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Nova Express, Page 2

William S. Burroughs

  If Burroughs’ “Last Words” are not “too late,” there is “One hope left in the universe: Plan D”: “Plan D called for Total Exposure.” The title of the book’s second section, “Prisoners, Come Out,” confirms that Burroughs updates the philosophy lesson of the cave in Plato’s Republic, and at times readers surely feel like reacting in the same way to the man who says we’re all chained in darkness and everything we know and love is an illusion. “Don’t listen to Hassan i Sabbah”? Enforced liberation from our temporal existence is more than we bargained for, but it’s what Burroughs is offering. In a 1961 typescript he identifies his writing as a war machine for time travel out of time itself: “This is war between those of us who want out and those who want to keep us all locked in time. The cut ups are not for artistic purposes. The cut ups are a weapon a sword. I bring not peace but pieces.”9


  Before it was published in book form, Burroughs recorded a longer, utterly compelling performance of “Last Words,” and I still recall the cold chill of discovering one of the original tapes in a room of the Special Collections Department at Kansas University one winter evening in Lawrence, November 1984. I was immediately mesmerized in my headphones, and have remained so ever since. Three decades later, anyone with access to the Internet can listen to “Last Words” anytime, and follow it by not just more audio tracks from the book but by watching Burroughs perform in Towers Open Fire, the 1963 short based on passages from Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded directed by Antony Balch. Here his voice, intoning a curse over images of film canisters, is perfectly described as “icily malignant and metallic.”10 Burroughs plays a dozen different roles—from secret agent in black gloves and a fedora hat to gun-toting guerrilla fighter in combat fatigues and a gas mask—and the fact that his gun fires Ping-Pong balls and was bought from Hamleys toy shop in London does nothing to undermine the force of the film or the conviction that Burroughs was anything other than deadly serious.

  Our easy digital access to Burroughs’ 1960s audiotape recordings and film performances has a double significance for how to read Nova Express in the twenty-first century. First, it confirms that his book cannot be confined to the category of the “literary” or its scenario contained within the fiction. In Nova Express, it is not the writer who acts out multiple roles in an imaginary war to save the planet. On the contrary: “One of our agents is posing as a writer.” What Burroughs was doing was much more than self-dramatization and may have been paranoid self-delusion, but it is categorically not postmodern literary self-reflexivity: “We all thought we were interplanetary agents involved in a deadly struggle,” he mused in his final novel, The Western Lands (1988), before insisting; “The danger and the fear were real enough.”11 Burroughs’ absolute immersion in the cut-up project, his evangelical promotion and daily living of it, had a dark side—­unleashing for a while an ugly megalomania, misogyny, and anti-Semitism—but it is integral to the power of his texts and our experience of them.

  The availability of Burroughs’ work in multiple media also establishes that Nova Express does not belong to the field of “experimental literature,” in the usual sense of formally innovative writing. Up until the publication of Naked Lunch in summer 1959, it was still possible to think of Burroughs as “a writer”; not so from that point on. Progressively developing his “third mind” with Brion Gysin, the painter who shared the original cut-up method with him in Paris in October 1959, Burroughs no longer “wrote” but carried out a series of ritualistic activities and empirical operations in one medium or another, from one technology to another. When Gregory Corso asked what “department” he worked for in a 1961 interview, Burroughs replied, “Kunst und Wissenschaft,”12 and the Foreword Note to Nova Express accordingly frames the book in terms of both the arts and sciences. It’s revealing that Nova Express not only refers to Gysin’s paintings and Dreamachine (“flicker cylinders and projectors”) but cross-references them with experimental equipment such as Wilhelm Reich’s orgone accumulator and the sensory isolation tanks built by John Lilly, correlating aesthetic and scientific means and ends.

  Nova Express is not so much “experimental writing” as a device for conducting experiments on the reader: learning to “read” cut-ups means not only experiencing textual time travel but living in a new medium, maybe to mutate and grow “purple fungoid gills” like the amphibious Fish People. Taking quite literally the scientific meaning of “experiment” and the military sense of “avant-garde,” and pushing both to the limits, Burroughs’ cut-up project was a decade-long commitment to research and development across a broad range of techniques and technologies in which he collaborated directly with Antony Balch (on films), Ian Sommerville (on audiotapes and photomontages) and Brion Gysin (on the “third mind,” a concept and practice of collaboration in itself). The results—in writing, film, tape, photography and collage—were weapons in a war and as much by-products of a process as artistic objects in themselves.

  The last decade has begun to catch up with Burroughs, and has seen not only a mass of new scholarly and critical work but the opening up of the enormous archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, the curating of major artwork exhibitions around the world, the publication of catalogs, the release of films, tapes, letters, and the online digitization of some of the hundreds of texts he contributed to the little magazines of the 1960s mimeograph revolution. The result has been a complete transformation in the Burroughs oeuvre, putting center-stage his cut-up work in media beyond the book form. In 2004 it was still possible to argue that the easy commercial availability of The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, as well as the critical attention paid to them, had misrepresented the cut-up project and perpetuated Burroughs’ reductive reception as a novelist: as marketed books, the Cut-Up Trilogy might even be seen as an extraordinary exception to the cut-up project, I myself argued.13 With so much more of the larger project available, now is the time to make the counter­argument, and for a new generation to discover the trilogy and to see where it always belonged: not separate from but integrally connected to the full range of Burroughs’ unique experiments with word and image.

