“Hustlers of the world, there is a mark you cannot beat: the mark inside.”
-William S. Burroughs
And with that opening epitaph, we willingly immerse ourselves in the private nightmare of exterminator/secret agent William Lee in Naked Lunch, a watermark achievement in David Cronenberg’s body of work, and an event that in retrospect seems inevitable. William Burroughs penchant for the grotesque and absurd melds with Cronenberg’s compulsion to “Show the unshowable, speak the unspeakable,” and results in a repulsive and brilliant thriller that explores identity, addiction at large, and what it really means to be a writer.
From the opening scenes it’s implied that Bill’s fugue into Interzone is inescapable. A pest exterminator who runs out of pyrethrum in the middle of house calls because his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been injecting it, a former writer who still engages in literary arguments with his friends, and whose best prospects at the present are offers to write pornographic novels, the sordid aspects of Bill’s past life keep calling him back. When Joan tells him the bug powder feels like a “Kafka high,” Bill welcomes the drugs back into his veins. When Bill says “Exterminate all rational thought. That is the conclusion I have come to,” he is making a statement at once to his friends and to himself. He longs to escape not just his life and his present spatial coordinates, but himself as well. To escape the identity he has created for himself, the mark inside.
Enter O’Brien and Hauser. The narcotics detectives go to Bill’s workplace and haul him to headquarters for some questions, where he is left alone in an interrogation room with his ‘handle,’ a giant bug that tells Bill he is really an agent of Interzone on a very important mission. Bill comes running out of that interrogation room and in short order, purchases a typewriter—to write his reports to control—shoots his wife, gets his instructions and flight ticket from the Mugwump, and flees to Interzone under the covert identity of hedonist homosexual Bill Lee, out to try all the decadence Interzone has to offer.
It may be that the most remarkable aspect of Naked Lunch is how much it is not like “Naked Lunch”, the novel, yet how in avoiding a literal film adaptation Cronenberg creates something that is very much in the spirit of the novel and goes beyond. Cronenberg was aware that a direct adaptation of the novel would, in his own words, “Cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’d be banned by every country in the world.” Instead he keeps the book’s title along with two or three routines out of the fragmented, drug-addled novel, and a small contribution from the short story collection “Exterminator!”, and wraps these elements around events in Burroughs’ own life, a crucial incident in particular.
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s
death, and a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my
writing…So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and
maneuvered me into the lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice but to write my way out.”
William S. Burroughs
So the shooting of Joan Vollmer, an incident Burroughs never touches in his work, is brought forth and center by the tough-minded Cronenberg. An evolutionary parallel is drawn. As Burroughs the Man becomes increasingly inseparable from Burroughs the Artist, in Cronenberg’s work, where at first we saw the experiment results created by absentee scientists in his early films (Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Shivers), in Naked Lunch Cronenberg himself is now the absentee scientist whose presence can be felt in the walls of Interzone while his subject (Bill) drifts through a hell of his own making, testing the limits of self-deception.
As William Lee (appropriately enough, Burroughs pseudonym for his first novel, “Junky“) Peter Weller wears Burroughs persona like a suit of undifferentiated tissue, speaking in a monotone and affecting no emotion as the suit gradually wraps itself tighter around Lee along with the labyrinthine plot. The bugs get bigger and more vicious towards anyone that approaches Lee (his Clark-Nova typewriter-bug attacks Tom Frost’s Martinelli in a surreal moment of typewriter jealousy), the drugs more addictive and alluring (the black meat of the giant aquatic Brazilian centipede is kicked over for Mugwump jism) and a Joan doppelganger steps in to seduce Bill away from his mission in the form of Joan Frost (Judy Davis again), the wife of expatriate writer Tom Frost (Paul Bowles-surrogate Ian Holm.)
But there is a moment of brightness in Bill’s life when he returns from the depths of his drug haze to discover that his ‘reports’ to control have become “Naked Lunch”, the novel, and that his friends Hank and Martin are assembling the pages into a finished manuscript for the printers.
“Stay until you finish the book, but then come back to us,” Hank tells Bill before boarding the bus back home. In general appearance Interzone seems to be a city somewhere in the Middle East or Northern Africa, but Cronenberg hints that in a way Bill has never left New York. Most notably when he has breakfast with dandy-sybarite Yves Cloquet, where a washed out Central Park can be seen in the giant window behind them, and later on when he’s on a country drive in Cloquet’s car, along with Bill’s boy toy Kiki (Joseph Scorsiani.) Bill regales Cloquet and Kiki with the routine of The Talking Asshole, while they pass Arabic merchants on the side of the road, and in the middle of the traveling camels we glimpse an underground subway entrance, another absurd reminder that Interzone is a state of mind, a place Bill escaped to in order to write his novel and admit his homosexuality to himself.
The place where he could reach the mark inside.