The rebel speaks for herself

Ben Ehrenreich is a fellow of the Sundance Institute's Writing Arts Program.

I bought my paperback copy of Kathy Acker’s first published novel, “Blood and Guts in High School,” at a used-book store and didn’t notice until I got home that its previous owner had marked it up with ballpoint ink. He -- I always imagine the scribbler as a puritanical and rather over-excited adolescent boy -- drew a small blue circle around every single naughty word: three on the first page of text, three on the second. He had apparently had enough by page 21, because the circles (five in one paragraph) end there.

This is not the smartest way to read one of the most audacious and brilliant American novels written in the last 30 years -- a book about politics, power, writing and heartbreak that fearlessly mixes the diary of an adolescent whose father-lover has taken up with another woman with scrawled dream maps, discourses on Nathaniel Hawthorne, handwritten erotic poetry in Farsi, parody translations of the Roman poet Propertius, imagined dialogues with French writer Jean Genet and with Death and a fantasy affair with former President Jimmy Carter. It is, however, all too indicative of how Acker has come to be remembered, by fans and detractors alike. “Blood and Guts” was banned in Germany and South Africa but won Acker a devoted following among the literary avant-garde. Today she is remembered as the queen of “transgressive” punk-porn literature, the bad girl with tattoos and piercings who dared to write about sex with more unsentimental frankness than even boys were allowed or an over-hyped postmodernist tramp to be resented in perpetuity for unzipping the fly of American letters. When she died of cancer in 1997, this newspaper devoted one slim paragraph to her passing, headlining the obituary “Kathy Acker; Wrote Novels About Sex and Violence.”

Such prim dismissals were not uncommon. They conspired with friendlier, more sensationalist caricatures of her work--take the Guardian’s obit: “Outrageous Author Acker Dies” -- to ignore the one thing she left behind that mattered most, her writing. There is hope. Acker has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in the past year. Grove released an anthology of her work titled “Essential Acker,” as well as a volume containing two previously unpublished early novels: “Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective” and “The Burning Bombing of America.” A conference devoted to her writing was held at New York University in November, with presentations by such giants of postmodern feminist academia as Eve Sedgwick, Gayatri Spivak and Avital Ronell. Acker, it seems, has been canonized.

None of this is without its share of irony. Acker was allergic to institutions of all kinds, and academia was high on the list (though she did her time, studying under Herbert Marcuse in the late 1960s at UC San Diego, later teaching in universities). “I’m telling you right now burn the schools,” she wrote in 1984’s “My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini.” “They teach you about good writing. That’s a way of keeping you from writing what you want to....”


Acker wrote what she wanted and died broke -- at a holistic cancer clinic in Tijuana, where she ended up in part because she mistrusted Western medicine and “teachers-analysts-doctors of all kinds,” in part because she could not afford decent care. She was born into an affluent New York Jewish family. Her father left before her birth and her mother cut her off financially when she was 18. In her early 20s, Acker began working in a live sex show in a decidedly pre-Disney Times Square. And she began writing, mailing her work to friends, self-publishing pamphlets and hawking them door to door to bookstores. The first piece in “Essential Acker,” an excerpt of a work called “Politics,” was written during that period, when she was 21, and in its first lines it neatly encapsulates two of the obsessions that would mark Acker’s writing for decades: sex and identity. “the filthy bedcover on stage I’m allergic to this way of life mine? the last time I got on stage for the first ten minutes I felt I wasn’t me....”

Within a few years, in her writing at least, Acker would be actively seeking that sense of dissolution, purposefully donning multiple literary masks. “Be as paranoid schizophrenic as possible,” she wrote in her first novel, “The Burning Bombing of America,” the manuscript of which was discovered only last year. “I am not happy but am at ease,” she wrote in her second, “Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective,” “only when I’m in drag.” “Rip-Off Red” is an extended punk noir parody (penned in 1973, well before punk bloomed) about a woman who decides “to become the toughest detective alive,” and goes to a decaying, apocalyptic New York to do so and ends up investigating the death of a woman who seduced her in an airplane bathroom. The real mystery though, as always with Acker, is identity: the opaque, fragmented self, how to tie it together or, better yet, dissolve it entirely. “I’m too old to care about the romantic aspects of sex,” Acker writes, but she clearly did care. She does not sentimentalize it in the slightest, but sex is for her the only way out of the narrow confines of the self. “I want each orgasm I have to be the final infinite orgasm,” she writes in words that echo throughout her later work, “I want to be able to find some kind of rest.”

This is not a simply individual escape; it is always, for Acker, political, always founded in outrage against a society based upon greed, repression and violence. “The Burning Bombing of America,” written while Richard Nixon was in the White House and the war was still on in Vietnam, presents this rage in a distilled form, unencumbered by any of the sly allusiveness and stylistic sophistication Acker would later achieve. “O beautiful blowing up of the U.S.!” she writes with Whitman-esque fervor, “Happen! Happen!”

“Write-ing is destruction,” Acker asserts, and so is sex, but it is not just that. “When the narrative is over something new,” she promises, and she goes on to hint at what that something might look like. Sprinkled throughout these early works are visions, dreams, utopian fantasies. “I have a dream,” she writes in “Rip-Off Red,” “A world of delight birds sing to a real sun in a real city no one leaves out anybody. Everyone does what he she wants. A materialist revolution is happening: whatever you have you get more.” And later: “I have a dream, a picture and a hope of a better world. A city in which people want to stay alive, a city full of screaming howling insane people, people who refuse to be robotized react at the slightest rejection.... People who refuse to obey themselves or anyone else, who refuse to plan future systems to which they’ll have to bend. People who make sunlight, then proceed to make silver moons gleaming through the thin black glass of buildings.... “


Such dreams, though rarely presented with the naked, romantic idealism of these early novels, would be a sustaining force throughout Acker’s later work. It’s easy enough to follow their development, the progress of her critique of identity and her increasingly bold experiments with literary appropriation in “Essential Acker,” which includes outtakes from all of her major works. There’s the relatively straightforward and linear narrative of “Kathy Goes to Haiti,” as well as early genre-busting experiments like “The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec,” partially set in a Paris bordello with a cleaning woman named Paul Gauguin, and the elegant “Florida,” in which Key Largo and macho noir writing become Acker’s foils for an assault on the cohesion of the authorial “I.” Selections from the later work are well chosen, such as the first chapter of 1986’s “Don Quixote,” in which the knight (once again Acker in drag), having just had an abortion, sets out in “desperation to find love in a world in which love isn’t possible"; and a late chapter from 1990’s “In Memoriam to Identity,” in which Rimbaud, having abandoned poetry for commerce, is cast in the role of Jason from Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” now set in suburban Connecticut.

Despite a brief introduction and editor’s note, each piece is presented plainly, without any background notes or explanation. This is at times frustrating and could be baffling to the uninitiated, but in the end it’s a blessing: The writing is allowed to stand on its own. Acker was acutely aware that her work would rarely have this privilege, that the market puts writers in an impossible bind.

“Artists now have to turn their work/selves into marketable objects/fluctuating images/fashion,” she wrote in 1981. “The whole impetus for art in the first place is gone bye-bye?” Of course, she ends that sentence ambiguously, with a question mark, and it’s the same question mark that hangs at the end of her literary legacy: Could a woman in late 20th century America write brashly, radically, brilliantly, rudely, without being reduced to a cartoon throwaway, to a stylish rebel or a shameless slut? Could she challenge the very foundations of identity without having one thrust upon her? These questions still stand but, fortunately, so does Kathy Acker’s writing. *