McNeill and Burroughs: Ah Pook Is Here
OBSERVED WHILE FALLING: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me’ &
THE LOST ART OF AH POOK IS HERE: Images From The Graphic Novel’ by Malcolm McNeill; Fantagraphics, November 2012.
William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, inaugural novel of what would become his “Nova Trilogy” (also including The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express) arrived on U.S. shores in February 1966. This Grove Press edition was a significant revision of the novel that first appeared under Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press Traveller Companion Series in Paris during the last days of 1961. Girodias had published the complete Nova Trilogy by 1964, and Grove Press published the ‘third’ book of the trilogy Nova Express that same year. But the timing of the arrival in the United States of the revised inaugural works, the most aesthetically significant of Burroughs’ oeuvre, in 1966-67 represents not only the generality of the modern and postmodern transcontinental relocation of the avant-garde from Paris to New York, but also the specifics of the arrival in the U.S. of post-structuralism.
According to François Cusset’s excellent history French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed The Intellectual Life of The United States (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), post-structuralism began in October 1966 at Johns Hopkins University during a conference designed to introduce a new wave of French avant-garde criticism to American academia. Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy of the 1960s and Ah Pook Is Here - the 1970s work that arguably bridges between the Trilogy and his 1980s novels – are an enacted post-structuralism with roots in Paris. It was, of course, in Paris that his post-Junkie experimental succes de scandal (including, Naked Lunch, 1959) emerged within this context of early deconstructionist criticism. Burroughs’ satires deploy deconstruction (via the notorious cut-up, fold-in method introduced to him by Brion Gysin in June 1959) to effect an assault on the viral tyrannies of ‘the Word.’ Essentially, Burroughs engages – in a quasi-mystical tone, influenced also by Alfred Korzybski and L. Ron Hubbard – in a war against logocentricism; more transparent to French theorists than perhaps it was to American readers. That he did so using, to quote Leslie Fielder’s reactionary anxieties in his 1965 Partisan Review article ‘The New Mutants’, a “post-humanist, post-male, post-white, post-heroic world,” of hermaphroditic junk-sick science fiction reaching back into Mayan social manipulation and forward to the heat death of the universe remains his most remarkable achievement. Before being remade into a post-punk pin-up and Kansas tourist attraction, William Burroughs oscillated with the critical zeitgeist.
“So,” he said. “You’re the guy who knows how to draw me. How d’ya do that?”
The formative contribution of British-born illustrator Malcolm McNeill to both Burroughs’ literature as a comparative anthropology of ‘control’, and to Burroughs’ attempts at a unified cosmology operating and decipherable via signs has been missing, surfacing in occasional gallery shows since 2008 or in ratty back-issues of Crawdaddy! or Rush magazine. It is extremely rare for a novelist to find an illustrator so eerily articulate as Burroughs found in Malcolm McNeill. Finally, after numerous contemporary delays, and a history of marginalization, this amazing work and a companion memoir have been published by Fantagraphics Books.
In Observed While Falling, McNeill recounts a seven-year collaboration with Burroughs, beginning in London, 1970. The text resulting from that collaboration finally surfaced in 1979, published by John Calder, but divorced from its images and with the original Ah Puch spelling altered. McNeill was almost completely occluded from the project that he had been essential to. Burroughs’ question to McNeill concerning “how to draw me” referred not only to himself as in ‘my work’ but also in the sense of a comic book illustration of Burroughs the man. Despite their not having met, and McNeill knowing nothing of Burroughs’ physicality, the first illustrations McNeill produced for Burroughs’ The Unspeakable Mr. Hart as a comic book project for Cyclops magazine bore an uncanny, unintentional resemblance to the writer. Burroughs was, of course, greatly impressed by the coincidence, and by the fact that art student McNeill (he had yet to graduate from Hornsey College of Art) was 23 years old, ‘23’ being essential to Burroughs’ numerology of sex, and much more. Indeed, the coincidences of this number are crucial to McNeill’s book, and even to its publication date of 11/12.
