by Perry Meisel
The Place of Dead Roads. By William S. Burroughs. 306 pp. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. $15.95.
William S. Burroughs is probably still best known for Naked Lunch (1959), a savage confession designed to break the rules of both social and literary decorum as violently as heroin had broken the will of its autobiographical hero. Naked Lunch not only exemplified the Beat subculture out of which Mr. Burroughs emerged; it also prophesied the wider fate of the American sensibility well into the next two decades. By the time the counterculture of the 1960's succeeded the Beats, license had become the law, and Mr. Burroughs had become a principal avatar of the liberationist esthetic he helped create.
By now, Mr. Burroughs's early work may appear anachronistic, even though both Naked Lunch and the work of his subsequent middle phase - particularly The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and Nova Express (1964) - have led to accolades from an enduring cult that heralds him as an American original and a major innovator in experimental fiction. To be sure, Mr. Burroughs's novels have all the markings of a studious infatuation with modern literature. Harvard-educated and a legendary cosmopolitan, he has pursued that infatuation as aggressively as he once pursued narcotics, and the pursuit has resulted in an almost textbook replica of the techniques of James Joyce's polylogues and T. S. Eliot's fragmented verse narratives throughout the novels on which his literary reputation has been based for 20 years.
With the publication of Cities of the Red Night in 1981, Mr. Burroughs entered a new phase, presenting his own vision with exactitude and originality. Gone was the slavish scrambling of syntax, sequence and sense. Instead, the novel presented two neat, clipped narratives - a detective story and an account of a young sailor's adventures in 1702. The book's climax comes when the two plots collide, and the collision is extraordinary. The stories join as the youngster from the 18th century eventually exchanges identities with the missing suburban boy from the present whom the novel's deadpan sleuth, Clem Snide, has been hired to find.
In fact, the two merge quite literally by means of a bizarre, quasi-medical procedure in which the head of one boy is transferred onto the body of the other, making Mr. Burroughs's long interest in telepathy or astral projection a physical as well as a psychic reality in his books. The key is time travel and conspiratorial cloning, technologies controlled by feuding cosmic cabals that link the Central Intelligence Agency and the Mafia with the wizards and sorcerers of mythical ''cities of the red night'' located somewhere near the Gobi Desert 100,000 years ago. The picture grows more complicated when intelligence from outer space is shown to have had a role in the manipulation of time by the ancients. Cities of the Red Night becomes a reeling universe of ''Transmigrants and Receptacles,'' where Mr. Burroughs's characters even get star tan from their travels.
Mr. Burroughs takes the premises of cosmic conspiracy and time travel a step further in his new novel, The Place of Dead Roads, continuing to fulfill a wish he expressed in The Soft Machine, to produce a mythology durable enough for the space age. In no way an attempt at generic science fiction, Mr. Burroughs's new novel, like Cities of the Red Night,' is really an extension of his earlier work - but only now have his intentions become plain. Even Naked Lunch contained enigmatic allusions to star travel and cosmic struggle, but it was not until The Soft Machine and Nova Express that exchange of identities, interplanetary transit and galactic war between the forces of tyranny and freedom became real activities rather than mere metaphors in the world Mr. Burroughs creates. Cities of the Red Night, his best novel, made all this especially convincing and absorbing because the prose was less ostentatiously surreal than before, so the reader experienced the kind of vertigo Mr. Burroughs's characters had to contend with. In The Place of Dead Roads, he adds to both the scope and the settings of his mythology.
The emergence of his new hero, Kim Carsons, is already foreshadowed in Cities of the Red Night by the appearance there of Audrey Carsons, who was originally Clem Snide, the detective. Late in the story, he is transmuted into a frontier rowdy who knows Wyatt Earp and the Clantons thanks to the artistry of time warping and identity transfer. As the names suggest, Mr. Burroughs is interested in the Old West as well as in time travel and interplanetary strife. Kim is a gunslinger, or ''shootist,'' who goes West in the 1880's to form a cowboy conspiracy Mr. Burroughs calls ''the Johnson family.'' The moniker is borrowed from Western lore and denotes the proverbial bond of honor among thieves and murderers.
Despite a largely naturalistic style and an often conventional mode of storytelling, The Place of Dead Roads slips and slides in time and place - almost unaccountably until one is again reminded that a transpersonal web links everything together. Like the boys in Cities of the Red Night, Kim and his Robin Hood outlaws are really agents in a vast organization; they are allied with Venusian political insurgents in a fight for galactic liberation. Time travel, space travel and cloning again account for the oddities in what is otherwise a predictably Beat picaresque novel. At one moment Kim is at a shoot-out on Bleecker Street on Oct. 23, 1920, but in a flash he is in Boulder, Colo., on Sept. 17, 1899. And he is on Venus on Nov. 19, 1980.
