Kathy Acker's work is not outrageous. That is what first comes to mind reading the abortion scene that launches her new novel, "Don Quixote." We have all been there--not to the bloody chamber of horrors she describes--but to the highly fabricated world of this story. Unless we have been wrapped in cotton wool or sent to the nunnery, we are fully prepared for the sexual and political extremes with which Acker purposes to alarm, amuse, and, at times, anesthetize the readers of her fiction.
Described rather nervously as punk, postmodern, or even postpunk, her novel is not all that hard to classify: It is fashionably self-indulgent Lower East Side Lit Major. Happily, Acker is better educated, more thoughtful and more talented than most of the practitioners of LESLM. Starting with her title, she leads us into a world in which rip-off and pastiche are common currency just as they are (we can't miss the parallel) in our helter-skelter, image-ridden culture.
In Acker's earlier "Great Expectations," she used a parody of Dickens' famous opening lines to set the flip-to-feisty tone for the autobiographical Bildungsroman that followed. In this new work, she re-imagines Cervantes' romantic knight as a woman. More precisely, Acker gives herself, via Cervantes, a new first name: "As we've said, her wheeling bed's name was 'Hack-kneed' or 'Hackneyed,' meaning 'once a hack' or 'always a hack' or 'a writer' or 'an attempt to have an identity that always fails.' . . . So, she decided, 'catheter' is the glorification of 'Kathy.' By taking on such a name which, being long, is male, she would be able to become a female-male or a night-knight."
This little passage is a fair example of what "Don Quixote" holds for the reader: a highly personal performance full of modernist tricks--with Acker, the willful impresario, always in sight, always playing with language and literary forms, switching tenses and voices. Any attempt to convey what transpires in "Don Quixote" is likely to make the reader feel like a chump. Still, it is to Acker's credit that those whom she manages to engage will, almost as a point of honor, want to have a go at the intention of her hip, fragmented novel, for, despite her embrace of the irrational, she does grant us a skeletal, throwaway plot.
After Don Quixote's abortion, she and her "sidekick cowboy," Saint Simeon (early Christian Bishop-Martyr?) descend into madness, troubled dreams of the polymorphous-perverse variety, and deep disillusion before setting out to find "love in a world in which love isn't possible." Thus, this first and shortest section ends in unoriginal nihilism: "It's not necessary to write or be right cause writing's or being right's making more illusion. It's necessary to destroy and be wrong."
The second and most successful "chapter" of "Don Quixote"--a chapter entitled "Being Dead, Don Quixote Could No Longer Speak. Being Born Into and Part of a Male World, She Had No Speech of Her Own. All She Could Do Was Read Male Texts Which Weren't Hers"--takes us on purely literary adventures. A feminist rewrite of the classics is not a fresh idea, but Acker is funny and savvy with some of her appropriated material, which ranges from Russian Constructivism to Shakespeare, Milton, Genet, a few lines of Dante and more. I cannot help but stress how literary Acker's work is. She is like a graduate student in comparative literature gone looney-tunes under the pressures of orals.
Sometimes the clowning pays off. One of the best bits tunes in on a man and a woman who toss around the gossip of current literary theory ("Do you think there's something fishy in the semiotic theories, especially in Deleuze's and Guattari's?") like Mike Nichols and Elaine May in their "Bach to Bach" routine. Another fine set piece is a conversation in which two chicks talk about their sex lives, describing the explicit arrangement of bodies until, as in Beckett's exhaustive dealing with limbs, human gesture is reduced to nonsense. In a few impressive pages, a hopeless sexual obsession is rendered as a hilariously one-sided epistolary novel.
But these brilliant flashes are rare in Acker's long, bewildering trek toward self-definition. There is a tedious precis of Visconti's "The Leopard," which is supposed to function--Acker is often our instructress--as a romantic distraction from memory and pain. There is a replay of scenes from Frank Wedekind's "Lulu," with Acker written in.
Acker is smart. German Expressionism of the 1920s is a natural for fiction that proceeds in a cartoonish way against the background of name-brand plenty and our supposedly disposable culture. "I am a pirate," she insists upon many occasions, openly adhering to the mighty fashionable notion that the authors of the dear old masterpieces are dismissable if not dead, and that therefore she can appropriate any text, no matter how sacred or how profane, for her writing machine.
Indeed, there is a computerese sequence in "Don Quixote" in which the same paragraph, stuck in a retrieve, is printed two and three times over. But Acker is no Mac-Write freak, interested in the medium without the message. No, she is angry, childish, strident and boring in her repeated howls at what seems for much of this book no more than a creaky notion that the poor battered bourgeoisie is enemy No. 1. Or is it men? Or our monetary system? Or the New York Art World? Or the rotten autobiographical business of her mother's suicide and a broken marriage, both of which thread their way through "Don Quixote"?
Acker's characters are literally dehumanized. St. Simeon, woofing, turns into a dog, the better to play out his degraded adventures. Think brutal animal cartoons--Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry--and you have a lead into the Acker aesthetic. She assigns Nixon and Reagan the pronoun it . Her obliteration of sex leads to a tiresome use of she ( he ) and him ( her ), bollixing up one of her tales. We are told what to think about all this, of course: "For when there is no country, no community, the speaker's unsure of which language to use, how to speak, if it's possible to speak. Language is community. Dogs, I'm now inventing community for you and me."
But Acker's explanation does not make up for the slack repeat of one-liners, the undisciplined tick of naughty four-letter words, a warmed-over '60s political rhetoric, a dabbling in Gertrude Steinian ex cathedra pronouncements--in sum, for a lack of true invention.
The final section of "Don Quixote" is a long harangue against the evil empire--a hideous British-American landscape of corruption and decay. Unlike the young writers out of too many university workshops who publish perfectly controlled, cool stories, this novel may be a jagged cry from the heart of Kathy Acker. It is too bad that her prose is no more shocking than the cover of a heavy metal album, that she cannot, would not want to, sort out her good work from stuff as campy and ephemeral as a plastic flamingo or a giant Gummy.
Acker is a hit in England where she now lives--chic, a cult figure, a wild American, an exotic. After all of her flamboyant piracy, she echoes Whitman in a few precious moments of searing honesty, but without an ounce of Whitman's celebration or a drop of his innocence: "City, owner of me. When you want paint out of me, you throw me amidst your bums . . . When you want joy out of me, you make me famous, for I'm the baby, you're my only parent, and fame is your nipple." In Europe, Acker takes her prose on the road with a rock band. She's coming to America for a national media tour. We can half-guess the coverage in "L.A. Style" and "Interview." But perhaps what lies so heavy on the page will be happily lost in the performance.