands”

Today’s long post consists mostly of excerpt from William Burroughs’s novel, The Western Lands, 1987, which is the final part of a trilogy, preceded by The Cities of the Red Night, 1981, and The Place of Dead Roads, 1984.

I realized that I hadn’t carefully read these three books—I’d read parts of them thirty years ago when they came out, but I’m not sure I ever read them through. So I decided to read The Western Lands fairly closely. I marked passages that seem in some way relevant to my current novel project, Turing & Burroughs, which will include a version of Burroughs as a character—Alan Turing’s lover.

Listen up with your fancy ear!

Some notes on the book’s contents.
(1) The “Western Lands” of the book’s title come from Egyptian mythology about the afterlife. Supposedly, beyond the Land of the Dead, lies a heavenly Elysium: the Western Lands.
(2) Burroughs often goes off on these great riffs like you’d find at the start of a story or novel—such as a detective story, or a science fiction tale, or an exotic adventure novel about explorers in the jungle. He slips smoothly into the genre conventions, but then begins warping them, and ultimately he drops the riff once he’s gotten all the juice from it that he wants. He just about never bothers to really wrap up a sequence or bring it to a full conclusion. I especially noticed a lot of great science-fiction twists.

(3) He has this wistful obsession with beautiful young boys—he’s always returning to them like a hungry man describing food, or a pauper describing treasure.
(4) Bill loves weapons and violence, but in a kind of twelve-year-old-boy way. His scenes of dismemberment and destruction are like scenes a schoolboy might draw on the flyleaf of his Algebra book. Schematic, energetic, more about the flow of action than about actual pain.
(5) He has great timing, and is often very funny.
(6) Much of the book mingles dreams and reminiscences—an old man is fingering the fabric of his life.

So here are some choice excerpts from The Western Lands. Page references are to the US Penguin paperback edition of 1988.

1. The old writer lived in a boxcar by the river. … Often in the morning he would lie in bed and watch grids of typewritten words in front of his eyes that moved and shifted as he tried to read the words, but he never could. He thought if he could just copy these words down, which were not his own words, he might be able to put together another book and then…yes, and then what?

7. Can any soul survive the searing fireball of an atomic blast? If human and animal souls are seen as electromagnetic force fields, such fields could e totally disrupted by a nuclear explosion. The mummy’s nightmare: disintegration of souls, and this is precisely the ultrasecret and supersensitive function of the atom bomb: a Soul Killer, to alleviate an escalating soul glut.

23. Allerton was a thin, blond man with an air of arrested age. He seemed to float a few inches above the ground, wafted here and there, a specialized organism at once torpid and predatory.

27. …the same ancient guild—tinkers, smiths, masters of fire…Loki, Anubis and the Mayan God Kak U Pacat, He who works in fire. Masters of number and measurement…technicians. With the advent of modern technology, the guild gravitated toward physics, mathematics, computers, electronics and photography.

30. Joe the Dead belongs to a select breed of outlaws known as the NOs, natural outlaws dedicated to breaking the so-called natural laws of the universe foisted upon us by physicists, chemists, mathematicians, biologists, and, above all, the monumental fraud of cause and effect, to be replaced by the more pregnant concept of synchronicity.

42. Outside a Palm Beach bungalow waiting for a taxi to the airport. My mother’s kind, unhappy face, last time I ever saw her. Really a blessing. She had been ill for a long time. My father’s dead face in the crematorium. “Too late. Over from Cobblestone Gardens.”

46. A rule that is almost always valid: never refute or answer a critic, no matter how preposterous the criticism may be. Do not let the critic teach you the cloth, as they say in bullfighting circles. Never charge the cloth, even if the critic resorts to actual misquotation.

58. And you know the difference between the difference between the air before August 6, 1945 [the atomic bombing Hiroshima] and after that date: a certain security. No one is going to explode the atoms you are made of…with a little strength an skill one could outlive himself…but now…

59. Joe is tracking down the Venusian agents of a conspiracy… It is antimagical, authoritarian, dogmatic, the deadly enemy of those who are committed to the magical universe, spontaneous, unpredictable, alive. The universe they are imposing is controlled, predictable, dead.

60. Produce the first all-virus rat, it’s more efficient—instead of all these elaborate organs we have just cells, an undifferentiated structure … If he can become Death, he cannot die.

