William S. Burroughs is a fascinating personality with a fascinating life to say the very least. The unique selling point of Burroughs, or of any of the Beat writers for that matter, is that one cannot simply read his work, put it back into the shelf and forget about it. You don’t simply forget Burroughs. You don’t even simply read Burroughs. Nothing happens in a vacuum. You look at his work, you start to type “William Burroughs biography” or “Bill Burroughs drugs” into your Google search and before you know it, you have read not only about the roller-coaster ride that his life was, but also mastered his family free and are aware of his friend’s life history and cat’s name (which was Tyke, by the way. The friend in question is Jack Kerouac).
Burroughs was a ‘trust-fund baby’. He started out as a Harvard man, as an artist whose experimental medium for a majority of his years was himself. Some of his closest friends (the definition of ‘friends’ being subjective) were his dealers.
Burroughs’ spiral into drug abuse and heroin addiction was swift and unhesitant. What makes him one of the most notorious literary addict figures is perhaps his completely unapologetic and unrepentant attitude towards his addiction. This was a man who attached himself to a nitrous pipe in a bathtub at his friend’s apartment during a party, and was aggressively agitated when a young and seemingly unaware Allen Ginsberg pulled out that pipe and so rudely interrupted his needs
The closest a reader and appreciator of Burroughs can get to understanding his addiction is probably through his confessional work Junky. “Why does a man become a drug addict? The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict”, writes Burroughs, thus throwing back the curtains to reveal the more realistic, unromanticised and darkly dangerous side of his addiction. This pours into his literature very evidently, not only semantically but also stylistically. The very language of the narrative is ridden with terms specific to the sphere of narcotics abuse. His techniques and application of language is almost psychedelic. The cut-up technique is enough to drive any impatient or dilettante reader up the wall. But that is the genius of Burroughs. He is so disenchanted that his work is enchanting; his technique should make no sense (how much sense can cutting and folding up texts and then attaching them to other texts, in very banal terms, even make?) and yet fits perfectly with his art and style and the even very person that he was.