t some hazy moment in the late ’80s, someone handed me a copy of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, and my ideas about literature have never been the same. This was the strangest, most frenetic novel I’d ever read, full of diagrams of dreamscapes and crude line drawings of genitals (one was captioned “MY CUNT RED UGH,” and, underneath a pair of testicles, “YOU ARE THE BLACK ANNOUNCERS OF MY DEATH”). I was entranced. Later, I became obsessed, and I harbored the conviction that Acker had written the book while loaded on crystal meth. I got this idea from the hyperactive decay of form in the book a punky fable which shifts from dramatic dialogue to a travel diary to a Persian grammar and also from the high, keening voice of the narrator, Janey, a ten-year-old girl whose father is also her boyfriend. Or, as she describes him: “boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement and father.”
I was a fan, or at least I wanted to be. But at some point Acker’s work began to put me to sleep, literally. I remember standing in line somewhere in the crisp ’90s, holding a copy of her novel Empire of the Senseless, struggling to keep my eyes open. There was no crystal meth in this book, no characters, really just soporific repetition and language drained of its power. Where was I? I had voyaged deep into the land of experimental writing: “The cunt was hurt. I realized when I awoke. The terrorists said. Six thousand micrograms of endorphin analog, however, were coming, down on the pain like a hammer, shattering it.” And so on. This, to me, bore such faint resemblance to anything like a story or an essay or any semi-orderly progression of thoughts that it seemed to be nothing more than a series of words strung together. That Acker acknowledged it as such didn’t make it any more interesting: “The code said: GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.”
Acker’s progression from a promising, intriguing young writer to an obdurate, impenetrable one is mapped out in the new anthology Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, a sampling from each of her books and chapbooks published between 1978 and 1996 (she died in 1997). The anthology is edited by Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper, and it’s a comprehensive introduction to a writer who in her day was considered a punk, a deconstructionist, a transgressive feminist and a scary weirdo. Scholder and Cooper have picked the most lucid and representative portions from Acker’s writings, which have a choppy, cut-and-paste style that suffers little from being excerpted. The consistent thread that runs through all these pieces is Acker’s vivid, importunate voice, love-starved and desperate. Everyone in her books is always on the edge of a total needy mental breakdown. Toulouse Lautrec (incarnate as a female dwarf hunchback), speaks for many of Acker’s characters when she says, “All I think about is sex. At night, nights, I lie alone in my bed: I see the right leg of every sexy man I’ve seen on the street, the folds of cloth over and around the ooo ooo . . . I ache and I ache and I ache. I feel a big huge hole inside my body. I see a man I like about to stick his cock in my hot pussy.”
This is the voice that distinguishes Kathy Acker, and this is the voice that’s such an amazement and a drag. It’s an amazement because she wrote like no one else in the late ’70s, with humor, naked sexual longing and the distilled contempt of a teenage outcast. “I find my being dependent on love. Physical passion for others and thus myself. Fuck the shits who think otherwise,” she writes in “The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula.” The best showcase for her talents is Blood and Guts in High School Janey, the protagonist, is exactly the right vehicle for Acker’s voice: a needy little girl whose consciousness isn’t childish, whose boyfriend is sort of but not really her father, whose world is real but also a dream. “I was running around with a bunch of wild kids and I was scared. We were part of THE SCORPIONS. Daddy no longer loved me.” There’s an exhilarating parity between Acker’s anguished language and Janey’s exaggerated world, but in subsequent books she wanders away from this synthesis and never returns to it.
Instead, Acker’s later works are a sludge of ideas brought to the page without the benefit of characters or plots or whatever other bourgeois candy coating a lifetime of reading non-experimental fiction has led us to expect. Though her characters cry out for attention (“I am lonely out of my mind . . . Now I’m going into the state where desire comes out like a monster. Sex, I love you.”), Acker, with her unruly, William Burroughs-inspired prose and disintegrating identities, ignores the human desire for connection that’s always been the most seductive quality of fiction. There’s literally nothing to hold on to here, certainly no one to care about, as the sidekick in Don Quixote morphs from a cowboy to an abused student to a dog. By way of explanation: “A malign enchanter must again be pursuing me, this time outside of my dreams, for he’s transformed your hunky body into a dog’s.” While slogging through the second half of Essential Acker, I began to get the feeling that the author had even stopped trying. She writes: “I must give people art that demands very little attention and takes almost nothing for me to do.” By the late ’80s, Acker’s work had devolved into the most tedious variety of experimental writing: humorless, first-person ramblings with a political agenda. “I had the abortion because I refused normalcy which is the capitulation to social control. To letting our political leaders locate our identities in the social,” she writes in Don Quixote. Acker really pushes her luck in the repetition department too, echoing Gertrude Stein, though without Stein’s excuse (which was that she invented such writing). Endure, if you will: “Can murder murmur mirth. Can murder murmur mirth. Can murmur murder mirth.”
By the time I’d reached the last page of Essential Acker, I had to admit that overall this was the labor of a terrible writer. But there’s still something I love about Kathy Acker’s prose. There is always a chance, even in her later work, of finding a strange, fascinating passage. (“When a human dies, another human cuts the first one in two. Next, the second human glues these two body parts together . . . and pours medicine down the first human’s throat.”) Her work is all about process I don’t think she cared about the finished product, or what her readers made of it: “No form cause I don’t give a shit about anything anymore.” She granted herself the freedom of an artist, the freedom to play around with words to see what could happen. And occasionally, wonderful things happened. But most of the time, they didn’t.
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© 2002 Stacey Richter and Nerve.com.