98. [In this scenario, some people worship these hideous huge man-eating centipedes that the call ‘pedes for short.] The spectators are completely naked, except for exquisite centipede necklaces … eyes dilated to shiny black mirrors reflecting a vile idiot hunger. “We feed with the ‘pede.” La jeunesse dorée of Pedeville, obviously.

100. In Picture Puzzle scripts, the glyphs are incorporated into the big picture: an eye, a phallus, water, birds, animals spell out the story. At first it’s just a picture with a special look, then glyphs swim out of clouds and water, pop out of swift lizards…

101. These were troubled times. There was war in the heavens, as the One God attempted to exterminate or neutralize the Many Gods and establish a seat of absolute power.

104. Neferti knows the arts of telepathic blocking and misdirection. You can’t make your mind a blank, for that would be detected at once. You must present a cover mind which the Pharaoh can tune into, and which is completely harmless: “For me the Pharaoh is a God.” You can’t lay it on too thick.

115. It started in the sensational press … “Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Demonstrates That Life After Death Is Within The Reach Of Everyman.” … soon the Papyrus starts unrolling very precise instructions fo reaching the Land of the Dead. The message falls on … the parched deserts of mid-America, dead hopeless wastes of despair, a glimmer of light and hope on a darkening earth.

119. [A young man makes an illegal deal with an old shopkeeper.] The old man’s face relaxes into contented depravity. “Of course one must always take the Big Picture…Yes, I have what you need.”

120. The road to the Western Lands is by definition the most dangerous road in the world, for it is a journey beyond Death, beyond the basic God standard of Fear and Danger. It is the most heavily guarded road in the world, for it gives access to the gift that supersedes all other gifts: Immortality. Every man starts the course. One in a million finishes.

132. Horus Neferti turned aside into a Jump Joint, where your dreams come true. Yeah, sometimes. They work like this: you got a scenario in your mind, usually made up of dreams. Sophisticated electronic equipment makes the dream solid. Or rather there are infinite nuances of solidity.

138. Film sequentially presented…now, imagine that you are dead and see your whole life spread out in a spatial panorama, a vast maze of rooms, streets, landscapes, not sequential but arranged in shifting associational patterns. Your attic room in St. Louis opens into a New York loft, from which you step into a Tangier street. Everyone you have ever known is there. This happens in dreams of course.

139. So I levitate fifty feet in the air just for jolly, wouldn’t you?

170. …the old sets are brittle, falling off the page, waves dash against sea walls, old photos curl and shred. The Veiled Prophet Parade [in St. Louis] floats in the hot summer night…yellow glow of lights, giant leaves, eating pink cake, the cardboard around the edges blowing away in the rising wind, piers crumbling into the sea’s waves, wrecked house, rain, gray sky.

175. There comes that moment in a blinding flash of bullshit when he suddenly sees everything, and the way it all fits together as part of the great whole. He is everything and everything is him, and there is no aloneness, no separation, just endless love. He knows all the questions and all the answers, and there is only one answer so he wrote “Nature Boy” and got cured [meaning got rich]: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.”

177. Operation Clipper: Space sailcraft propelled by the blast that reduces planet Earth and its inhabitants to a smoldering cinder. It isn’t good PR, not good at all.

179. The house on Pershing Avenue [Burroughs’s boyhood home] is well back from the cobblestone street, worn smooth by centuries on the march. He finds his key. The lock turns. Inside he stumbles over a heap of toys…one Christmas after another in layers…a .30-.30 rifle at the top with a box of shells. A crust of broken ornaments crunches underfoot like snow.

186. [After a circus riot, a storm.] On this scene fell a sudden chill, as the temperature dropped fifteen degrees…freezing sweat, and the sky turned bright green around the rim and…the rubes fled the stricken field, screaming down the Midway as the hail pelted down big as hens’ eggs, knocking holes in the tents. The elephants trumpeted frantically, and then the sound: like a low-flying jet, as the boxcars were tossed about like matchboxes …with snakes and freaks and the great tents whipping into the sky…bleachers and seats and rifle ranges, Kewpie dolls and screaming railway cars, caught in a black whirlpool and pulled up into the sky.

