By Edward S. Robinson
Ah Pook has certainly been a long time in coming. William S. Burroughs’ collaboration with Malcolm Mc Neill began in 1970. Having originally begun working together (although divided geographically, without having ever met or actually communicated directly with one another) on a comic strip entitled The Unspeakable Mr Hart, they struck upon the idea to create a wildly fantastical book based on the Mayan codices that combined word and image (the term ‘graphic novel’ had yet to be coined). Over the course of seven years and many obstacles, Burroughs produced short novel worth of text, while Mc Neill came up with an immense quantity of highly detailed large-scale works of art in various stages of completion before the project finally collapsed.
Two years later, in 1979, John Calder published Burroughs’ text – without Mc Neill’s images – in the volume Ah Pook is Here and Other Texts (the ‘other texts in question being The Book of Breeething and The Electronic Revolution). Even if the artwork had been finished, the practicalities of commercially producing of a multimedia work, produced in full-colour and on concertina-style pages in the style of the surviving codices rendered Ah Pook is Here unpublishable in its intended form. Mc Neill’s artwork consequently languished, unseen, for the next four decades, save for a small selection appearing on-line and being shown in exhibitions.
What this two-book set, consisting of the self-explanatory The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel and Malcolm Mc Neill’s memoir of his time working on the project (and beyond, where he reflects on the long-lasting reverberations and eventual revisitation of the project), Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook and Me represents, then, is the plugging of a huge space in the Burroughs timeline, and a rebalancing of history, in a sense. After all, while the years spent chiselling away at the word hoard that would ultimately become Naked Lunch have become legendary, the period during which Burroughs worked on Ah Pook is all but brushed over in the main Burroughs biographies. Ted Morgan’s definitive biography makes but one mention of Ah Pook, and Mc Neill is conspicuous by his absence, his name nowhere to be found. This seems strange considering the time they spent working together, and, as we learn in Mc Neill’s memoir, the friendship they shared which would even see Burroughs assume the duty of Godfather to Mc Neill’s son. Similarly, while Naked Lunch has – quite deservedly – been recognised as one of the most innovative and revolutionary novels of the 20th century, Ah Pook is little known, and even Burroughs fans and scholars tend to relegate it to the status of a (very) minor work. In contrast, The Third Mind, published only the year before Ah Pook and Other Texts, which also remains out of print, is lauded as a user’s guide to the cut-ups and the key to unlocking the working process of the writing machine that was Burroughs. Yet had the Ah Pook envisaged by its authors seen the light of day and received a full commercial release, it would have almost certainly attained recognition for its achievements and secured its place as a cult classic, not only as a fine example of Burroughs’ writing in terms of its style and thematics, but also as one of the first graphic novels.
Proving the lie behind the adage that you should never judge a book by its cover, both The Lost Art of Ah Pook and Observed While Falling are magnificently presented, and are (appropriately) wrapped in Mc Neill’s art – as the Calder edition should have been but for mysterious reasons now revealed at last in Mc Neill’s memoir. A lot of credit must go to Fantagraphics for a lavish production that’s entirely merited, because Mc Neill’s images – they’re more than mere illustrations – are rich, complex, and often very strange indeed. Disturbed and disturbing, many of the panoramic scenes are reminiscent of Heironymous Bosch’s most nightmarish works, and Mc Neill readily acknowledges his debt to Bosch in his memoir. Above all, despite the almost overwhelming number of bare breasts and pulsating phalluses (often attached to the same body), Mc Neill’s large-form images are remarkable works of art.
The inclusion of many pieces that are incomplete – some are no more than pencil sketch outlines of limbs or other body parts – is instructive, in that they reveal Mc Neill’s working methods. This seems fitting of a man who was learning on the job, not just how to articulate Burroughs’ non-narrative into a visual medium but also of Burroughs’ theories and world view. Just as Burroughs’ cut-up texts and the pieces which would later appear in The Third Mind explain the methodology behind their own creation, so these sketches and variant versions of scenes and characters show how the artist developed his ideas as the project evolved. What’s more, these incomplete or damaged pieces – creased, torn, taped together, tattered, stained – are still visually striking in their own right, and alongside the manifold storyboard layouts, sketches of lizard-headed aliens and bare-breasted Amazonians, many images are more fully realised, and throughout the quality of Mc Neill’s draftsmanship is of a rare standard. Armageddon almost literally leaps from the richly-coloured pages.
Yet for all this, there remains a problem from a ‘reading’ perspective, in that it is extremely difficult to imagine or otherwise recreate the reading experience that the fully realised word/image work would have produced. Even the pictorial works with blank spaces for text do not fully enable the reader to visualise or feel the sensory challenge of the two forms in combination and simultaneously. Consequently, the sense of incompleteness endures as the reader is left to ponder what might have been. This is by no means a criticism of Mc Neill’s work, however, nor of Fantagraphics’ treatment of it, but a reflection of the circumstances of the book’s troubled creation and publishing history, which Mc Neill discusses in detail in The Lost Art of Ah Pook’s counterpart title, Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook and Me.
