Deciphering Burroughs

Photo of Oliver Harris by Rudy Rucker

Everything Lost: the Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, written by Oliver Harris and published by RealityStudio on 17 December 2007. You can order Everything Lost at Amazon.

Mr. Harris talks aboutĀ researching and writing the book on RealityStudio.org:

“In November 2002, Grauerholz referred to it as ‘Mexico City Return,’ because the most immediate significance of the Notebook is that it contains most of the first draft of the typescript used for the Epilogue given that title and added to Queer in his 1985 edit. In fact, the contract signed by the Burroughs Estate and OSUP in March 2003 was, a little inaccurately, for a work entitled ‘Mexico City Return: The Yage Notebook of William S. Burroughs, 1951.’ But for a long time we mainly referred to it as ‘the Peru Notebook.’ I didn’t come up with the title ‘Everything Lost’ until much later.”

“One of the great interests of Everything Lost as a contribution to Burroughs scholarship is the chance it gives to see inside, to get detailed insight into the processes of both writing and editing. That’s to say, you can see Burroughs the writer at work here – moving back and forth between travel diary reportage, intimate personal reflections, records of dreams, and dramatic routines, so that fact and fiction, waking and dream worlds segue into each another – and you can see something of how the process of editing happens too. The actual work of transcription isn’t so self-evident, however. The first few pages are written in a very steady, clear holograph, legible to most readers. But increasingly, there are passages of hurried writing, with numerous cancellations and erasures. With illegible words, I often went about the task of transcription by playing a kind of academic hangman: you look at illegible words and ask yourself, of each letter, could that be an ‘a’, a ‘b’, a ‘c’, and so on. Since the permutations in this mechanical method are enormous, you have to work intuitively at the same time. Naturally, the less context you have – where, say, a whole sentence is illegible – the harder it is and the more you rely on following hunches. Many times you stare at a word and it’s as if you have it on the tip of your tongue. That feeling can last a long time.”

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2 thoughts on “Deciphering Burroughs

  1. Interesting post. You always make me think. Burroughs is enigma, puzzling because one always gets the feeling that Burroughs was writing as close to the bone as a man could.

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