If ever a human life was a palimpsest, it was that of William S. Burroughs. Caveney's (Shopping in Space, not reviewed) captivated biography begins with the premise that there is no knowing Burroughs without proper understanding of the myths that so insistently grew up around him; in literature, as in agriculture, the weeds say something of the soil. Caveney, a British literary scholar, is an able deconstructionist and fine writer, very much up to the particular biographical challenges presented by his subject. He notes that Burroughs's forgettable undergraduate years at Harvard —appear to have been spent cultivating the art of invisibility, casting himself as a fugitive from an establishment of which he was a part." Judiciously quoting Burroughs throughout, the author lingers over the thousand familiar stories about him, seems even to relish them as the primary source material this study requires. While the reader will be occasionally unpersuaded by the kinds of induction upon which Caveney's analysis depends, the methodology is eminently useful in its discovery of the cultural nerves that Burroughs, wittingly or not, repeatedly struck. Neither is there a shortage of the more local biographical detail—who met whom, and when, and where—to which all chronicles of the Beat movement and its denizens succumb to greater or lesser extent. Caveney, for his part, is copious but not overbearing, expanding his scope to incorporate Burroughs's influence on figures as disparate as the late rock musician Kurt Cobain, poet John Giorno, and novelist Terry Southern. Mention must here be made of the book's remarkable graphic design. Its cut-and-paste aesthetic (with text superimposed over art) is a mirror of Burroughs's own that, rather than distract the reader from the text, quietly reinforces the extent of this legacy, which perhaps has always been less about literature than spectacle, the odd event of seeing life enact itself over and against the words we use to describe it.
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