• Nick Davie

Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg, 1991



Canadian body horror master David Cronenberg amalgamates the 1959 novel Naked Lunch, other fiction from William S. Burroughs, and the life of the beatnik icon into an explicitly physical tale of abuse and deviancy. Whilst Cronenberg is a key member of body-horror’s insurgency in cinema, Burroughs, a pivotal figure in American literature, wrote about the human condition and the consequential perversities and horrors of life. A lifetime spent writing about man’s struggles on the outer rims of existential nihilism and moral destitution, Burroughs' canon of work has its influences entrenched throughout lit major Cronenberg’s filmography. With Burroughs’ blessing, Cronenberg approached Naked Lunch, a novel deemed ‘unfilmable’, at a stage in his career when his work evoked shudders in audiences globally.


The novel, a controversial and bizarre non-linear account of substance abuse that caused an uproar in the United States upon release for its obscene language and exhibitions of sexual violence, offered itself to the outlandish filmography of Cronenberg. In return Cronenberg’s distinct aesthetic style no doubt appealed to the mind of Burroughs. The writer described the aesthetics of photography and the moving image with much intrigue: ‘to compete with television and photo magazines writers will have to develop more precise techniques producing the same effect on the reader as a lurid action photo’. The term ‘lurid action photo’ can be accessed through the lens of Susan Sontag’s seminal text On Photography, that ‘photographs may be more memorable than moving images because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow’. Sontag highlights the image’s ability to amply shock; whilst strings of images denote the flow of action, the former image is replaced in succession. Indeed, the novel Naked Lunch is not a photograph and the film is a succession of images, therefore the sensibilities of a ‘lurid action’ are replicated through intent.


Thirty years on from its release, Naked Lunch heralds the stark brilliance of both Cronenberg and Burroughs, notably their ability to elicit perverse visuals, surreal existent discomfort, and body-horror. It follows Burroughs’ literary alter ego William Lee, played by Peter Weller (RoboCop, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai), on a spiralling descent to the depths of drug-induced depravity. Lee, a bug exterminator, who along with his wife Joan Lee (Judy Davis) gets hooked on injecting bug powder. Joan describes the bug powder as a ‘literary high’ and references Kafka, how the sensation makes you feel like an insect. Following a surreal recount of hallucinations induced by the bug powder, believing he is a secret agent, Lee encounters various unfamiliar life forms, from the alien-like mugwump to the talking beetle typewriters. All the while, recurring Burroughs’ character, Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), appears to have a hidden agenda when diagnosing bug powder addictions.



In true Cronenberg fashion, the mugwump is a towering creature with an oily flesh texture covering its large exoskeleton figure; the head is somewhat reptilian as it sits in a cafe waiting for Lee. Where Naked Lunch begins to blur fact and fiction is with Lee’s ‘accidental’ murder of his wife Joan—a stray bullet intended for a glass cup on her head kills her in a misguided party trick reimagining of William Tell. This particular scene is based on an incident that took place in 1951, Burroughs shot his then-wife Joan Vollmer accidentally in a party game of William Tell, Vollmer died and Burroughs received a two year suspended sentence in Mexico City. Joan doesn’t feature in the novel at all, her presence is a filmic representation of Cronenberg merging the novel with various other Burroughs’ texts, and several incidents from Terry Morgan’s autobiography of Burroughs, the apt title Literary Outlaw. The portrayal of Lee’s William Tell shooting is used to move the plot forward, the mugwump advises him to leave town for the seedy shores of Interzone to spy on Interzone Incorporated.


Without divulging the entirety of the plot, Lee encounters various characters in Interzone, amongst them is a doppelgänger of wife Joan, who is involved with eccentric Tom Frost (Ian Holm), and strange housekeeper Fadela (Monique Mercure). Lee meets others along the way, including the elusive Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman as Hans and Julian Sands as cultured acquaintance Yves Cloquet. Silverman possesses a distinct ability to play the absurdly repellent. With each word uttered, there is almost an otherworldly-like quality to Silverman that is rarely seen in modern cinema. The role of Cloquet is to facilitate the overt homosexuality of the novel and in the life of Burroughs, introducing the former to the young men of Interzone.


Lee’s peculiar mission to Interzone is littered with typewriters with talking anuses, all able to communicate as insect-like creatures that serve as metaphors for Burroughs’ homosexuality and the perceived reception of his sexuality to a homophobic America of the 40s and 50s. The literary work of Burroughs often depicts the deepest and darkest areas of the American psyche, a presence of total and abject violence, and often the lack of. A swelling of gutter-wading experiences, collections of slang obscenities, and a sense of bitterly grasping at nothingness, the works of Burroughs are as potent as they are vital in their reverence for free speech. Originally a series of letters from Burroughs to Allen Ginsburg from his time in Tangier, Naked Lunch is iconic as a fictional work but importantly as a textual commentary on society—literature critic Douglas G. Baldwin wrote '[Naked Lunch is] a vision [of] early prose protest against society’s controlling definitions of sexuality, narrative and visual perception’. The author’s work elicited consistent contention from the cultural establishment, Naked Lunch, in particular, threatening the censorious powers of its time—a consideration that Cronenberg takes on board when reshaping the dialogue into a more linear series of semi-autobiographical events that offer a somewhat relatable portrait of William Lee.


Whilst featuring a fraction of the source material, the film opens up avenues of accessibility to the world of Burroughs and his pivotal texts that were key to sixties counterculture. The jaundiced world view of Burroughs exceeds the work of other beat literary figures as he dissects the America of his day from an exiled tour of Europe, Africa, and South America. These varied viewpoints are congealed by Burroughs’ and Cronenberg’s translation of Interzone, a mix of cultures coming together outside of America: an America that is embodied through a suspicious and obtuse Dr. Benway (Scheider), probing his patients and exploiting opportunity at his will. Much of the film follows Lee and his overwhelmingly hallucinogenic task of spying on corporations he can’t comprehend in unfamiliar lands, even in these new lands, Dr. Benway waits, eventually revealing himself in a moment of pure Cronenberg absurdity.


Cronenberg’s pre-Naked Lunch filmography addressed the idea of identity in a variety of forms. In Videodrome, he offers sentiment on the identity of man merging with the mechanical. In The Fly, identity again is explored through man and technology, though the result is man merging with insect. Dead Ringers eerily studies identical twins who swap identities as it suits and shares lovers. The director’s work prior to his Burroughs adaptation serves as a precursor for a fitting collaboration with the beatnik auteur, the typewriter and the writer serving as a reference to a fusing of identity in director and author. The bug powder drug itself that features in the film is also indicative of a metaphoric form of control, an internal investigation of junky identity rather than the external social problems that are consequential in substance abuse. The use of corporate bodies and entities is a further examination of identity, in Naked Lunch, it is Interzone Incorporated, in Rabid it is the aptly named Keloid clinic, in The Brood, there is the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics, and in Videodrome there is CIVIC-TV. These corporations are metaphors for bodies, as if a company is a living organism that requires humans as organs to function, and are often named in a play-on-words fashion—with keloid scars as the inspiration for the Keloid clinic.


Through Burroughs’ exploration of identity, employing alter ego William Lee in a variety of drug-fuelled bouts of existentialism, Naked Lunch (film) takes on a metatextual quality. Construction within a construction, playing out a world of hallucinations and nightmarish contexts, Naked Lunch represents a perfect symbiosis of an auteur, author, and adaptation.