canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Will Work for Drugs

by Lydia Lunch
Akashic Books, 2009

Reviewed by Matthew Firth

Lydia Lunch is a versatile artist. Her muse takes her at times into music, photography, film and writing. This versatility also, however, renders her a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades and – yes – master of none. She is a competent writer but nothing to get too worked up about.

The crux of the problem with Lunch is that hyperbole is her methodology and what characterizes her writing more than anything else. Likewise, I find hyperbolic comparisons to Williams S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., and Jean Genet to be extremely premature and symptomatic of our present idolatrous age that is too often characterized by the need for instant vacuous stardom. In the case of Lunch, it’s a gi-normous knock against Burroughs, Selby, etc. to have her name mentioned in their company. These comparisons are splashed all over Lunch’s new book – Will Work for Drugs. The publisher might think such exaggerations help sell books – and maybe they do – but it also means Lunch’s work never gets to stand on its own. Her slim volume of essays, interviews, poetry, and creative non-fiction – generously typeset and subdivided into four parts delineated by several blank pages – is an intriguing body of work but it comes nowhere near Burroughs or Selby.

Lunch’s book reads like a collection of scattered bits cobbled together over the years into a short book of random parts (the publication page indicates some pieces were previously published as far back as 1992). It’s more like a Lydia Lunch reader than anything else – although a very short one. To compare such a book to Burroughs and Selby – whose masterworks Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn are giants in antihero literature – is a perfect example of 21st century hyperbole in action. Add to this that Lunch poses on the cover on a narrow, rundown street dressed vampishly with her nose in the air and I can’t help but conclude that she tries way too hard. Reading the damned book, I came to the same conclusion – Lunch just tries too hard to be, well, hard. Here are a couple examples; the first from the book’s Afterword "Sick With Desire":

From my earliest lyrics, spoken word performances, and films, I have sung vicious incantations bemoaning the cruel fate of the human condition, when each of us bears some mark of battery.

And from the introduction (yes – Lunch wrote the intro to her own book):

My daily existence is a battlecade of extreme fluctuations where chaos clobbers apathy which beats the shit out of depression which follows irritability which slams into anger which eclipses ecstasy which slips through my fingers too often.

Both examples – and many more – are extreme displays of purple prose brimming with self-aggrandizement. Okay, okay; we get it – you’re a hard-ass, now can you please put your ego aside and write something with narrative substance?

Lunch’s writing also suffers from obviousness. She assumes predictable positions on certain issues (she’s against motherhood and war but in favour of pleasure-seeking at all costs) that smack of juvenile and contrived hipsterism. Okay, okay; we get it – you’re a cool, New York City artist type, now can you please move beyond that and write something with narrative substance?

Enough already.

It’s not all bad. Lunch is good when she writes with narrative clarity. "The Beast" is a harrowing story of her affiliation with an extremely self-destructive male who was on a crash course to an early grave. Likewise, "Canasta" is very good, as Lunch relays the horrors of being a teenaged girl whose virginity is wagered (and lost) by her own father – the victor being a too-drunk-to-fuck lout. This story is truly traumatizing and works well because Lunch just tells the story and lets the reader see the darkness, rather than force-feeding discursive hyperbole. Also, her short interview with Hubert Selby – conducted just before he died – is another highpoint but for the wrong reasons. Selby’s replies to Lunch’s queries are speckled with humour and humility, which renders his words deeply human. For the most part, these human qualities are absent from Lunch’s own prose.

This book should be labelled: "For fans only", meaning if you already dig Lunch’s self-indulgent declarations then here’s more of it, knock yourself out. However, if you’re looking for a writer who is truly at the forefront of a new breed of adventurous, salty literature, then look somewhere else (e.g., Chris Walter, Tony O’Neill, Laura Hird, Mark SaFranko, Noah Cicero, Dan Fante, etc.). And don’t be fooled by the Burroughs and Selby comparisons, because Lunch’s writing comes nowhere near the best or even the worst these gentlemen put to paper.

Matthew Firth lives in Ottawa. He is the editor of the litmag Front&Centre and Black Bile Press chapbooks. His most recent book is Suburban Pornography and Other Stories.




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