The Western Lands  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs, published in 1987, is a novel which is the final part of the trilogy that begins with Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads. The title refers to the western bank of the Nile River, which in Egyptian mythology is the Land of the Dead. Inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it explores the after-death state by means of dream scenarios, hallucinatory passages, talismanic magic, occultism, superstition, and Burroughs’ characteristic view of the nature of reality.

The prose is notable in that shifts back and forth between Burroughs characters and episodes clearly drawn from his own life. Scenes that are unmistakably auto-biographical include vignettes where Burroughs takes out evidence of amphetamine prescription bottles his mother gave him to sink with a large stone at the bottom of Lake Worth, Florida. The bottles were evidence his mother found in her grandson’s, Burroughs own son, bedroom. While Burroughs is ankle deep in the water, his aged mother is stalling police investigators in her home. Yet the novel also dives backwards into ancient history giving the plot a perspective on death that attempts to transcend Christian theology. Burroughs acknowledges being inspired by Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, an expansive novel published in 1983 about ancient Egypt set a thousand years before Christianity. Nevertheless, there are unmistakable references to contemporary culture, for instance Mick Jagger appears in some episodes- again perhaps drawn from the author’s own recent biography.

Despite the narrative challenge of the historical framework, the novel is often regarded as Burroughs' best late work and a gratifying culminating episode of the Cities trilogy. According to The Guardian, it is his best work after Naked Lunch..

Material's album Seven Souls, featured William S. Burroughs reading portions of his novel The Western Lands.

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