Queer by William S. Burroughs: an analysis/review.


One of Burrough’s most searing and astonishing writings. Dark, funny and full of the insights learned by courageous and intelligent writers who have genuinely lived on the very edges of society.

My review:

Rating: 4⭐/5

William S. Burroughs wrote Queer in the early 1950s. Meant to be written as part two of his debut novel Junkie‚ Queer followed a completely different narrative. Queer is written in a third person narrative throughout the entire story except for the fact that it changes into a first person narrative in epilogue and it reads very naturally and isn’t at all confusing.

The need for the change of narrative by William S. Burroughs was a matter of heated debate between the author and the editor. Burroughs believed that the change is necessary since the fragmented and disintegrated Lee required an observer to recite his story whereas in the epilogue: Mexico City return‚ lack of Allerton can only be explained by Lee himself in his first person narrative. When Burroughs was confronted on the matter‚ he merely argued saying something along the lines of “So what if it has not been done before. Why can’t a writer change narrative in the middle of a book? Screw it. I will write it this way.”

Queer is a semi-autobiographical story of William S. Burroughs‚ similar to Junkie‚ yet vastly different. Junkie explored the ideas and experiences of Lee (alter ego of Burroughs) as a heroin addict whereas Queer is in honor of his desire‚ his queerness and overt sexual need that stems from Lee’s severe withdrawal from the drug. But towards the end of the book‚ one clearly understands that‚ Lee’s needs go beyond his sexual need and his desire for boys. It goes beyond a bodily connection. He craves for contact‚ a contact that doesn’t require touching or talking but merely requires feeling. His hunger for this feeling is not fulfilled or satisfied by Allerton‚ credits to his distance. The hurt cuts deep and stays behind with Lee till the end.

Allerton was actually Adelbert Lewis Marker‚ an American Navy serviceman whom Burroughs befriended in Mexico City. There was something about Lee that bothered Allerton‚ he couldn’t quite put a finger on it. But in my opinion‚ the mask that Lee put on for Allerton‚ the monologues that came to him like dictation‚ routine he called them‚ was the reason Allerton felt something odd and crazy about that man. Lee’s routine was again a result of his drug withdrawal. He needed an audience and Allerton proved to be the calm and perfect audience for the same. Allerton realized this as well.

This book itself was intended for just one person. This book‚ unlike Junkie‚ asked to be written and it is a passionate book about human desire. Kerouac‚ who lived with Burroughs for a while‚ describes Burroughs in the process of writing Queer as a frenzied calm man‚ a man with dual sides to him.

I picked this book up solely because of how intriguing Burroughs’ life sounded to me‚ albeit tragic. He was openly bisexual in his relationship with Joan‚ and he loved her. Both of them were addicted to Benzedrine and Burroughs was an added heroin addict. His bisexuality never threatened his relationship with Joan. However‚ coupled with his addiction‚ Burroughs started to sleep with men excessively and this concerned Joan. On one day in September 1951‚ Burroughs asked Joan to play William-tell with him at the café in front of all their friends and acquaintances. They weren’t in their right mindsets or level of sanity to judge their actions themselves. An accidental shot that missed the glass on Joan’s head went straight through her and killed her. This is metaphorically described in a scene in Queer where Lee puts on a show in Ship Ahoy with a busboy and a mouse. The busboy holds the mouse by its tail with its head hanging and Lee shoots it right in its head and kills it saying – “If you’d get any closer the mouse would have clogged the muzzle.”

Queer was written in the early 1950s‚ as I said‚ but it was only published three decades later‚ in 1985. The reasons for such a delay are few in number. When the manuscript was complete and sent to the editor for review‚ it was called to be too short and uninteresting. It was also told to Burroughs that if he publishes this he would get in trouble and would end up in jail. Soon‚ in the late 1950s and early 1960s‚ a publisher came forward to publish Queer but Burroughs denied the offer and called the work amateurish. But the absence of Queer was filled by his work “The naked lunch” which also talks about Joan’s death and his remorse and how the accident affected his life. But Queer has a substance that is in itself strange‚ absurd and chaotic which fits well with Burroughs’ then mindset.

After Joan’s death‚ Burroughs left Mexico to escape sentence. He left for South America and was asked to continue his work as a writer. The book Junkie ends on the note of Lee planning to set out to look for the drug Yage‚ a drug that would allow telepathy. In Queer‚ Lee sets out with Allerton to South America‚ in search for Yage. He doesn’t succeed in his quest and loses contact with Allerton. I see it as a metaphor for his end of drug addiction and withdrawal.

The epilogue‚ titled as Mexico City return‚ corresponds with his arrival in Mexico after Joan’s death. “I flew up to México city. I was a little nervous going through the airport: some cop or immigration inspector might spot me.”

The lines “In 1949 it was a cheap place to live….a single man could live well there for two dollars a day” in Introduction written by Burroughs gives us an idea about then Mexico. The scene soon changes in epilogue where the tourist with Lee talks about how he was asked to pay the taxi driver two dollars for dropping him at the airport. The timeline change is evident and so is the change of society. The book also talks about how queer people were looked at in Mexico City back in those times‚ either they didn’t criticize at all as it was not in their nature to accept or give criticism or they yelled crude words at people passing by.

The imagery described in Queer is astounding and very strange. It is almost otherworldly to read some of the descriptions‚ especially those that described Lee’s desire for Allerton.

The usage of the word fag instead of homosexual is to represent the outlook of the society towards homosexuals at that time and the crude language is shown as a part of it.

The book had a lot of sexist remarks that annoyed me a little bit. I don’t think I should expect much from male classic authors. And warning: pedophilic content.

The book can be loosely compared to the tale of Orpheus, the legendary musician of Old Greece, who went after his wife Eurydice to save her from the clutches of death but unable to do so, he lost complete interest in women and went out to seek men instead. This enraged various goddesses, such as the goddesses of wine and drama and they dismembered Orpheus, feeling mocked at the rejection.

Overall‚ I loved reading this book and I highly recommend it. I haven’t read Junkie yet and it isn’t really a bad choice to read Queer first. I think they are completely different books and can be read separately.

Thanks to Storytel for providing me with an audiobook of the same.

Do try Storytel : https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=grit.storytel.app

Official Website : https://www.storytel.com


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