Naked Lunch | Study Guide

William Burroughs

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Naked Lunch | Plot Summary



The United States and Mexico

Naked Lunch begins with the narrator, also known as William Lee or just Lee, as he tries to evade New York City police. They want to arrest him for using heroin. He dodges an officer by hopping on a subway train. On the train he talks with a young man who seems interested in his stories about his fellow junkies, the Rube and the Vigilante. The narrator witnesses the bodily decay of other junkies who hang out in an automat, a vending machine-type cafeteria. Under pressure from the police pursuit, he decides to leave town.

The narrator travels across the United States, through Philadelphia—where the narrator and his unnamed traveling companions abandon the Rube. They go on to Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston before buying a large quantity of heroin in New Orleans and proceeding to Mexico. In Mexico the narrator obtains cocaine on someone else's prescription and meets a marijuana-smoking pimp who mistreats his women.


After Mexico, the narrator proceeds to the imagined country of Freeland. This place is later revealed to be a "welfare state," where a totalitarian government controls its populace through generosity. The narrator is "assigned" to work with Dr. Benway as part of Islam Inc., a shadowy organization whose motives are unclear and primarily driven by individual agents. Benway runs a Reconditioning Center where he conducts unethical and tortuous experiments on drug addicts and homosexuals. They are forced to flee the facility when a computer malfunction sets the inmates free and unleashes total chaos.


The scene then shifts to a realm the narrator calls Interzone, and the plot becomes disjointed. The narrator describes the surreal experience of a man named Carl who becomes divorced from reality when he goes to visit his friend Joselito in a sanitarium. A dealer/addict identified as the Sailor goes to a plaza in the city to buy a substance called Black Meat from creatures called Mugwumps.

The narrator provides a brief description of his attempts at detox in a hospital where Dr. Benway reappears to perform surgeries on two patients. Neither of them appears to survive. After detox, the narrator meets an old friend who has attempted to kick his heroin addiction with questionable results. About 10 years into his time in Interzone, the narrator must visit the County Clerk. He pretends to agree with the Clerk's racism to avoid eviction from his apartment.

The narrator provides additional descriptions of life in Interzone, a city where drugs and sex of all kinds are freely available. The threat of revolution against colonial influences hovers around the margins of daily life. Interzone is run by four opposing political parties: the Liquefactionists, the Senders, the Divisionists, and the Factualists. These parties also influence the narrator's involvement in Islam Inc., an organization without a clear agenda aside from the preferences of its individual agents.

The narrator presents descriptions of his fellow agents' exploits. He describes an orgy hosted by another Islam Inc. agent, Hassan. Another agent, named A.J., is known for playing elaborate and subversively dangerous practical jokes. A.J. hosts an annual party where he shows a blue (pornographic) movie featuring a trio engaging in lurid sexual acts that culminates in hangings. Two other agents, Clem and Jody, disrupt a Muslim funeral in Interzone's marketplace. This act typifies their worldwide travels, sowing mayhem in ongoing attempts to make the United States look bad on the world stage.

Return to New York

After the Sailor reappears and meets a young man at a café in the Interzone and exchange drugs for sexual favors, the story shifts back to New York City. The narrator is caught by two narcotics officers, Hauser and O'Brien. A struggle ensues, and the narrator shoots the officers and goes into hiding at a bath house. The next day he can find no reports of the shooting in the papers, so he calls the city's narcotics bureau. He speaks to a lieutenant who has never heard of Hauser or O'Brien. The narrator takes this as a sign he can no longer access the intersections of different realities. The novel ends with a preface in which William S. Burroughs explains his motives for writing Naked Lunch. He sought to present a look inside the mind of a drug addict.

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