Wherever he is, Kim is connected to a network of Johnsons that spans time and space. He can travel more easily than Mr. Burroughs's earlier characters because the technology of the author's universe has progressed beyond the surgical time transport of Cities of the Red Night. Now the technique of transport is simple, far superior to organ transfer, since it encodes and transmits every variety of life-form by genetic engineering. By implication, space and time travel need no longer be bound by the limitations of bodily form, psychological identity or even natural conception. Instead, in Mr. Burroughs's ideal state, ''identity'' consists of random particles drawn from the infinite reaches of space and time. Like the distortion of the name Kit Carson, everything in The Place of Dead Roads is a trifle out of focus, testimony to the presence of another point in time in another place always synchronous with the one the reader - or the characters - occupy. ''Kim's memory of his past life,'' the narrator says, is ''spotty. Sometimes he feels he is getting someone else's memories.''
Kim even writes a book, ''Quien es?'' (''Who is it?''). That title suggests how difficult it is to tell heroes from villains, or friends from foes. Like Dr. Benway - an omnipresent figure in Mr. Burroughs's work, whose cures are always more painful than the diseases they are meant to correct - Kim and his band are almost as unlovable as the space gangs opposing them. Indeed, this shifting vortex of a world is so unstable that the very maintenance of personal identity is almost impossible. Even Kim, it turns out, is more than one person, having been genetically recycled at least 10 times. ''Sometimes he shifted his identity ten times in the course of a day.''
To imagine such a world is one thing; to represent it is another. The advance in technology in Mr. Burroughs's magnificent universe is not matched by similar advances in the writer's style. Cities of the Red Night had promised a new narrative strategy. It featured the cool flow of an almost hard-boiled realism, punctured only late in the story when the novel revealed its cosmic intentions. Mr. Burroughs then had good reason to use the Joycean mannerisms of his middle phase in an attempt to show how all things metamorphose into one another in the book's concluding sections.
In The Place of Dead Roads, Mr. Burroughs tries to play the two styles off against each other, and the result is a watery realism on the one hand and a now tiresome imitation of the Joycean approach on the other. If the former is too loose compared to the realistic portions of Cities of the Red Night, the latter is too mechanical. In retrospect, much of his writing seems like that. Joyce's apparently foolish puns and juxtapositions have an internal logic that detonates almost endless possibilities of meaning; Mr. Burroughs's use of such techniques is meretricious. Rather than build his world, as Joyce does, through montages that yield detail and density when scrutinized closely, too often he takes the short cut of simply swathing signs and images together to be strange and absurd. His justification is doubtless the Beat poet Brion Gysin's theory of ''cut-ups,'' with which Mr. Burroughs has long been associated; it defines literary composition as the assemblage of bits and pieces of discourse at random.
In fact, his zaniest writing is still obliged to Joyce, and so is the bold idea behind it. Mr. Burroughs's time travel is a logical extension of Joyce's notion of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, in Ulysses. As Joyce puts it, ''we . . . weave and unweave our bodies . . . their molecules shuttled to and fro.'' The description elucidates Mr. Burroughs's ideas at least as well as Joyce's own.
Mr. Burroughs also follows his contemporaries very closely. There is recent precedent for some components of his vision. The mixture of experimental writing and popular forms is already present in Eliot's work, as well as in Gertrude Stein's, and it has become the very subject of fiction as different as Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew and the stories of Donald Barthelme. Many of his notions about corporality and molecular coding have been adumbrated in significant science fiction as old as the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. Even the ''cut- up'' technique owes a lot not only to Joyce but to Eliot's program of distributing lines from earlier poets among his verses and to a somewhat literal interpretation of Ezra Pound's Imagist poetics. And Julio Cortazar had put ''cut-ups'' and detective fiction together in his 1963 jigsaw-puzzle mystery, Hopscotch. On balance, Mr. Burroughs is more a comprehensive historian of modern literature than a practitioner of it.
Too learned to be simply an example of what Lionel and Diana Trilling called the ''modernism in the streets'' of the Beat Generation, Mr. Burroughs's project is really a soft Modernism that relies on effect more than effectiveness, suggestion more than achievement. Unlike his late partisan and friend Jack Kerouac, he does not radiate the deep passion that commands attention, whatever the shortcomings of style.
Such overt and inescapable discipleship may well point to the ultimate irony of Beat, counterculture and many other brands of post-Modern esthetics. They are indebted to a modern tradition of revolt that inveighs above all against indebtedness, against the staleness of habit or convention. (Mr. Burroughs blandly cites most of the relevant literary representatives in each of his books.) Although kicking ''junk'' has symbolized kicking all habits for Mr. Burroughs ever since Naked Lunch, kicking the habit is the very habit of modern literature itself.
His is a position of untenable contradiction. As the stylistic impasses of The Place of Dead Roads suggest, his work as a whole is caught in an insoluble quandary. The very signature of his originality is the signature of someone else. While this may be the kind of truth his own fiction portrays to the extent that it can, it is also the truth that modern writers have the most difficulty accepting - unless (as great writers always do) one is willing to outsmart it. The decline of the avant-garde - at least of a Modernist or post-Modernist avant-garde - is already well under way, but Mr. Burroughs remains one of its more intriguing figures.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1984