38 pages 1 hour read

William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1959

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Summary and Study Guide


Naked Lunch is a 1959 novel by American author William. S. Burroughs. In it, Lee, a heroin user, looks to escape New York to avoid arrest by the police. He thus embarks on a journey through Philadelphia and Mexico before arriving in the fictional state of Freeland, where all life is well-ordered and hygienic. Following a riot in a Freeland psychological reconditioning center, however, Lee flees to the strange and fantastical city of Interzone. There, he encounters bizarre orgies, medical experiments involving giant centipedes, and pornographic performances. He takes a hallucinogenic drug, yage, which leads to a spiritual epiphany about the temporal and spatial fluidity of all life. However, Lee then finds himself again in his New York apartment, pursued by two police officers who wish to impound his notebooks. To avoid this, Lee tricks and kills the men, before fleeing to Panama City and then Tangier.

This guide uses the 2015 Penguin edition of the book.

Content Warning

Naked Lunch depicts substance use and abuse, addiction, graphic sexual content, and graphic violence.

Plot Summary

In Chapters 1-5, the narrator, Lee, a heroin user and small-time dealer, escapes an undercover police officer who has been tracking him by leaping onto a subway train. Worried about his pursuer catching him, Lee decides to buy a car and leave New York. He and some companions are arrested near Philadelphia. When Lee gets out of jail, he heads to Mexico. After a stay there, Lee discusses the sinister Dr. Benway. Benway is an adviser to the fictional republic of Freeland but used to be responsible for the demoralization of the citizenry of another state, Annexia. There, a vast and oppressive bureaucracy controls citizens. Lee arrives in Freeland, and Benway shows him the Reconditioning Center, where he has been experimenting on people who have drug addictions or mental health conditions. Due to a computer malfunction, the center releases all the inmates. When a riot ensues because of this, Benway and Lee escape via helicopter.

Chapters 6-10 describe various strange events in the fictional city of Interzone. Lee discusses humanoid creatures called Mugwumps. They produce a substance from their genitalia to which the Reptiles, another type of humanoid, are addicted. Lee then describes a hospital he visited in Interzone, where Benway is performing surgery in a toilet with a plunger. Lee observes Benway performing an entirely unnecessary operation to a theater of medical students. Next, Lee observes orgiastic and violent revels in a “rumpus room.”

In Chapters 11-14, at a party hosted by a man called A.J. in Interzone, a series of pornographic performances occur. In one, three actors have sex and pretend to kill and set fire to each other before coming back to life. Next, at a psychiatry conference, a doctor discusses the possibility of reducing the functions of the human nervous system to a single compact spinal column, thus eliminating the need for the brain. He courts controversy, however, when one of his test subjects transforms on the stage into a giant black centipede, which the other participants then kill. Lee, under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug yage, gives a panoramic description of the strange city of Interzone, where anyone can walk into anybody else’s room at any time. He also describes the distorting effects that yage has on his sense of time and space.

Chapters 15-18 introduce Lee’s friend A.J. and his role as practical joker. His “pranks” included dressing as a giant penis for a social function and releasing aphrodisiac-inducing insects at the opening of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Next, Lee discusses the four main political parties of Interzone: the Liquefactionist Party, the Senders, the Divisionists, and the Factualists; the first three seek to control human beings and destroy their individuality. Next, Lee must go to the County Clerk to get an affidavit so that he can continue living in his house. However, he must pretend to agree with the Clerk’s racism to get the affidavit. Then, a character named Carl receives a request to visit Benway for an intrusive series of tests to ascertain whether Carl is gay. Carl “passes” most of these tests, but when he tries to leave Benway’s office, he finds that he's trapped there.

In Chapters 19-25, a boy in an Interzone cafe tries to buy heroin from a user and dealer known as The Sailor. They go back to his dilapidated apartment, where The Sailor asks for “time” in exchange for heroin and suggests that the heroin will eventually kill the boy. Back in New York, two police officers try to arrest Lee in his apartment for heroin possession—and try to take the notebooks containing his draft of Naked Lunch. However, Lee manages to shoot them dead and escape from New York again, flying first to Panama City and then to Tangier.