Kathy Acker wrote 13 novels and published one collection of essays before her death from cancer, aged 53, in 1997. Born in New York, she began writing when she returned there in the early 1970s after studying at Brandeis and the University of California, San Diego, a brief marriage, and spells working as a stripper, a bakery clerk and in several other eccentric jobs. She spent a few years as part of Manhattan’s downtown art scene, where she was regarded as both wunderkind and irritant. Then she began a series of restless migrations: to France, Britain, San Francisco. She chose to die in Mexico, in a dubious clinic: she had always thought of herself as a permanent exile.
Acker approached writing as a technical challenge, setting stringent rules for the writing of her novels. She treated every new project as a game, deciding in advance which ingredients, and in what proportion, each book would contain. Her core subjects and themes never varied: they sprang from an immutable set of personal traumas and fixations. However playful her methods, and whatever Perec-like constraints she imposed on herself, Acker’s unassuageable anger at her victimisation as a woman poured into her fractured narratives. Her first writings – quirky, stream-of-consciousness, deceptively confessional – are whimsically strewn with pornography, violence, black humour and incongruous cultural references:
last night with Mary was a complete failure I couldn’t understand what she was saying I’ve never seen any Warhol films I felt she was deaf was I supposed to fuck her Harriet’s work was gorgeous eccentric Beardsley one interpretation could be that I was maniacal and Mary was uptight me babbling I could be far from reality I don’t know why no one is willing to come close enough to tell me why the fuck should they I wouldn’t be my ugly self Mary might have been very shy and into herself I got smashed and watched TV was she smashed she said so
She quickly discarded the Kerouac mode for more complicated bricolage – short novels that sporadically morphed into poetry or theatre scripts. She would interrupt her texts with faux-infantile doodles, Persian or Arabic script, or pages decorated with maps and Bellmer-like drawings of genitalia. Some appeared in the guise of other people’s ‘autobiographies’ that scrambled tenses and geographies, moving dreamlike across historical time: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, I Dreamed I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining. She routinely dropped into her writing records of the things she’d done or talked about or overheard during the day, mixing them up with send-ups of classical texts and mythological references to create droll, disorienting collages. Reading this early work was like being stoned in a taxi speeding through an unfamiliar city.
The writings were disseminated as ‘mail art’, then distributed in chapbooks. She became the diminutive darling of a coterie of punk musicians, a few academic theorists and radical lesbians, and of some (but hardly all) feminists; she was supported by writers and artists including Joseph Kosuth, Keith Sonnier, Sol LeWitt, William Wegman and Leandro Katz (who, with Ted Castle, produced Acker’s first ‘real’ books). She was, for a time, known only as the Black Tarantula; her work was fresh and defiant, and blended perfectly with the cultural mix of 1970s New York. The reprinting and wide dissemination of the early books by Grove Press in the mid-1980s expanded her readership. She became the eminence of what was suddenly being called ‘transgressive literature’. Her image and appearances were energetically laminated by the editors Fred Jordan and Ira Silverberg: she had the cachet of a fetish object and did her best to look like one.
Acker often claimed that she was ‘doing something new with language’, meaning something on a par with Gertrude Stein or William Burroughs. But one can’t avoid noticing what she wasn’t doing with it: making sense, communicating with readers, contacting a world outside her cerebellum. Acker pre-empted criticism of her solipsistic procedures by pronouncing them elements of her master strategy: she wrote badly because she intended to; she did everything wrong because that was her technique for deconstructing ossified literary conventions. How such a writer came to be regarded, by a substantial cult, as feminist oracle and literary innovator has a lot to do with academic fashion.
Acker’s love-hate relationship with literature impelled her to ever more self-aggrandising acts of defilement. Encouraged by visual artists’ 1980s practice of re-appropriation, Acker decided to take the air out of Dickens and Cervantes by titling two of her novels Great Expectations (1982) and Don Quixote (1986). This was a startling transgression, but it was also misplaced revenge. She imagined that she could take on the male domination of the literary canon, levelling the edifice of classical literature by flashing her vagina. She flashed it with such frequency, and with such gleeful conviction, that people began to talk about her writing and her genitalia as if they were the same thing.
Unfortunately, even before Grove Press came along, some of Acker’s books had become vexingly impervious to editing; their novelty sputtered out long before their final pages; her indifference to whether her writing was good or bad – a ‘transgressive’ indifference she insisted on – meant that a little of them went a long way. Despite the intermittently spell-binding, Jacobean black humour of Blood and Guts in High School (1978), Great Expectations and Don Quixote, these books were impossible to read cover to cover. Her best-crafted work of this period is the completely linear, episodic Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978), and the contemporaneous story ‘Florida’, which turns the plot of the 1948 film Key Largo into farcical psychological quicksand.
Acker announced at one point that her books weren’t supposed to be read from cover to cover, but opened at random and sampled a few pages at a time. While there is nothing intrinsically objectionable (or original) about this, her later books are problematic because her experimental approach seemed to have run out of experimental energy. She wrote too much. Copying out, transmuting and tinkering with the works of other writers became a theoretical position rather than a high-spirited goof. Empire of the Senseless, In Memoriam to Identity and Pussy, King of the Pirates gave the impression that Acker lost interest in books long before she’d finished them, and that her pastiche technique of assembling a novel reflected boredom rather than some scheme further to undermine literary form.
She saw no point in reproducing the conventional structures of most novels, or in segregating ‘fine’ writing from any other kind, or in making the comfortable, comforting novels that assembly-line writers traffic in. She became something of an assembly line herself, though, once she decided that ‘creativity’ was a fraudulent concept, and that plagiarism was simply another tool in the shed. She wanted to exercise the freedom Stein practised as a matter of course, or that Burroughs assigned himself in several books before returning to a (drastically loosened) form of cohesive storytelling – the freedom poetry enjoys over prose.