188. [Boy explaining why he killed his friend with a shotgun.] …it was as if, just as I pulled the trigger, making absolutely sure the pellets wouldn’t hit Greg…something moved my arm

200. (A leader advises his agents.) This future may not happen, if you all strike at the right time in the right places. So we have a human lifetime with a few moments of meaning and purpose scattered here and there… It is fleeting: if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it… However obtained, the glimpses are rare, so how do we live through the dreary years of deadwood, lumbering our aging flesh from here to there? By knowing that you are my agent

221. Since music is registered with the whole body it can serve as a means of communication between one organism and another. … Agent attends a concert and receives his instructions. Information and directives in and out through street singers, musical broadcasts, jukeboxes, records, high school bands…

231. [He describes a Valley with a priestly sect called the Corners because they eat a radioactive blue corn.] …at the age of puberty, the mark of the Corner can be perceived: a look of dreamy despair, the look of a hungry ghosts in time of famine, but a noble resignation that transcends the hunger.

234. [Great crank SF idea.] A photo has no light of its own, but it takes light to be seen. Every time anyone takes a picture, there is that much less light in circulation. Slowly at first, the gathering darkness on the margin of vision…the mutters of voices at the edge of hearing.

236. [Dream narrative] …a restaurant/hotel/station area, where one is always in doubt about this room reservation and rarely able to find his way back to his room if he leaves it in search of breakfast, which is always difficult to locate.

242. The visions, the glimpses of the Western Lands, exist in space, not time, a different medium and a different light, with no temporal coordinates or recurrences. The medium bears some relation to holograms.

245. [Recurrent dream] He…carried a huge covered basket. He was taking the basket somewhere, but he could not find the place to leave it. An din the dream tehre was a peculiar horror i wandering on and on through the crowd, and not knowing where to lay down the basket he had carried in his arms so long. … A child is dying in the basket. [Perhaps this is Bill’s son Billy.] And there is no help here…

251. [A man describes visiting an old writer like Burroughs.] I went to see Bill. He told me he’d found a cat… I heard a … mewling noise, but I couldn’t see anything . Then I realized Bill was making the sound without opening his lips … He opened a can of cat food, all the time making that sound … he gets down on all four and rubs himself against invisible legs, purring … Straightens up and put the plate of cat food on the floor. Next thing he gets down on all fours and eats it.

257. [A rain of old memories.] Back in the 1920s, looking for an apartment in the Village. I am wearing a cape and hold a [newly puchased antique] sword in my hand, a straight sword three feet long in a carved wooden sheath wih a brass clip.

257. A tree like black lace against a gray sky. A flash of joy.

258. [The last page.] The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words. … “Hurry up, please. It’s time.”

3 Responses to “Excerpts of: William Burroughs, “The Western Lands””

  1. Matt Says:

    Seems like I remember reading an interview w/Burroughs where he referenced having read a lot of sf later in life. I would be interested to know more what he thought about the genre. Cool excerpts. I too remember reading some of these books but never finished them. Maybe some books aren’t as much about reading straight through for a story (which it doesn’t seem like he was interested in) as they are about getting images or ideas or memes or whatever. thanks, Matt

  2. CRS ONE Says:

    This is my favorite book ever, but your post made me realize that I haven’t read it in 13 years. I wonder how it would strike me now.

    I understand where Matt is coming from about the book being more of an idea flow, but I disagree with the notion that this isn’t a story with real continuity. Perhaps I just filled in the blanks by superimposing my own existential considerations, or maybe its the resonance of values acting as narrative glue, but by all recollections this book is every bit the tale of the one in a million (as opposed to the one percent, its antithesis) soul’s gauntlet-run at immortality – from, “The ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls,” to the end. It’s every spirit’s narrative, up until whatever chapter in which we succumb to the purulence, anyway.

    I guess my values fall somewhere between /what would Jesus do?/, and /what would Burroughs do?/ so I love the book’s provocative presentation of a moral compass which is obliged to strike down with contempt, any man or animal or thing that serves as an instrument of what I guess you could call material evil. For that matter, Jesus must be feeling it too because he fricking went off on those moneychangers in the temple. I feel like it’s the same thing.

    And what about Angry Birds? I don’t know exactly what went down with them pigs, but those birds are PISSED.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

    Thanks for posting these passages! I’m glad Bill’s spirit is not forgotten. 🙂

  3. Gus Says:

    Whenever I read Burroughs I clearly hear his voice and unique cadence coming through the prose. It is music.

    You can hear WSB read some choice excerpts from Western Lands on some audio files stashed on archive.Org under the Naropa University collections – plus lots of other goodies. Just do a little search of their audio collection.

    And there’s more!”Burroughs, William S.”

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