November 2010 saw the publication of Queer as a Penguin Modern Classic in a newly revised edition put together by the eminent Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris.
Clipped, spare prose, occasional bursts of heartfelt lyricism – Greene/Genet/Conrad/Death in Venice.
Travelogue in a style informed by Céline, cynicism, bigotry, the confessional urge, the exotic quest. But it’s downbeat, not a noble undertaking to discover the Holy Grail but a desperate bid to shake off the pain of a hopeless love. When the narrative switches to 1st person in the section entitled 2 Years Later the voice doesn’t change. Lee is Burroughs: while there is no deeper sense of the narrator’s interiority, there is a marked alteration of tone. Up to this point the story was told by an omniscient, presumably reliable narrator who showed Allerton’s viewpoint as well as Lee’s (ie. his own, the narrator and Lee actually being one and the same), lending a certain objectivity, though a compromised objectivity, to the situation. The final section leaves no doubt as to the personal nature of the book and its only lightly fictionalised status. After all, Queer was meant to be published under the pen name Bill Lee.
The account of the different versions of the book, the various drafts edited by Burroughs, Ginsberg and others, is a complicated one. Harris’s notes detail the changes minutely, providing a full epexegesis for the scholar and the obsessive alike.
There can be no definitive original, no ur-text to be restored precisely according to the author’s intentions, no narrative essence to be divined by the lucubrations of the editor seeking the true Word. This edition of Queer, while unquestionably purely Burroughsian in style and content, is also unquestionably Harris’s aesthetic and technical reading. The differences between this edition and the 1986 ‘original’ change the book in a subtle but significant way. If you read the contemporary version, you are reading a different book.
(NB. The foregoing is a set of hastily compiled notes towards a full review, but it got put aside some weeks ago. Hence I decided to post this sketchy overview, with a few small additions and changes, simply for the sake of putting up a new blog.)