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Revisiting William S. Burroughs’ ‘The Junky’s Christmas’

Dec 13, 2012

As Christmas approaches, it’s as good a time as any to revisit William S. Burroughs short story, and the short, animated claymation film it spawned, “The Junky’s Christmas.” First, some background.

William S. Burroughs—god bless his junky, astral-projecting soul—spent his life exploring underworlds, subcultures and “interzones,” from American cities to Northern Africa and South America, always searching, transforming, but never knowing quite where the searching and transforming might lead. He was variously a Harvard student, exterminator, a junky, homosexual, killer, artist, musician, ethnobiologist and, later, a chaos magician, to name but a few of his temporary exoskeletons.

The junky aspect of his life, in my opinion, is secondary to his more alchemical explorations of the human psyche with friend and artist Brion Gysin. A lover of science fiction, interested in the intersection of science and pseudoscience, Burroughs gave us gems such as this: “Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.”

This sort of statement was typical of Burroughs. He simultaneously projected outward and inward, even postulating that dreams were the human species’ mechanism for training the soul to exist in a vacuum (space). The fact is that the long march of evolution designed the human species for life here on Earth. The human body would simply deteriorate in space. So when Burroughs said Man “is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole,” we know just what he had in mind: Man would shed the body like a butterfly sheds its chrysalis.

Lost beneath the veneer of Burroughs’ self-propagated myth and his cut-up technique is a man who was every bit as good a satirist as Mark Twain or Jonathon Swift, to whom he was often compared. Another satirical analogue would be Kurt Vonnegut. With that in mind, two of Burroughs’ greatest pieces of satire, to my mind, are his “Thanksgiving Prayer,” which Gus Van Sant directed as a short film, and “The Junky’s Prayer.” The former examines the absurdity of celebrating a holiday of thanks when America has been the instigator and party to various national and international atrocities. With the latter, Burroughs subverts the heavily-advertised American Christmas cheer with the down and out existence of junk addiction.

“The Junky’s Prayer” first appeared as the fourth story in the short story collection “Interzone,” published in 1989 by Viking Penguin. Burroughs recorded “The Junky’s Prayer” and “Spare Ass Annie” with musical accompaniment on the album “Spare Ass Annie & Other Tales.” Filmmakers Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel later adapted “The Junky’s Prayer” into a short claymation film, which Francis Ford Coppola produced. Shot in black and white, the resulting film is odd, hilarious and strange; especially since Burroughs narrates in his trademark nasal and rhythmic patter, which sometimes sounded vaguely like a calf that had been gifted with the power of speech.

Watch Donkin and McDaniel’s short film below, and dig Danny the Carwiper’s junky Christmas and “immaculate fix”—a minor animated masterpiece.

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