34. Fred Mustard Stewart – The Methuselah Enzyme (1970)
The Methuselah Enzyme is another intriguing sci-fi read from Burroughs’ late ’60s, early ‘70s sci-fi binge period. It doesn’t make its way into The Job, being published slightly too late, but it does appear in the Mayfair Academy Series, so was clearly on his mind during his most paranoid period.
The novel follows three millionaires: Brandywine, the pharmaceutical magnate, Arnold Hirsch, a fictionalised Hearst, and Lady Kitty, a 1920s flapper and socialite living off a dead husband’s fortune. They travel to an experimental Swiss gerontological clinic, accompanied each by a young companion, and proceed to be made forty years younger.
Their young friends, however, find themselves tired, sick, aching and slack-of-skin after Dr Mentius treats them to an unscheduled three-day nap.
At over 350 pages the novel is slightly too long for its premise. As you’ve no doubt already figured out, the revolutionary new treatment involves sucking the youth out of young people and putting it into the elderly. There are most steps, but really that’s it, and so teasing that for 250 of the 350 pages gets a bit tiring.
It’s not up there with Bloodworld in terms of bad writing, but it’s no Star Virus. Burroughs clearly has more patience than I do for slack writing in the service of good premises.
The twist ending it quite good as well. The young, having had the “Mentase” (the Methuselah Enzyme that keeps you young) sucked out of their brains, have an urgent need for this to be replaced. As such, they must hunt out more young people, who must in turn hunt out more…
We see them in a Casino in Tangier at the end of the novel, leaning on young socialites and gigolos, a hungry glint in their eyes.
Its here, at the end of the novel, where Burroughs’ interest becomes clear. The decadent Tangier life was something he’d experienced. The Mentase-hunger the characters experience is another form of the junk sickness. The sucking of Mentase, like the leeching of orgones, gives a (pseudo)scientific explanation for vampirism. It also ties vampirism to an elderly ruling class – Control – who want to live forever, ideally at the expense of the young.
So it’s ticking all of the boxes. Even Burroughs’ nemesis Hearst makes an appearance.
In terms of its direct impact on the writing, this Hearst connection is the most direct. Although he never mentions Huxley’s After Many a Summer, its clear that Burroughs’ version of Heart is a mix of Huxley’s character and Stewart’s adaptation of the same. These lead directly into “The Unspeakable Mr Hart”, and then Ah Pook is Here.
The idea of an iuventivore gerontocracy (old rich people eating youth) is also at the heart of Burroughs’ guerrilla writings like The Revised Boy Scout Manual, and provides his get-out when youth do go ahead and become violent in the 1970s; arguing that their methods are old fashioned, and youth should be dismantling Control using media disruption rather than bombs and guns.
Overall this was an interesting read and a nice page-turner, if a little over-long. It pretty much does what it says on the tin – when you know the premise, you know the book. For the sake of the Burroughs project, it’s the ideas here that are key.