The Soft Machine (1961) by William S. Burroughs

A Brief Summary and Review

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By Christiaan Tonnis (flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Soft Machine (1961) is a semi-continuation of what Burroughs began in Naked Lunch (1959) and also seems to be a prelude to Nova Express (1964). This novel, in typical Burroughs fashion (read: shocking, course, disturbing, blunt, incoherent, etc.) rants on the abuses of power, the "Red Scare," racism and segregation, sexism, homophobia, drug abuse, and more. 

The cut-up style of prose is interesting and certainly ground-breaking for the time (reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, but less poetic sensuality and more raw sexuality) although it is not particularly novel to those familiar with Burroughs' work.

Readers will find more similarities to Naked Lunch than, say, The Wild Boys (1971), which is to say that it is, in general, a less accessible read.

Burroughs is still hilarious, and still refuses to pull any punches. His writing style, including prose and language, are incredibly blunt, often to the point of hyperbole. Similarly, the themes at issue are equally raw and are discussed in equally confrontational fashion. Burroughs ends many of the chapters by re-phrasing or summarizing what had been said/done throughout the chapter in a brief, chopped-up review, as if the narrator is having flashbacks that largely incomprehensible and out-of-focus. These moments are seemingly drug-induced or drug-hazed memories, incapable of being fully grasped, and typically without meaning for the narrator ("Johnny" - they're all "Johnny"). 

Speaking of "Johnny:" One of the more amusing peculiarities in this book is that all of the many characters of many nationalities, located in many parts of the globe (mainly Latin-American) refer to the American boys as "Johnny." This is a nice, satirical throw-back to the All-American G.I.

"Johnny," clean-cut and wholesome. Well, until Burroughs gets his hands on them.

It would be difficult to pretend to understand Burroughs or his brand of genius. We might defer to the author Joan Didion, who says of Burroughs, "[his] voice is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the clichés and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure....it is precisely this voice -- complex, subtle, allusive--that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine."

Serious, inventive, free, and funny. These terms all certainly apply to Burroughs. As far as imagination and free-expression go, we are hard-pressed to name many authors who rise above William Burroughs. Peculiar optimism? Subtlety?  These descriptors are more difficult to reconcile.  It is a challenge to wade through much of Burroughs' “nonsense” without getting lost. We should remember, however, that this could be Burroughs' intent; most of his stories are told through the eyes of drugged-out narrators, after-all. 

Many readers might be justifiably repulsed by the incessant use of crass language and by the crude, repetitive descriptions of "rectal mucous,” petroleum jelly, and such things. For Burroughs, language is power. We should keep in mind that Burroughs and his generation were responding to McCarthy-era oppression and that, for them, writing was an act of rebellion and of freedom. Still, one might wonder if Burroughs is even capable of reigning himself in, of tightening up his ideas, of delivering a well-conceived, purposeful, and understandable plot. Would it make a difference?  Maybe. Would it get Burroughs' point across in as effective a manner? Probably not.

While not all readers will enjoy The Soft Machine, most will applaud Burroughs' honesty, imagination, and bold social-conscience.

Certain lines and references are laugh-out-loud funny; other moments attempt a serious critique of bigotry and ignorance. In the end, if we wade through the many descriptive images of tape worms and cannibalism, we might just discover something quite meaningful in Burroughs' message.