The Fury of Kathy Acker

Typically, Acker rejected the advice and burned her bridges. She sold her house and moved to New York. She found herself to be famous in literary and avant-garde circles in this country, but that was all. Although perhaps the most influential prose writer of her generation, she didn't get the kind of accolades that were given to lesser writers such as Mary Gaitskill or Tama Janonwitz. Deciding she'd had enough of New York, Acker moved to San Francisco and dropped contact with many of her East Coast friends.

She survived mainly by teaching, and also gave electrifying performances of her work. And she continued to produce books, with the voice more restrained than before. When her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, came out in 1995, some critics considered it to be her best. A feminist rewrite of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, it inspired an album by the Mekons, which featured Acker reading between songs.

Whether it was her best book, it was certainly her most complete, bringing together all of the concerns found in her previous books. Though never conventionally autobiographical (Acker was never conventionally anything), certain motifs occur and recur throughout her oeuvre--a girl whose mother is dead, her father uninterested in her, psychosexual relationships based on cruelty and pathological need rather than love.

Acker was the first to admit that her books sometimes bordered on the unreadable. To map unknown territory and find new ways of using narrative, it was necessary to work near the boundaries of incoherence. And sometimes she crossed to the wrong side of that border.

But taking risks is what Kathy Acker was about. I remember once telling her how much I admired the work of the novelist and theorist Lynne Tillman. Acker nodded, and said, "She takes a lot of risks." It was clearly the highest praise she could muster.

I recall that conversation vividly because of how great Acker looked that evening. She had been body-building for years, and her muscles were incredible. We were at a party, and she was vibrant, laughing and holding forth to those who came to talk to her.

A year later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had no health insurance, and so she opted for the cheapest treatment available, mastectomy. She had both breasts removed, because she didn't want to have just one breast.

Then, feeling that she'd been butchered, she turned her back on conventional medicine and began seeing psychic healers, who convinced her that her cancer had been cured. She went to London for a while and, even when she felt very sick, refused to believe it might be cancer. When she got back to San Francisco, she was in such terrible shape that a couple of friends made her go to the emergency room. She had cancer all over her body, and was told that she probably had a week to live.

She lasted another month, then died in an alternative treatment center in Tijuana.

When a person dies--particularly a celebrity--it's common to hear people say that the world will be poorer for that person's passing. Of course, it's not true. The world just goes on as people are born and die. But Kathy Acker's death is an immeasurable loss to American literature. She was unique, a visionary who understood the chemistry of political exploitation as no other fiction writer has. Those who resist the forces of oppression have lost a valuable teacher and ally.

But death is unlikely to curb the range of her influence. The most fitting epitaph for Kathy Acker is one she wrote herself. At the end of Blood and Guts in High School, the protagonist, Janey, dies of cancer. And then, we are told, "So the doves cooed softly to each other, whispering of their own events, over Janey's grave in the gray Saba Pacha cemetery in Luxor. Soon many other Janeys were born and these Janeys covered the earth."

Contact Barry Graham at his online address:

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