The patchwork of oral history continues with two long, strange stories, and some smaller pieces that introduce highly specialized knowledge and a peppering of technical language. We meet a character who changes from a “she” to a “he,” and the book begins to embody more characteristics of encyclopedic narrative and postmodern play. While there are a lot of mysteries going on, only one of which is “solved,” there’s still nothing yet about a scrapbook, lost or otherwise (apart from the work itself as a lost scrapbook, of course), but there are more corporate shenanigans.
For some reason my default reading of the title is a machine that produces soft, rather than a machine that is soft…i dont really know what’s up with me either.
A notion from Simon O’ Sullivan that I really like is that when political/ethical/theoretical discourse gets stuck in a rut and begins looping itself, literary fiction comes along and “scrambles the known codes, upsets the accepted formulae.” Burroughs’ experiments with cutting up text and with chance-based composition square with the upheavals occurring in the humanities in the sixities — THE SOFT MACHINE rails against the comforting neutrality of language and reality, showing words, time, and space to be finite dimensions that can bottom out at any moment. Not that Burroughs had any stock in reality to begin with. His serious investment in conspiracy theories embodies all the antisemitism that implies, and his contempt for women reeks from at least a few of these pages.
His style was the kind of discipline that cant really be accommodated by books or by publication since his texts arent things that can be “finished.” Like Wong Kar-wai, whose movies are made in the editing room with change after change right down to premier hour, Burroughs constantly re-mixed and re-issued, even cutting and taping changes to the galleys. Oliver Harris in the introduction has to inform us that SM is not only the first volume of the Nova trilogy, but is itself a trilogy of three different editions.
Needless to say you dont really know what’s going on as you read this work, which is basically the result of cutting together deleted scenes from NAKED LUNCH with a swath of other material, both original and from other writers, to form an acid space opera. But im totally on board with this cut-up/fold-in practice. If conventional novels create stable, “realistic” worlds that you could almost step into and explore, then SOFT MACHINE itself, like the best experimental novels, feels alive with all its undulating sliminess and organic froth. Not recommended for readers with insect phobias.