  This is the context for revising the three texts by drawing on archival resources of breathtaking richness, to establish for the first time their manuscript and publishing histories. It is also time to rethink such terms as cut-up novel and cut-up trilogy. New readers need new scholarship, the state of which has barely advanced since the 1980s, when the first serious but materially flawed academic studies appeared. Drawing on several thousand pages of archival ­materials—from first drafts and variant typescripts to final long galleys—the notes in this edition aim to reveal the unrecognized complexity of Nova Express: they are organized section-by-section because every part has its own untold backstory. The notes therefore aim to make possible new lines of research and reading, and in what follows I offer one such reading, focused on the story that lies behind the book’s title. But first, in order to piece together the writing of Nova Express we have to unpick the received wisdom about it, starting from the apparent truism that it was the third novel of the Cut-Up Trilogy.


  The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express have been grouped together for fifty years. This is partly because they are so unlike anything else and partly because the identity of each book is blurred by Burroughs’ recycling of material across and between them. Running the books together, however, and taking as read the term “Cut-Up Trilogy” (or its thematic alternative, “The Nova Trilogy”), has separated them from their larger context—the many related short texts, photo-collages, scrapbooks, films and tapes that Burroughs made in parallel—and downplayed the important differences between the books (including the almost total lack of sexual material in Nova Express). To some, confusion about the trilogy seems not so much inevitable as intentional, on the basis that the cut-up project a
ttacked stable identities and linear chronology.

  A certain confusion was indeed inherent in the method, since cutting up texts on the scale of Burroughs’ project—involving literally thousands of pages of source material, many of which were cut, retyped and cut over and over again—was a process incompatible with achieving a satisfactorily finished product, a definitive text. Burroughs didn’t think that Nova Express was “in any sense a wholly successful book,” but he said the same of The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, and for the same reasons.14 The cut-up method worked well with short texts for little mimeo magazines because the texts were immediate, rough and ephemeral, like the publications themselves: was Burroughs “satisfied” with “Where Flesh Circulates” in Floating Bear No. 24 (1962)? The question wasn’t relevant. In contrast, the commercially published novel had a fixed form that took time to produce and would last forever. To call Nova Express a “cut-up novel” is both inaccurate (it wasn’t a novel that was then cut up), and imprecise (how much of it is “cut-up” and how much a “novel”?), but Burroughs himself couldn’t avoid calling the book a “novel.” It was a contradiction in terms, which is one reason he ended up producing revised editions, so that over a seven-year period the “trilogy” materialized itself as no fewer than six different books: three versions of The Soft Machine (1961, 1966, 1968); two of The Ticket That Exploded (1962, 1967), and one of Nova Express (1964). And as we’ll see, that “one” edition of Nova Express gives an entirely misleading impression of simplicity.

  In the 1966 edition of The Soft Machine, Burroughs made a joke out of the resulting confusion (and of his books’ lack of commercial success), referring to being paid for the film rights of “a novel I hadn’t written called The Soft Ticket” and to selling “the Danish rights on my novel Expense Account.” But it’s not so funny for anyone genuinely interested in the trilogy and how its parts relate one to another. What is “the trilogy” when the editions published in the 1960s make possible no fewer than six different permutations and when there’s a trilogy alone of Soft Machines?

  Ironically, “the trilogy” has by default always maintained a single order: first The Soft Machine, then The Ticket That Exploded, finally Nova Express. The sequence keeps faith with the chronology of the first publications of each title: The Soft Machine in 1961 (by Olympia Press in Paris); The Ticket That Exploded in 1962 (again, Olympia in Paris); and Nova Express in 1964 (by Grove Press in New York). The Olympia editions were never published in the United States and went out of print, however, and the available versions are not only different books but have an entirely different chronological order: in Grove editions, the last title, Nova Express, was the earliest edition (dating from 1964), while the revised middle title, The Ticket That Exploded, became the last edition (published in 1967), and the revised first title, The Soft Machine, became the middle volume (published in 1966). Confused? Sketching the development of Burroughs’ trilogy over time and relating the books to his work in other media, critics have invariably muddled up the editions and got the history back-to-front. Far from being contra-indicated, an historical approach is long overdue.

  The books’ reception in the United States and Europe were mirror opposites of each other, since American readers only started the trilogy in 1964 with Nova Express, by which time The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded had been out in Europe for two years. But this is to simplify, since British readers also had a cut-up trilogy-in-one, in the shape of Dead Fingers Talk (1963), which was made from revised selections of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket. In 1968 John Calder also brought out the much-revised British edition of The Soft Machine, so that the trilogy’s first title had now become its final text, and then to cap it all, in 1980 Grove unwisely brought out in one volume a “trilogy” comprising The Soft Machine, Nova Express, and The Wild Boys.

