The Fury of Kathy Acker

On November 30, a 53-year-old American woman died a cruel death in a Tijuana, Mexico, hospital. Her death has gone largely unremarked upon by the mainstream media, yet she was one of the most influential novelists of the second half of the 20th century.

Kathy Acker was a brilliantly original writer who despised originality and claimed to have no imagination. "The word 'imagination' is a bit of a bugaboo," she said. "They've used it to place literature on a pedestal. I've never fantasized. I've used other texts, or I've used friends. I've used memories, but I've never created stories by making things up."

Long before I ever met Acker, the gleeful fiendishness of her work was an inspiration to me. When we eventually met, the woman was as impressive as the books she had written.

Her own biggest inspiration was William Burroughs' "cut-up" method of writing, but she did much more than imitate him. In a country that still believes in the myth of creativity, of individual genius, Acker understood that text takes its meaning from context--and so she made plagiarism a valid literary form. She never hesitated to take a chunk from another author's book and put it in the middle of one of her own. Her reasoning was that, once placed in her book, the text she had appropriated meant something different that it had in the book she had taken it from, and, therefore, it was no longer the same story. Her belief was borne out by her being able to publish such work with legal and artistic impunity.

Although essentially a deconstructionist, Acker had little in common with the tweedy French academics who were concerned with form pretty much for its own sake. Her imperatives were at least as political as they were artistic, and probably much more so. Deconstruction interested her because she understood that language and power are inseparable. She regarded the novel as a bourgeois art form, one that failed to reflect the fragmented realities of American urban life. And so she set out to create a form that would.

The books she produced with this agenda read like Alice in Wonderland rewritten by George Orwell, Henry Miller and Edgar Allan Poe. Conjuring the feeling of half-remembered dreams, these first-person narratives come as a car-crash of pornography, sexual violence, cancer, scenes lifted from history and literature, attacks on consumer capitalism, religion and sexism. The voice throughout her early books is one of sustained rage. Understanding identity to be an internal construct, Acker stripped her narrators of individual personality, leaving them with absolutely nothing--not even certainty of their own existence. This is the vantage point from which this most political of writers examines Western culture.

Having lived in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district when the hippie period was at its most whacked-out, and having worked in the sex industry to keep a roof over her head, Acker had no romantic illusions about the "sexual revolution," which she saw as being just as patriarchal and oppressive as anything it purported to rebel against. "The men really had all the power; all they did was get these women pregnant. You end up with five babies and no boyfriend."

Acker remained in the margins for a long time. Her first books were self-published efforts which she mailed to friends in the art world. The books that followed were published by small, underground presses. Her major breakthrough came in 1984, and it wasn't in her own country. A major British publishing house, Picador, brought out three of her novels in one volume, titled Blood and Guts in High School.

Thirteen years later, this book is still stunning. At the time, it was like nothing the British literati had ever seen. Its author, who was living in England at the time, became a celebrity there.

It's still not clear whether the British really understood her work, or just got a cheap thrill from its shocking nature. Her own appearance--tattooed, pierced, wearing a scowl whose menace was belied by her large, beautiful eyes--attracted as much media attention as her writing. "It was absolutely horrible," she said of her time in England, after her return to the U.S. in 1989. "The media had made up this huge image of Kathy Acker. The media image is so much this kind of sexual image. I'm very well-known there and I get tons of work, but to say that they like what I do--no, I wouldn't say that. They fetishize what I do."

And once the British had gotten over the initial thrill, their reverence of Acker began to wane. Her novel Empire of the Senseless received scathing reviews. But when she went back to New York, she found a different problem.

She'd called a friend, a New York writer, and asked what kind of career she would have if she came back. The friend told her that she had to accept that she wouldn't be a celebrity in the U.S.--she wouldn't get on national TV, as she had in the UK, and would be marginalized like any other serious fiction writer. She advised Acker to keep her house in London, to rent it out for six months while she tried living in the U.S. again.

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: [email protected]

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Barry Graham