Observed While Falling is an invaluable addition to the library of any Burroughs fan, although the chances are there will be some who do not appreciate Mc Neill’s candour (James Grauerholz for one, it would seem, given the obstacles he put up both at the time and subsequently. Questions must be asked as to why only one particular segment of Burroughs’ text was cut prior to the 1979 publication, and what happened to Mc Neill’s original cover art, and only one person can provide the answers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely those answers will be immediately forthcoming).
However, any objections should be put to one side in favour of appreciating the fact that Mc Neill was there, and shared a working relationship with Burroughs that lasted many years, and extended beyond the seven years spent working on Ah Pook. What Mc Neill reveals in Observed While Falling isn’t remotely salacious, although he does recount how he, as a straight man, found it awkward (to put it mildly) that Burroughs, his collaborator and mentor and senior by around thirty years, came onto him on more than one occasion. Mc Neill also provides a first-hand insight into the rather difficult nature of working with Burroughs, with considerable focus on Burroughs’ (often rather haphazard) working methods.
Readers familiar with Burroughs the man either through his biographies or interviews will be aware that he was an idiosyncratic individual, but Mc Neill’s reminiscences are quite remarkable, from the frequent haranguing Mc Neill received from his collaborator and mentor over his sexuality, to the strange meal Burroughs once cooked, not to mention his curious habits involving cigarette packets. These not only bring the memoir to life, but are genuinely amusing anecdotes, delivered in a canny style that helps rather than hinders.
Mc Neill’s depiction of Burroughs is in no way disparaging, and it’s clear he developed an immense respect for the author, and that they shared a warm friendship. Burroughs’ humanity and, indeed, his generosity shine through, and Mc Neill’s appreciation is clearly apparent. Mc Neill learned a great deal from Burroughs, and evidently looked up to him as an erudite individual, capable of opening the young artist’s mind and ultimately enriching his life. The fact Mc Neill’s pen-portrait of the legendary author is warts and all, demonstrating why Burroughs was often difficult to work with and maintain a friendship with, only amplifies the reader’s appreciation of the man himself. Reaffirming the singular intellect that admirers of Burroughs focus in on, Mc Neill also places in sharp relief the author’s unusual behaviours and thought processes, not to mention his style of conversation. He does this with an equal measure of fondness and frankness. Yet it’s also clear that not everything was cozy and smooth in the relationship: conflicting politics on certain matters (again, Mc Neill’s heterosexuality, in contrast with Burroughs’ homosexuality proved to be a source of tension at times, not least of all when Bill pulled his ‘Man of the Mountain’ routine) only added to the challenges they faced in working on a project as ambitious and fraught with difficulties and mishaps as Ah Pook is Here.
Mc Neill recounts the highs and lows of working on the project – and there were many lows, largely on account of his lack of finance – and also reflects upon the many strange happenings, ranging from police raids to sessions with an e-meter. As the book progresses, so the coincidences rack up at a staggering rate. The number 23 crops up with remarkable (if predictable) frequency, but there are many other recurring names and places and parallels with previous events and past lives (Mc Neill’s life has played out like a rerun of artist Frederick Catherwood’s, over a century before, and then there are the ways in which the Patty Hearst case comes into play). It’s small wonder that coincidence had no place in Burroughs’ belief system and that Mc Neill, too, rejects the concept, and as much as Mc Neill opines that the project itself was doomed from the start, it’s easy to understand why Ah Pook persisted as an influence in his life long after the project’s demise. Burroughs said that ‘The purpose of writing is to make it happen, and with Ah Pook, things happened alright. Burroughs is often portrayed as demonstrating paranoid traits: the events that sprung from Ah Pook suggest not without good reason.
Pleasingly, Mc Neill manages to retain a sense of perspective and a healthy cynicism as he writes on the subjects of censorship and the so-called 2012 ‘Mayan Prophecy’. What’s more, Observed While Falling is written in a refreshingly accessible fashion, while at the same time reveals its author to be intelligent and knowledgeable. Mc Neill successfully tackles complex theoretical and conceptual matters with dexterity and untangles many of the themes and theories central to Burroughs’ work while demonstrating their relevance and effects in a real-life setting. After all, theories only hold up in the context of practice.
In a market saturated with books that retread the same well-worn ground in building the legend of the Beat Generation through the extraordinary biographical details of the ‘big three’, Observed While Falling stands apart. It is not just another Burroughs biography. In fact, it isn’t a Burroughs biography at all: this is very much Malcolm’s story, his memoir, his recollection and observations: William Burroughs and Ah Pook just happen to be the leaders of the supporting cast.
Together, these two books constitute an essential addition to the collection of any serious Burroughs fan or scholar. Having shed light on a previously dark corner of the Burroughs legacy, will hopefully provide vital research material for critical analysis of this gravely neglected work produced during a largely overlooked period in his career. Equally importantly, both in terms of aesthetic appeal and narrative contents, The Lost Art of Ah Pook and Observed While Falling are superb books in their own right.
The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here & Observed While Falling are published by Fantagraphics