Reading Room Review: Nova Express by William S Burroughs
First published in 1964, Nova Express by Williams S Burroughs continued the literary experimentation that he had begun with his earlier books Naked Lunch and Interzone. Like those works, it challenges the very nature of what a novel is. There are no main characters, rather names like the Subliminal Kid, which drift in and out of the text alongside details of their actions or words – and even these cannot be depended on. The narrative shifts continually, sometimes within a sentence. Burroughs uses the ‘cut up’ technique that he had pioneered with Naked Lunch: passages of texts are broken up and rearranged to allow the possibility of new meanings breaking through. The overall result is like a high concept remix of a distantly familiar song.
The book is lewd, cruel and at times, utterly hypnotic. The narrative, such as it is, concerns a war between the parasitical Nova Mob and the Nova Police, with the Earth caught in the middle and being plunged into silence and death. Burroughs plays this as a metaphor for systems in which authority creates the crimes it fights as a means to sustain the understood terms that keep it in power. He also uses to it ruminate on the way in which life exploits and uses other life to its advantage. The aliens, a shifting array of claws, scales, mucus and other bodily fluids, are part nightmare drug pushers, part cultural imperialists. No-one, criminal or legal, human or alien, comes out of this book with much credit. Occasionally I was unexpectedly reminded of the cult cynical SF series Blake’s 7. The name Death Dwarf summoned images of the actor Deep Roy – a veteran of the genre – in outlandish prosthetics.
Words are at the heart of Nova Express. Burroughs uses them as weapons against known meanings – the lies of authority and criminal alike – to allow obscured meanings to be briefly glimpsed. Reading the book is like being caught in a whirlwind of words through which ideas, names, fragments of story emerge and are then swept away. A times this is thrilling. I certainly felt the darker parts of my own mind resonate in sympathy in a way that was both exciting and vaguely unsettling. At other times, the barrage of broken phrases is bewildering and can start to feel frustrating. Occasionally, it is downright boring.
It struck me how much Burroughs’ prose style managed to anticipate the experience of online life; switching from experience to experience, location to location in a moment. Despite the use of some racial terms that now feel uncomfortable, Nova Express still feels modern. It’s cyberpunk with the emphasis on punk. Like many radical experiment – and over fifty years later it can still be called radical – it’s only part way successful, but when it does succeed, the book rewards the reader’s patience.
I couldn’t recommend this novel to everyone, but if you have a taste for the experimental and challenging and a willingness to engage with nihilism, Nova Express is a ride worth trying.
My next book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon