Mumbo Jumbo at the Movies: Naked Lunch

Buggin’ Out

By KKUURRTT and Tex Gresham

David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is a gleefully confusing film: both a pseudo-biopic of William S. Burroughs’s life and a faithful adaptation of Burroughs’s unfilmable, drug-fueled, Beat novel of the same name. Peter Weller plays William Lee, a writer and exterminator addicted to his own bug powder. After “accidentally” killing his wife Joan, Lee escapes to Interzone at the suggestion of his typewriter (a giant roach that talks out of its butthole) and the Mugwump (a hideous humanoid creature)––both of which are counter-agents to the conspiracy of Interzone, Inc. Lee tumbles into this conspiracy, marred by fugue states, love interests, black centipedes, jissom, nefarious doctors, lesbian witches, sexual typewriters, and a whole kaleidoscope of hallucinations that will infect your subconscious if you let them in.

KKUURRTT: You ever read a book before?


K: Okay. Cool. Well are you a book about a book or a movie about a movie or an adaptation about an adaptation? Or some sort of all at once situation? 

T: Yes, I’ve read a book. Once. It was okay.

K: Was that book Naked Lunch?

T: Yes.

K: You son of a bitch.

T: Yes, I have read Naked Lunch. No, it’s nothing like this movie. So just don’t start with it. Like, can’t you see I’m trying to steer us away from that kind of start?!

K: Okay then you start and I’ll be your answer boy, Mr. Visionary (suck my ass).

T: Have you ever had a typewriter that was a giant bug that talked out of its asshole?

K: Yeah, Paul, but what I wrote on it was really shitty. 

T: Oh, so you’re typing on it now . . . Anyway, is this your favorite Cronenberg movie?

K: I think it captures everything that makes him special. It’s body horror and literary and dreamy and experimental and strange—a bastardization of an adaptation that works equally in its own right because it’s made by a person who makes art just as unhinged as the source material. 

T: Totally agree. I think it’s Cronenberg stepping outside of himself to make something so untraditional that it’s a sincere cinematic accomplishment. And I think what does it for me is the unsituated nature of each scene and how they connect. Like, we’re never really given an entrance or exit to a moment. They all kind of run into each other—which is how the book is and how a fugue state feels.

K: Go fugue yourself.

T: Is that it? Are we done?

K: Effort is meaningless. Should we both just chug Nyquil and write the rest of this in the induced haze of personal delusion? Neither remembering any of the words we put to paper? Let Amy and Zé sort it out. Compile pages upon pages of nonsense and hope (not even hope) that it coalesces into something concrete and not a shoddy misrepresentation of a book of a film. 

T: Wait… Who’s Paul?

K: The typewriter I am currently writing this on. Aren’t you an agent of Interzone? Babou 691 is an Interzone publication, that much I know. You’ve been brought into the culture wars without even knowing your role. 

T: My god . . . I thought I was here to talk about the movie, Naked Lunch

K: Yes, we’ve been assigned Naked by Mike Leigh and we watched it while eating lunch (the meal after breakfast). 

T: I feel like Peter Weller—even though I’ll never be as attractive, suave, or well-acted as him.

A mugwump (under Fair Use)

MUGWUMP: Can I interest either of you boys in some jissom?

K: What kind? Psychopathically induced? Or pleasure-oriented? 

T: Dude, this tastes like bug powder.

K: That’s how you know it’s working. Kill the lizard person inside you until you’re just a husk of chitin squirming around to avoid the inevitable darkness of death. 

T: Telepathically, I want to get your thoughts on Joan and Joan in the movie? Top tier performance? Or nah?

T: Yeah, I agree.

T: I get what you’re saying in a very dense, lengthy, and complex way. It’s almost as if we don’t even need to say these things.

MUGWUMP: Y’all are fucking fired.

T: You still there?

K: Me or the readers?

T: That answered my question. Look, I think we’re going to find ourselves in a bad spot if we don’t try and at least exterminate the irrational thought and write something somewhat coherent about Naked Lunch.

K: But I feel like that would defeat the purpose. I’ve been snorting bugs for nigh on 20 years and I’m not gonna stop just because you want me to create something out of nothing. Burroughs be proud. Cronenberg be damned. It’s not so simple as taking my mask off and being some sort of actual academic. I, like William Lee, enjoy getting high and seeing the world through insect eyes. Double vision 20/20, never gonna see right again because seeing right is wrong. This whole time we’re led to believe that the way is the way, but what if it’s not the way? 

T: I’m trying to kick at the moment. So I’m starting to see things a little clearer. Like how Cronenberg creates this uneasy, half-obscured vision in his movies by putting people halfway in shadows most of the time. He does it a lot in Naked Lunch and I felt like I could never see anyone fully. Which is kinda how I see you most of the time.

K: Oh hold on, I’ll turn my camera on for our Zoom conversation. 

T: That’s better.

K: I’m thinking of the moment early on in the film where William Lee talks to his two other author buddies (cyphers for Kerouac and Ginsberg, I’m sure) and doesn’t pay a lick of attention to what either of them are saying. Writing is this selfish art. We’re trapped in our heads writing our little words and there’s no room to really see anybody else in that. Even now. I’m writing a thing and you’re writing a thing. If those things come together into any real representation of a shared reality, that’s pure magic. Most of the time it’s just staring at a typewriter ready to slam your face into it until the ‘B,’ ‘U,’ and ‘G’ imprint on your forehead.

T: Most of the time you were writing that, I wasn’t paying attention. And that’s what the narrative of the whole movie feels like. Lee isn’t paying attention to anything. So we’re getting everything, but only fragments of what exists outside his fugue states while on bug powder or black centipede jam or Mugwump tentacle goo. And that’s what makes this, for me, so adventurous. The complete abandon of rational cinematic thought.

K: And yet you’re asking for rationality here? I just can’t fathom a world where that’s the appropriate reaction. The film, while being impossible, feels like a documentary. As if this is really what Burroughs experienced. We’re off our rockers. Any sense of firm and solid ground went out the window the second we went into this document to try and find some stable ground to create from.

T: But see, that’s why I have a visceral respect for this movie. It’s not an adaptation of an impossible-to-adapt book. It’s an adaptation of the idea of the book and the idea of a man’s life who lived in an almost constant state of reality abuse. So when the two are combined it gives not only a feeling of a literary narrative, but also of the interiority of that slippery mentality and an entire era of art/writing—the Beats or whatever.

K: We’re living in this cultural moment of autofic in the literary world. Take Sam Pink for example. Author of Person and Garbage Times/White Ibis. Something along these lines would be the only way to adapt his style and experiences captured from the page to a screen. In that it’s just as much the person behind the page as what comes out on it. It’s why the Walter Salles adaptation of On the Road is so trash. It’s not the idea of the book. It IS the book. The idea of On the Road is actually getting in a car and driving. The idea of Naked Lunch is losing yourself in drugs to the point that you are the narrative—you are writing. Cronenberg understands this. He’s adapting voice. Because that’s all that’s there in this book. More filmmakers should be so fearless with their source material. Create your own art from art. Not adapt art straight. Hmm… I love my Pablo Picasso podcast but it doesn’t do his art justice. 

T: But the moment in this movie, the William Tell routine, is made even more tragic in that we know it’s real and it’s repeated because it is THE thing that makes him a writer. So taking the tragic moment and including it as a fictionalized, thematic plot point is definitely taking that adaptation of source material and skewing it in a disrespectfully appropriate way. Because in the end, when he shoots second Joan in the head and the guard says “Welcome to Annexia,” what he’s really saying is “Welcome to your life as a lonely, respected, and hated writer.”

K: Yup, that’s writing . . .

PAUL: Will youse two stop chattering and rub some of that bug powder on my lips?

Naked Lunch also stars Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider and the Mugwump. KKUURRTT and Tex are frequent collaborators. Together they host a postmodern film podcast with the same name as this column.

KKUURRTT is glad you read his thing. His novel Good at Drugs is forthcoming from Alien Buddha Press. He can be found on Twitter at @wwwkurtcom

Tex Gresham is the author of Heck, Texas (Atlatl Press). His work has appeared in Hobart, F(r)iction, The Normal School, BOOTH, and Back Patio Press. He lives in Las Vegas with his partner and kid. He’s on Twitter as @thatsqueakypig and online at