Observed While Falling is divided in three parts, the first dealing with the frustrated collaboration’s paper trail, leading up to Burroughs’ death in 1997. The chapter entitled ‘London 1970’ finds McNeill and Burroughs making rain-soaked visits to The British Museum to study and copy the Mayan codex that had survived Dark Age religious vandalism and the incendiary bombing of Dresden. McNeill is convinced of Burroughs as a numinous prose stylist, but here, also, is McNeill resisting Burroughs: Burroughs the maker of ambivalent passes; Burroughs the repetitive old man; Burroughs the predatory Scientologist; Burroughs the overweening chauvinist. This is refreshing, when too many Burroughs acolytes claim intimate pseudo-telepathic connections with him and drift into lazy, cultish hagiography. But McNeill – who encountered Burroughs without the preexisting condition of addiction to his prose – implicitly understood that Burroughs’ biological theory that the existence of women was a “mistake” was at least as stupid as would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas’ view of men as a “biological accident”; but at least, you may say, Solanas attempted a political justification as opposed to Burroughs’ bland homo-elitism (both had their assassin pretentions). McNeill describes this as the ‘No girls in the tree house routine’ that Burroughs maintained throughout their relationship. This narcotizing tension between McNeill and Burroughs led to an ironically Warholian psychotic break when McNeill found himself trying to digest a box of Brillo pads. McNeill split from Burroughs and with his integrity intact signed on for the dole, before taking the first of a series of panoramic photographs in Wales that would compel that the collaboration be revisited; Burroughs somewhat graceless and bitter, McNeill practical. “One way or another the issue [of Burroughs’ sexism and his diagnosis of McNeill as latently homosexual] was resolved. We could get on with the book.”
The ‘New York’ chapter that begins in 1975 introduces the insinuating James Grauerholz, who would ultimately usurp Burroughs’ own son Billy Jr., and become heir to the apocryphal ‘Burroughs millions’, figuratively and literally, possessing control of the estate. McNeill has a clear position regarding the machinations of Grauerholz, his paranoid “sibling rivalry”, and the many flatteries coming from Burroughs’ inner circle that arguably amounted to a kind of tender kidnapping from which the writer would never escape. Yes, there was a down side to the management of Burroughs as a touring rock star. During the last two years of the thwarted Ah Pook collaboration, McNeill was a primary witness to the symbiotic relationship with Grauerholz that turned Burroughs from an eccentric ‘I’ to corporate ‘we’. The issue of the imageless 1979 Calder edition represented another fracture.
“The name had been officially changed to Pook. My cover hadn’t been used at all. The endpapers were printed backwards and not credited. On the back cover, Ah Pook Is Here was described as “…the new novel from William Burroughs.” No mention was made of its beginnings or the fact that the text represented only half the book. …A series of sex scenes had been tacked on to the end – male-to-male sex, obviously. I’d used ejaculated birds, bats and other creatures as a graphic transitional device in the sequence after Virus B23, but now they were presented literally. Young guys actually ejaculating goldfish, cherries, and so on … all the old human conditions had been destroyed forever, but the ‘tree house’ remained intact. It wasn’t disturbing anymore, just depressing.”
What follows is a memoir of betrayals, of the gradual process of McNeill’s being ‘written out’ of the career of William Burroughs, toward the whitewashing of McNeill at the 1996 Track 16 Gallery retrospective of art made in collaboration with Burroughs or for the promotion of his work. “Despite the volume of work we’d produced together, none of it was represented,” says McNeill.
“Neither was any of it referred to in the lavish 192-page catalogue for the show. My name wasn’t even mentioned. Most incomprehensible of all, neither Ah Pook Is Here as a text or as a collaboration were included in the extensive ten-page bibliography, filmography and discography at the back.”
McNeill’s weariness with the situation is palpable. It is also a fact that the Burroughs oeuvre and his biography have been part of a reductive literalizing process ever since the close of The Nova Trilogy. This process is movingly captured here. Indeed, after reuniting – despite Grauerholz running interference – with Burroughs in 1996 he is unsparing, and one feels right in his critique of the scattershot sentimentality (as opposed to the emotions present) attending Burroughs’ funeral and the ad hoc rituals attending it: his embalmment, the placing of a revolver, sword cane and heroin etc. on his corpse and within the casket. On Burroughs’ Christian-Buddhist-Egyptian burial, McNeill writes:
“Mixing and matching spiritual conviction in this way suggests an à la carte, more discriminating view of religion. The use of specific ritual however, contradicts that idea. It succumbs to the same superstition – the same great fear con laid down by organized religions from the get-go. The system of Control and spiritual undermining Bill had condemned throughout his career.”
