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200 × 130 × 16 mm
224 pages
34 illustrations
01 May 2010
Critical Lives
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William S. Burroughs Phil Baker

Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) is an iconic figure of the Beat generation. In this revealing study Phil Baker traces this cult writer's life - from the New York underworld of the 1940s to Mexico and the South American jungle, Tangier and the writing of Naked Lunch, Paris and the Beat Hotel, 1960s London, and small-town Kansas - in order to investigate his work as an autobiographical explorer of altered consciousness and inner space, reporting back from the frontiers of his experience.

After accidentally shooting his wife in 1951, Burroughs felt it was his destiny to struggle with the 'Ugly Spirit' that had possessed him. His early absorption in psychoanalysis gave way to Scientology and demonology, and he came to believe in an increasingly magical universe, sending curses and operating a 'wishing machine'. His paranoid vision and his lifelong preoccupation with freedom and its opposites - all forms of addiction and control - finally evolved into a concern with ecology and an all-out ethical conflict between good people who live and let live, or 'Johnsons', and those who impose themselves on others, wrecking the planet in the process.

Drawing on newly available material, and rooted in Burroughs's vulnerable emotional life and seminal friendships, this insightful book provides a lucid and powerful account of his career and significance.

‘Bakers vivid critical study of the Beat novelist Burroughs zings with the same energy and humour as his subject's fiction. Judiciously matching the biography to the books, Baker follows Burroughss peregrinations from his relationship with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in New York, to Mexico, where he accidentally shot dead his wife, and eventually to Tangier, where he wrote his best-known work, The Naked Lunch. A literary life that is as entertaining as it is indispensable as a guide to Burroughss writing.’ — Sunday Times

‘lucid and readable . . . manages to pick its through way through most of Burroughs's major motivations and curious obsessions, and serves as a good introductory text for general readers, as well as a model of concision for Beat aficionados. Repeatedly, in various ways, it asks: just what possessed Burroughs?’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘Baker's book is an excellent introduction’ — Stride Magazine

‘Baker has made extensive use of Burroughs' letters, and from these, extrapolates Burroughs' perspective on events within the context of his biography. It sounds such an obvious approach, but it does add a new dimension to the Burroughs story and provides a fascinating insight by working from this angle. Whats more . . . there is a greater sense of the way in which the writing and the living were intertwined. The other biographies not only separate the two (and thus compartmentalise the writing as secondary), but also seem to focus so much on the non-literary biographical events that one could come to believe that Burroughs simply conjured books out of thin air . . .’ — Christopher Nosnibor

‘Obviously researched with some thoroughness, Bakers finely cut biography of Burroughs hits the spot as well as Burroughs once did in an infamous episode he was involved with down in Mexico City . . . For all the often nightmarish twists of events in Burroughs life, he is a biographers dream.This biography comes up trumps where grander, better placed ones have come up short. The precise, condensed style makes for a fast moving read’ — Beat Scene

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Phil Baker’s previous books include a critical study of Samuel Beckett and a cultural history of absinthe. He lives in London and walks everywhere.

1    St Louis Blues
2    The Hidden Antagonist
3    New York, New York
4    Go South, Young Man
5    A Slip of the Gun
6    Tangier and Naked Lunch
7    Paris: Cut-ups at the Beat Hotel
8    Burroughs 1960-65: Undesirable Alien
9    Swinging London, 1966-73
10  Holding the Bunker
11  Kansas 1981-97: Adiós Muchachos

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