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Words, bullets: what’s the difference?
Document William S Burroughs andhisgun collection byTom McCarthy
Artist and writer Tom McCarthy’s first novel Remainder followed a traumatised protagonist who obsessively reconstructs scenes from his past. Initially published by France’s arthouse Metrodome Press, it picked up a cult following and became a sleeper hit. His new novel, C, published this spring, will he says, “explore the relationship between technology and mourning.” McCarthy is also a founder of the Kafka-esque International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictional organisation of art and philosophy, that stages residencies, events and lectures. McCarthy wrote this exclusive piece for Document on beat writer William S Burroughs, and his extensive collection of guns.
In 1983 the American novelist William S Burroughs, newly inducted to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, was asked to select one of his manuscripts to be displayed in an exhibition of members’ work. He chose instead Gun Door, a ‘painting’ he’d recently made by firing a shotgun at a bag of paint attached to a slab of plywood. The Academy declined the offering, but this didn’t deter Burroughs: he went on to produce scores more shotgun paintings that, whatever their artistic merits, tour the world’s galleries to this day.
Burroughs loved guns. He must have gone through hundreds of them in his 80-odd years. Visitors to his various digs in New York, Tangiers, Mexico or Kansas would, if he was feeling generous, be treated to a tour of his expanding arsenal and watch the frail figure’s ever-more spindly fingers move with lightning speed from safety catch to handle, bore to hammer, caressing and manipulating surfaces with which their intimacy was plain to see. He put guns into his books at every opportunity, not, like Raymond Chandler, as dramatic props, but as aesthetic objects in and of themselves. In The Place of Dead Roads, 1983 – his magnificently skewed nod in the direction of cowboy or Western fiction – the hero Kim visits a gunsmith who parades his wares with all the reverence of the keeper of a delicate archive or reliquary, a curator or a priest: “now this little 22 here… a good holdout gun you can stash in your boot, down in your crotch, up your sleeve… I knew this Mexican gun, El Sombrero, with a holster in his hat...”
The relation to guns here goes beyond object fetishism: they’re repositories of oral history and a synecdoche for style (‘drawing your gun should be an easy flowing casual movement, like handing someone a pen, or passing the salt, conveying a benediction,’ the gunsmith continues). They’re also markers for another, better, purer and more virile world