Although Malcolm McNeill has been a ‘lost’ part of the Burroughs canon, there should be little doubt that, based on their seven-year collaboration of text and image, their poststructuralist rendering of Mayan civilization with modernist and genre fictions, occult viral theory and so forth, McNeill left Burroughs with a set of specific visuals (however literalized) that inform the post-Ah Pook trilogy of novels completed under the influence of James Grauerholz beginning in 1981: Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. I don’t share McNeill’s dismissive view of Cities of the Red Night, and The Place of Dead Roads, but neither do I share his sense that The Western Lands was a return to form. Rather, I prefer the former novels, with their “relentless catalogue” (a phrase McNeill applies to both) of “spurting cocks, pimply-faced boys, drugs and weaponry” to what I thought of The Western Lands: a damp squib of a literary sign-off surrounded by naff ‘mummy’ jokes. Perhaps this is due to a glimpse of McNeill’s art I caught in the early 1990s. Perhaps I too had literalized the images into taste. With Cities of the Red Night:
“Bill’s description of the methodology was the same as the one I’d used for Ah Pook. It was encouraging to see that such an arrangement had impressed itself sufficiently for him to use it as a literary device. It was less gratifying to see that the artist’s assistant was named James. The book read like a manual. A relentless catalogue of spurting cocks, hangings, diseases, and weaponry so flat and humorless at times that the ship felt to be plowing through molasses … Slowly, inexorably, Ah Pook slipped that much further over the horizon. As did Bill himself.”
Both the split and the continued importance of McNeill’s images to Burroughs’ text are further apparent in the beautiful retrospective of McNeill and Burroughs’ collaboration in The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel, published simultaneously with Observed While Falling. In this instance, however, the images are produced without the text. Where the text is visible, as it is with some of McNeill’s preliminary or layout sketches, it is blurred, suggesting continued resistance on the part of the Burroughs estate, seemingly based upon McNeill’s critique of Grauerholz (‘He was “not at all happy” …He “urged” me to “revisit” my memories. The approval of the ‘Burroughs Estate’ therefore, was clearly contingent upon his perception of the way he was portrayed”). Thus, The Lost Art… is a collection of quintessentially ‘Burroughsian’ images still divorced from the text they inform and support. Nevertheless, much as we may wish that reunification of word/image might occur, McNeill’s work is strong enough to exist apart.
Opening with his precognitive sketch of Burroughs/The Unspeakable Mr. Hart, the collection reproduces the 1970 strips produced for Cyclops, before reproducing the McNeill-Burroughs research sketches derived from the Mayan codices they observed together: Ah Puch: the Un-doer, Spoiler, Lord of Death; Ix Tabau: Goddess of Ropes and Snares; Ek Ahau: The Black Captain; and others. The sympathy for the text with which McNeill renders his pencil, and pen and ink work is singular, definitive. Via an acknowledged debt to Hieronymus Bosch, McNeill’s gorgeous anachronistic panoramas of Mayan apocalypse, swamp-cult militias, hermaphrodite rituals and priapic chimeras express Burroughs’ vision more effectively than perhaps any other media, certainly more so than David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch. Publisher Fantagraphics Books has done heroic work here. Also included are McNeill’s images for Burroughs’ Exterminator! and Crawdaddy! for which Burroughs wrote a column, along with work for National Screw.
Sarah Van Ness’ contextual essay and commentary (Ah Pook Is Where?) presents a fascinating legal reading of the 1971 contract between McNeill, Burroughs and their prospective publisher for Ah Pook Straight Arrow Books (an imprint of Rolling Stone) that necessitated McNeill’s relocation from London to San Francisco. The Lost Art… reproduces pages from that contract. The idea of Burroughs’ work as a form of enacted post-structuralism is given further weight as Van Ness untangles the ‘authorship’ of Ah Pook through the contracts and through Foucault, Barthes and Fredric Jameson.
The Lost Art… encapsulates some of the action of Observed While Falling, but they are certainly to be read together. Both are essential to Burroughs aficionados. McNeill’s memoir relates a litany of textual/existential coincidences, essentially a haunting, that leads to his encounter with a medium, and the gathering impression that their collaboration was not just seminal, but permanent. One might be skeptical of tales of Burroughs beyond the grave as part of the ongoing literalizing of the Burroughs mythology and the will-to-telepathy of his confidants. Yet, there should be no doubt that these companion publications and the vital archaeology of art and narrative Malcolm McNeill provides, like his original seven-year collaboration with Burroughs, informs a unique occult aesthetic. To the extent that Burroughs’ so-called ‘word hoard’ is an image hoard, no one ever produced better images for, and with, Burroughs than Malcolm McNeill. Observed While Falling is a sincere, bizarre and moving memoir, and The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here is without doubt the finest extant visual contribution to the Burroughs oeuvre and mythology.
James Reich – Author of ‘I, Judas’ (Soft Skull Press, Oct. 2011) and ‘Bombshell’ (Soft Skull Press, July 2013).