  In light of this confusion’s masterpiece, it’s less surprising that the history of Nova Express, the one “unrevised” edition, turns out to be more complicated than assumed. Constructing the history of its composition clarifies its position within Burroughs’ oeuvre, but the initial clues to its status as part of a trilogy are given in the opening pages of the text itself.

  One way that Nova Express distinguishes itself from the rest of the trilogy is by naming other books by Burroughs, and in its second section it refers to Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine twice—in surprising terms: “The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals. In Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are.” Burroughs identifies Nova Express as the third of three books, but this is a trilogy beginning with Naked Lunch and excluding The Ticket—an omission that turns out to be crucial for understanding the “trilogy.”15

  Contrary to the history of publication—in which Nova Express appeared in November 1964, almost two years after The Ticket—Burroughs had in fact written almost all of Nova Express, including this passage, months before he even began The Ticket. Had it not been for delays at Grove Press and the speed with which Burroughs wrote The Ticket That Exploded for Olympia, Nova Express would have followed The Soft Machine, so that The Ticket would have been the third book of the trilogy. As much a composite text as the others, Nova Express was written and rewritten over a three-year period and, time-traveling back and forth within the trilogy’s history, it would be entirely plausible to place it first, second, and third in different trilogies of composition and publication. Perhaps the most meaningful paradox is that Burroughs began Nova Express as a sequel to The Soft Machine and completed it as a sequel to The Ticket That Exploded. Burroughs’ own view was certainly paradoxical: hearing in 1963 that Grove Press had been offered contracts for The Soft Machine and The Ticket, he wrote confirming to Barney Rosset that Grove was “the only American publisher for this work but I certainly think Nova Express should be published first as a measure of logical sequence.”16 The logic is hard to see, but Burroughs wrote Nova Express hoping that Grove would publish it before Naked Lunch, as a way to strengthen their case against censorship, which is why for this book he cut down the sex.

  Finally, it’s astonishing to realize that throughout the 1960s Burroughs never once refers to “the cut-up trilogy” in any correspondence, manuscripts or interviews. In fact his only use of the term “trilogy” in this period, in a typescript from early 1962, alludes to the trilogy surprisingly given in Nova Express: “My present work is Novia Express [sic]—reference is to an exploding star or planet it could happen here—This is the last book of a trilogy—Naked Lunch The Soft Machine—The work I am writing now should make it clearer to the reader exactly what I was doing in The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine.”17 What’s clear is that “the trilogy” is not what we thought it was, and that our readings need to be based on a more accurate history of the writing and rewriting of texts that are both multiple and composite.


  In August 1961 Burroughs was living in Tangier at the Villa Muniria, where he had written most of Naked Lunch five years before. After completing The Soft Machine, that April he had made a false start on a novel called The Ugly Spirit, which was intended to be a “joint operation for Painter and Writer,” and spent the summer drawing, painting, making photo-collages and listening to static on transistor radios. At the end of July, Timothy Leary came to visit, bearing hallucinogenic drugs. Leary would later write in vivid detail about that psychedelic summer in Tangier with Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ian Sommerville, and Alan Ansen. As well as describing “When the Celestial Messenger Comes Wearing a Fedora,” Leary reported Burroughs’ decision to write a new kind of cut-up novel, one that would be less “difficult” than The Soft Machine.18 It was in this context that in August Burroughs announced to Brion Gysin: “I am writing a straight action novel that can be read by any twelve year old entitled The Novia Express” (ROW, 83). A week later, still apparently serious that his new work was suitable for teenage boys, he clarified that this was a �
��science fiction adventure story.”19 Burroughs would drop one word and then change the spelling of another so that the title has its own trilogy of forms—The Novia Express, Novia Express, Nova Express—but, for reasons I will return to, it’s significant that he began with a definite title in mind. Having decided the title, identified the genre, and made a start with what became the “Uranian Willy” section—which in places does read like a space invader video game—in mid-August Burroughs left Tangier for a three-month trip to the United States.

  Leary had invited Burroughs to Massachusetts to research psilocybin mushrooms, and although the trip turned out very badly, it was important for Nova Express at this early stage in its writing. The impact shows in the text’s categorical warning about ­hallucinogens—revising Burroughs’ earlier enthusiasm and running against the grain of 1960s counterculture—in favor of promoting nonchemical means of consciousness expansion, which implicitly included his own writing. As he had told Leary at the start of the year, “I have achieved pure cut-up highs” (ROW, 64). Based in Brooklyn and with little to do but write—“No pot no sex no money” (91)—from September to November 1961 Burroughs concentrated on the book, leaving New York for the Beat Hotel in Paris as soon as he received an advance from Grove.

  At the start and end of December 1961, Burroughs sent early chapters to Barney Rosset at Grove Press. More surprisingly, he also mailed them to Henry Wenning, a manuscript dealer in Connecticut. The fact that Burroughs was now selling typescripts of a work-in-progress made Nova Express a symbolic landmark in his career. This was not a financially lucrative deal, but the sale separated Nova Express both from Burroughs’ previous novels and from the many short texts he sent to “no-paying far-out experimental magazines” (ROW, 59). The sales helped sustain Burroughs through times when he needed to pawn the tools of his trade: his typewriter, camera, and tape recorder.