The Brilliant Mess of William S. Burrough’s Cities of the Red Night

Cities of the Red Night, by William S. Burroughs, is a mess of a novel in the best sense of the phrase. Images, jokes, and provocative ideas fly off the page at such a pace that it is hard to keep track of them all. The novel itself tracks multiple characters through time and space while eschewing typical transition markers. For example, near the end of the novel a character is in a battle in one sentence and awake in a psychiatric ward in the next sentence. The affect is jarring and sometimes hard to follow, but the overall flow of the narrative is so strong that the reader is able to pick up on clues and reconstruct what is happening.

Burroughs world is one where freedom and violence reign.Sex and drugs litter these pages, and human life is cheap.

It’s an exclusive-type place where everybody goes. What do people do in Tamaghis? They see the Show. They all come here and see the the big Show. There’s a hanging show every night. The bar is filling up now, because this is Flasher night. The chic clients make their entrances through trapdoors in the floor and ceiling, or through disguised side entrances, and even now they are popping up through the floor in green drag screaming like mandrakes, dropping down through the ceiling in gauzy parachutes or with ropes around their necks, slithering in through mirrors and screens. Some are completely naked but most wear at least cowboy chaps, or scarves, or capes, or masks, or body paint, or sarongs, or snakeskin jockstraps, or Mercury sandals, or Scythian boots, or Etruscan helmets, or space suits with transparent ass and crotch.

Executions for show is the provocative idea here, but it’s the style that is the true star. Burroughs pours on the details, and his favorite tool in this novel is the list. He loves to go from the straight (“scarves, or capes”) to the humorous (“snakeskin jockstrap”) before ending with sardonic absurdism. This is the kind of messy genius that makes up the bulk of this novel and makes it such a celebrated part of Burrough’s work.

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