Sunday, February 09, 2014

Exterminator! (1973)

Zap, crackle, pop. Sizzle. For a whole bunch of reasons I bet you already know (and maybe have some more of your own) reading William Burroughs can get to be an unpredictable mix of tedium, annoyance, and exhilaration. I've made it through Naked Lunch, Cities of the Red Night, and sampled from a bunch of others. Exterminator! is the one I enjoy most. The usual elements are all here: dope fiends, a '50s refraction on "the homosexual lifestyle," secret agents, massive and complex conspiracies, the cut-up style of writing, no discernible narrative through-line ever, sentences and paragraphs you and I can only dream of creating, and Dr. Benway. Those sentences and paragraphs are the only reason for reading him, then as now. Here's one now (and never mind the context, essentially there is none):

A cry of strangled rage bursts from the crowd screaming clawing slipping on their spit to get at him as he drops on all fours smiling his back teeth bare and ejaculates canines tear through his bleeding gums stretching his face to a snout red hair ripples down his back into a bushy red tail laps his lean flanks leaner crinkles and shrinks his balls squeezing jets of sperm from his red pointed wolf phallus quivering teeth bare his eyes light up bright lemon yellow and nitrous fumes steam off his body a reek of burning film and animal musk. He leaps through an invisible window and disappears in the 1920 night with a distant sour train whistle.

I guess that's actually two sentences, but I hope you see what I mean. He breaks rules wantonly, but in this case the depiction of animal transformation is so thoroughly imagined and vividly rendered it's almost better than anything I've seen in a movie (well, The Howling, where director Joe Dante could well have been aware of this). Something so fantastic would seem a natural for a visual medium, but actually the darting compressions of language are amazingly effective, opening up psychological gaps we rush to fill. Burroughs might fairly be considered best-ever at this. Also, this particular set of fragments—marketed variously as a novel and as a collection of stories—has passages that are very funny, which doesn't happen often anywhere—wicked funny. This is also where you go to find the text of "The 'Priest' They Called Him." Sssss—bzzt.

In case it's not at the library.

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