Naked Lunch turns 50


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Some books inspire. Some books outrage.

Some books, such as William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch do both.

Several Iowa City venues will mark the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication this week with Naked Lunch @ 50. The event will feature a reading today at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.; a concert at 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St.; and a weeklong gallery exhibition at Public Space One, 129 E. Washington St.

Similar gatherings have been held in Paris, London, Chicago, and New York. The worldwide celebrations coincide with the release of an essay collection, Naked Lunch @ 50, that discusses the book from academic and artistic perspectives.

Burroughs’ 1959 novel focuses on narrator William Lee, a heroin junkie who runs from the law and moves through time and space as he deals with the horrors of his addiction.

“It was the first really, really weird book I’d ever read,” Prairie Lights buyer Paul Ingram said. “The more I read it, the more I liked it.”

The new Naked Lunch @ 50 anthology honors the complexity of Burroughs’ original work.

Event organizer Loren Glass, a UI English associate professor, contributed an essay on the obscenity trials surrounding Naked Lunch, which was derided for graphic sexual content and drug use.

“[The anthology] was meant to be a collection that honored Burroughs not just as a subject of scholarship,” Glass said. “It’s a combination of scholars, artists, writers, and musicians.”

The professor said the goal of the collection and the gathering is to celebrate a book that, while controversial, inspires many people.

“Naked Lunch is part of a collage collaborative tradition that linked it up with more avant-garde kinds of art,” he said. “Burroughs has informed painters, and writers and aesthetic groups because of this aesthetic.”

Glass will host tonight’s reading along with UI English Professor Stephen Kuusisto and Writers’ Workshop graduate Cheeni Rao. The three will discuss the effect of Naked Lunch on literature and society, and they will also read selections from the novel.

Besides celebrating the book, the reason for the reading is to engage the performance-based aspects of the novel. Glass said a lot of Naked Lunch began as what Burroughs called “routines,” or partially improvised exchanges he would have with friends.

“The idea of the reading is to try to return to that original context — that idea of a collaborative, performing out loud kind of thing,” Glass said.

The concert Tuesday will feature bands influenced by Naked Lunch along with sets performed by Glass and UI communications Associate Professor Kembrew McLeod.

Instead of using traditional instruments, however, they will play music using iPhone applications that simulate real instruments.

“Our idea was to rope together pieces of other tunes, put together a mashup, and play stuff over it,” Glass said.

The weeklong exhibit at Public Space One will display artwork by Glass and Jessica Lawson and is influenced by the edgier portions of Naked Lunch.

That edginess, along with the novel’s groundbreaking format, Glass said, has made many view reading Naked Lunch as a transformative experience.

“It actually was not a book that transformed me directly,” he said. “But I was raised by a culture that wouldn’t have been possible without books like this being published.”

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