Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 5
by J. C.
After a previous visit to Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road, we remarked that the stock was “well regimented”, with the books strictly disciplined and marshalled into tidy display. This was in reference to the first law of perambulatory chaos theory: secondhand bookshops thrive on disorder. The owner of Slightly Foxed (in other respects a charming shop) responded, with little attempt to disguise the irony, that he and his staff had had “a wonderful time” making the tidy untidy.
We risked a return, incognito. Good quality hardback and paperback books are arrayed on the ground floor, reasonably priced, as well as some covetable collectibles. In the basement, the tidy tyranny endures, but a healthy wall of ancient paperbacks competes with the neat arrangements elsewhere, and it was here, naturally, that we found the sought-after curiosity to keep the Christmas giftbook blues at bay. Dead Fingers Talk by William Burroughs is indeed a curiosity. It was the book under review in the TLS of November 14, 1963, beneath the famous headline “Ugh . . .”. John Willett’s disgusted assault on the author sparked thirteen weeks of correspondence, and had the unintended consequence of launching Burroughs as an avant-gardist of renown. “If the publishers [John Calder] had deliberately set out to discredit the cause of literary freedom, they could hardly have done it more effectively”, Willett wrote. Among those who rose to Burroughs’s defence was Anthony Burgess, calling him “the first original since James Joyce”.
But Dead Fingers Talk is yet more curious than that. In 1963, Naked Lunch and the author’s other Paris-published books, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, could not be issued in Britain without risk of prosecution. Dead Fingers Talk was thus concocted as an amalgam of all three. It also contains material unique to itself, yet critics and biographers pay it scant attention. The Burroughs Reference Guide by Michael M. Goodman calls it “a rewrite of Naked Lunch [which] places the events in proper linear sequence”, a good enough reason for taking note of it.
For a 1966 Tandem paperback, previously unknown to us, Slightly Foxed charged £4. It seemed appropriate that the book fell to pieces the moment we opened it, not having been exposed to the light of day for decades, but we were no less happy with our find. The horrible junkie cover alone is worth the money.