I read The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs while aboard S. A. Agulhas II en route to Cape Town from Tristan da Cunha. I associate it with the trip of a lifetime, 23 days on the island. As soon as I started the novel I had a sense of déjà vu, as within the first chapter Burroughs discusses the seven souls of the ancient Egyptians. I had heard about these seven souls before, since I own the 1989 album Burroughs recorded with the group Material which bears the title of none other than Seven Souls. It is on this album that Burroughs recites passages from this very same novel. I know the sound of Burroughs’s voice and I read The Western Lands as if the author himself was reading it to me. It was thus a haunting read since I associate it with the ambient and trancy music of Material.
The Western Lands was not my first Burroughs read by far, although I had only read one of his novels, Queer since I started writing book reviews. Typical of Burroughs is to make references to characters without antecedents, throwing names around as though the reader was already familiar with them. We only get to learn who these people are after reading through various non sequitur paragraphs. For the most part The Western Lands seemed an exercise in turning pages, and since I was on a week-long boat trip I could only look upon the novel as a way to occupy my time. It is difficult to discuss what the novel was about since all I could imagine was Burroughs writing it after getting high on yage. He does issue a rant against literary critics:
“Julian Chandler, book reviewer for a prestigious New York daily, knows all the tricks. He has chosen for his professional rancor the so-called Beat Movement, and perfected the art of antiwriting. Writers use words to evoke images. He uses words to obscure and destroy images.”
I like Burroughs for his imagery and use of simile, as he often comes up with comparisons that I read over and over, such as:
“The first train back to London is jammed, and the writer takes a first-class seat. Every seat in his compartment is taken. Sitting opposite him is a youngish man, reading Officers and Gentlemen. As the train pulls into Victoria Station, the man looks at him, eyes contracted in spitting hate like a poison toad.”
Phallic imagery is prevalent in The Western Lands which for Burroughs seems par for the course. The more you read it, the more you accept that it is the preoccupation of a crusty stoned closet case. The short paragraphs that compose each chapter reveal a mind wandering in a haze of hallucinogenic smoke. This was a trippy read through the journey of the seven Egyptian souls. It seemed mildly interesting–I later got past the point where all I felt I was doing was reading words on the page for the sole purpose of eventually turning them–but nothing much happens in this book nonetheless.