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The Unhinged Beauty of Collage Writing in Burroughs’ “Johnny 23” - REVIEW

In his divine mission to extinguish the “virus from outer space” that is language, the famous ex-addict William Burroughs uses the cut-up technique in his Sci-fi short stories collection Exterminator! (Viking Press, 1973), where the only rule is that there is no rule. In “Johnny 23”, the self-designated savior of humankind, Doctor John Lee, releases the titular “beautiful disease” to make the world a better place for him to live. But his actions have devastating consequences, the Doctor sitting on a bench and watching everything unfold.

Burroughs’s minimal editing jars the ‘natural’ narrative voice of his story, a story that wanders around sentences like the constant movement of clouds in the sky. While at first “the man takes a chicken sandwich out of a wicker lunch basket”, the narrative follows up with “Rock Ape waiter there with the wrong wine”. The wave-like conscious thoughts of Doctor Lee interrupt the horrors he witnesses around him with so little remorse and empathy, all marked with ellipses instead of the trivial period (besides the first and last line). The effect of these collaged words in sentences is akin to a disruption in pace, a halting of the reading experience, which is precisely what Burroughs wanted.

As habitual themes of his writing, madness and the desire to control (existence, in this case) are an open door to Burroughs’s unhinged but creative psyche. He places himself into the story, but only comes across as a mere shadow of Fleming’s charming Bond: “Doctor Lee… Doctor John Lee…” However, in complete opposition to his narcissistic desire for control, the ellipses highlighting the collage consist of him giving up the authorial control in favor of a chaotic reality. He even remediates the narrative by using the cinematic directions of an invisible but present camera (“the camera pans out convulsed corpses”), and breaks the invisible barrier of a reader’s safe space by shifting from omniscient to first-person plural and second-person (“near him we now see several convulsed forms” , “the man you see here is Doctor Lee”).

Weird as it is riveting, “Johnny 23” experiments with the borders of what literature is and can do, existing as a perfect example of an obsessed consciousness. Rules of any kind are forsaken, the mash-up of words weaving enough common sense into the whole to make an honorably coherent narrative. The result is that of a subjective experience of sense and meaning, one I surely enjoyed — albeit with a slight headache. I recommend but… if there are no distractions… and mind is open.


“When you cut into the present, the future leaks out” - W. S. Burroughs

My Rating: ★★★☆☆



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