Review: Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs

“Who was I? The stranger was footsteps in the snow a long time ago.”
~William S. Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night

Plot summary

“An opium addict is lost in the jungle; young men wage war against an empire of mutants; a handsome young pirate faces his execution; and the world’s population is infected with a radioactive epidemic. These stories are woven together in a single tale of mayhem and chaos.

In the first novel of the trilogy continued in The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands, William Burroughs sharply satirizes modern society in a poetic and shocking story of sex, drugs, disease and adventure.” More on Goodreads

On William S. Burroughs

“William Seward Burroughs II (1914–1997) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer. A primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author, he is considered to be ‘one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the 20th century’. His influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature.

Junkie. Photo: Christopher Dombres (Public Domain)
Junkie. Photo: Christopher Dombres (Public Domain)

He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, (…) and later attended medical school in Vienna. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Navy in 1942 to serve in World War II, he dropped out and became afflicted with the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of what became the countercultural movement of the Beat Generation.

Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a controversy-fraught work that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Wavy and poetic nonsense
  • Sexual fantasies and time travel
  • The length of the nude male body

“Language is a virus from outer space.” ~William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs – the good old Beatnik – is an ingenious and peculiar author. I was laughing out loud throughout the whole novel, the over-the-top fascination of the male body did it. I read somewhere that persons looking for an adventure and the female nudity should look elsewhere – that is indeed true, they might be disappointed with Burroughs 🙂

Gas station. Photo: Patrick Emerson (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Gas station. Photo: Patrick Emerson (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Reading Cities of the Red Night comes at a good timing because I think a lot within the last year has been dedicated to the fascination of the male body. I have to admit that when I purchased the Museum Card – an excellent bargain giving 365 days of access to around 250 museums in Finland for only 59 Euros – I did it mainly for the Tom of Finland exhibition at Kunsthalle in Helsinki. I went to the exhibition with my mom and we loved the drawings, advertisements and graphic art done by the masterful Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland.

Shortly before I started reading Cities of the Red Night, I went to see the recently released film Tom of Finland. There again, the fantasy-filled and fictional character Kake shows up in the visions of the main character.

However, I would not like to place Burroughs and Tom of Finland in the same dimension. Cities of the Red Night is most of all a rather unconventional tale of drug-induced nightmares and chaos, whereas the realm of Tom of Finland is nothing short of decency in an indecent world of inequality.

Mr. Burroughs’s eternal tale is told in varying modes. Sometimes it is a fantasy of life aboard a pirate ship. Sometimes it is the story of a private eye investigating the hanging and decapitation of various attractive young victims. Sometimes his decor derives from sci-fi of the more brain-damaged variety, as in the following account of the transmigration of souls in a utopia of strangulation:

William Seward Burroughs II. Photo: Steve Hammond (CC BY-ND 2.0)
William Seward Burroughs II. Photo: Steve Hammond (CC BY-ND 2.0)

‘These hardy Transmigrants, in the full vigor of maturity, after rigorous training in concentration and astral projection, would select two death guides to kill them in front of the copulating parents. The methods of death most commonly employed were hanging and strangulation, the Transmigrant dying in orgasm, which was considered the most reliable method of ensuring a successful transfer. Drugs were also developed, large doses of which occasioned death in erotic convulsions, smaller doses being used to enhance sexual pleasure. … In time, death by natural causes became a rare and rather discreditable occurrence. …’” (Disch 1981)

With Burroughs, in the end, one is left perplexed but also with a vivid imagination. One cannot stop thinking about the interwoven layers of the stories, what actually took place and which things really happened and which part might have been mere visions of the characters. The options are endless, so the novel haunts one for a while.

Originally I bought the novel for my partner with a guilty pleasure. It is hard to buy books for other people, one is selective and the choices are always wrong ones. That is why I seldom wish to have other people make the book selection for me, usually I end up not liking the results. I admit that I purchased Burroughs mostly for selfish reasons – so that I could read the book myself (I know it’s terrible, ha?). But – and this is the nice part – since I was laughing so much out loud during the read and sometimes read passages from the book, my partner might eventually read the novel himself as well. So, all is good so far.

At times I thought that the phone is going to ring any minute and the 1970’s is going to call to get their pills back. On many occasions nothing made sense in the novel, but the chaotic plot did not suffer from the great beat and rhythm. Why does everyone expect there to be sense in this world anyways?

I wish you a most splendid spring time, take care and enjoy the sun!

Other novels and stories by Burroughs
  • Junkie (1953)
  • Naked Lunch (1959)
  • Exterminator! (1960)
  • The Nova Trilogy (1961-1964)
  • The Yage Letters (1963), in cooperation with Allen Ginsberg
  • The Wild Boys (1969)
  • The Red Night Trilogy (1981-1987)
  • Queer (1985)
  • The Cat Inside (1986)
  • And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (2008), in cooperation with Jack Kerouac
William S. Burroughs. Photo: Christiaan Tonnis (CC BY-SA 2.0)
William S. Burroughs. Photo: Christiaan Tonnis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More information
– James Campbell: Struggles with the Ugly Spirit – Obituary: William S. Burroughs, published in the Guardian on 4 August 1997, link retrieved on 17 March 2017
– Thomas M. Disch: Pleasures of Hanging, published in The New York Times on 15 March 1981, link retrieved on 17 March 2017

“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”
~William S. Burroughs, The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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