What Acker really intended, and sometimes achieved, was a fusion of writing and politics. She sought to expose the social construction of identity in her novels by continually disrupting the reader’s sense of who is speaking, of who is ‘I’ and who is the Other. The effect is reminiscent of early Dada, or of Raymond Roussel. Acker attempted many acrobatic violations of literary convention. Her most successful fight was with the 19th-century novel; it’s when she took on the Modernist canon that her work most often ran awry. Pissing on Dickens may be one thing, but a writer like Pierre Guyotat is hardly in need of ‘appropriation’ by a white Jewish writer from New York. Too often, her novels were a barrage of attacks on writerly skills she lacked. Her extravagant self-presentation often worked against her too. Attacking capitalism while dressed in Valentino can look like absurdist theatre. But even so, her protracted howl of rage came from a dark, inconsolable place where a fashion plate exterior means nothing. She liked to deflate, to disappoint, to short-circuit sense with obscenity and to undermine narrative with nonsense. A novelty act, in other words, which her partisans have elevated to ever higher levels of intellectual significance. They may not be entirely wrong.
In the years since Acker’s death, her writing has continued to polarise readers. Lauded as a genius in some quarters, dismissed as a talentless poseur in others, her literary status remains a matter of heated contention – something of an achievement in itself. Lust for Life, a collection of essays on Acker’s works, is a useful companion volume to Essential Acker, a recent anthology sampling virtually all her books.Although all the contributors to Lust for Life were either Acker’s friends or partisans, the broad range of interpretations and recollections they offer will help readers of Essential Acker to weigh the claims made for Acker’s work against the work itself, and to distinguish Acker’s actual biography from that roving fictional ‘I’ so often confused with it – a confusion which Acker herself did nothing to discourage.
Peter Wollen’s essay in Lust for Life focuses attention on Acker’s lifelong involvement in politics and the visual arts, her studies with Herbert Marcuse, and the influence on her writing of conceptual art, the Black Mountain poets and Burroughs’s cut-up technique. Most helpfully, Wollen sheds light on the split identities Acker assumes in her novels, discussing her appropriations of other writers’ voices in terms of Acker’s fascination with schizophrenia. Avital Ronell stresses Acker’s long preoccupation with the writings of Georges Bataille and – a surprise to me – the baleful Derrida. Carla Harryman, one of Acker’s longest-standing friends and associates, comes closest to suggesting that there was often a considerable disparity between what Acker thought she was doing and what she actually did. Leslie Dick’s ‘17 Paragraphs on Kathy Acker’ is an affectionate, funny, moving series of verbal snapshots that make Acker more vividly present than the other essays manage. Dick recalls Acker’s eccentricities and her iron discipline – four pages per day no matter what, eight rewrites of every text (‘once for sound, once for meaning, once for “beauty”, once for structure, once in the mirror for performativity etc’). Her recollections remind us that Acker was more a performance artist than she was a novelist in any conventional sense:
Kathy Acker’s readings, her self-presentation (both live and photographic) through clothes, hair, exposure of skin, tattoos etc, her presence on the covers of her books, all worked explicitly to place her body as an obstacle, a threat and a promise, mediating between the reader and the text … Writing sex as Kathy does also works to bring the reader back to her body in a way no other literary strategy quite does.
The voices of Ronell and Lawrence Rickels are the driest in Lust for Life: Ronell’s because she articulates her grief over a friend’s loss in etiolated academic language interspersed with lachrymose, though sincere, intertitles; Rickels’s because, as a psychoanalyst, he is the sole contributor who doesn’t succumb to the tone of a festschrift. He focuses on just one Acker novel, My Mother: Demonology, and links it ingeniously to Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Anton LaVey’s Satan Speaks!, Sade, Huysmans and, less surprisingly, Goethe’s Faust. Acker’s life and work were Faustian projects. She wanted to write her sexuality while experiencing it to the limits of perversity, and to discover which hidden places language, and hence knowledge, could be forced to go to. And she made deals with several devils to satisfy her curiosity.
Acker’s writing is impelled by contradictory needs: the need to survive through writing, and the need to be nothing. As a child, she escaped her gelid Park Avenue family through reading, by making herself invisible inside the world of books. Reading Treasure Island, she conceived a lifelong fantasy of becoming a pirate. The freedom to sail away from oppressive family attachments, and to plunder, say, whatever books happened to be on board: Acker transmuted her wishes into literary burlesques full of nymphomania, antic incest and metaphysical torment. Writing was her life-jacket when the ship went down: her mother’s suicide took away her own sense of her right to live. In her writing, she sought to reconcile a desperate wish for pleasure with an intractable feeling of non-existence. Her skewed version of feminism entailed both self-objectification and consumption of the Other, eluding and embracing oppression by alternating her identity with that of her oppressor, switching unpredictably from the ‘I’ of her persona to the voice of an ‘I’ doing things to it.
Aspects of her final three books suggest that she was preparing to take off in an entirely new direction. In My Mother: Demonology, Empire of the Senseless and Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker is no less indifferent to conventional narrative than she ever was; however, these books have far more coherent subjects than her earlier ones, and seem to be written with more awareness that even if a writer writes only for herself, she cannot write exclusively to herself; Acker had begun to acknowledge the existence of the reader. I like to think that one day she would have surprised everyone with a truly important book, one that wouldn’t need defending with arabesques of pataphysical jargon.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.