The Selected Writings
of Kathy Acker
Edited by Amy Scholder and
Grove Press; 335 pp.; $15 (paper)
Rip-off Red, Girl
Detective/The Burning Bombing of America
By Kathy Acker
Grove Press; 201 pp.; $14 (paper)
I'm not easily destructible as I allow them their destruction. this begins this dense hardly understandable material. through illusion and fantasies who are reality. necessities. you will have to try to understand.
-- from The Burning Bombing of America
Kathy Acker, to be certain, was not an author who created easy, cover-to-cover reads. If profanity, violence, pornography, poetry, or nontraditional literary forms offend you, then you might want to steer clear of her entirely. But if you enjoy (or can at least tolerate) these things, then a foray into Acker's world can be as rewarding as it is challenging.
That said, Essential Acker and Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and The Burning Bombing of America (two short early novels of Acker's that were recently rediscovered and just now published) are an interesting window onto the career of one of 20th-century America's most brazen female novelists. Though perhaps novelist is not quite the right term. To quote the author in Rip-off Red, Girl Detective: "Narratives are purely for shit. Here's the information go fuck yourself." Whew.
Stylistically, Acker, who died in 1997, is often compared to William S. Burroughs, owing to both her roots in New York City's writing scene and her insistence on pushing the boundaries of, and redefining, form. Sometimes, she was entirely successful in this endeavor. To this end, the draw of Essential Acker, in particular, lies in its career-spanning chronology. Over the course of nearly 30 years, as Acker became more adept at defining her own experiments, the reading experience became clearer, more digestible.
Her themes remained surprisingly consistent. Acker's heroines and heroes are sexual creatures, hopelessly indulgent in the physical realm, yet they never seem to cave in to hopelessness or self-pity. It seems that the author's personal politics, those of a self-empowered, book-hoarding outlaw who at different points in life worked as both a 42nd Street sex-show performer and a college professor, were solidified early on. Herein lies Acker's most powerful exploration: Through her writing, she continually focused on creating a reality in which one could exist comfortably in the male and female realms simultaneously. Her characters run through her meandering prose with the battle cry "[A] (wo)man wants to control his/her life," as crystallized in The Burning Bombing of America.
The trouble with Acker's work is that it's difficult to discern the boundaries between autobiography, fiction, metafiction, and even plagiarism. This last, a self-conscious choice on the part of the author, eventually forced her to make a public apology to Harold Robbins over material "pirated" from his work. But Acker's main obsession was the power of language to change reality, which included borrowing scenes and characters from other works with the goal of redefining them.
It's easy to get disoriented in Acker's universe if you're mired in the conventionalities of literature. Nevertheless, she was ultimately successful in putting the complexities of politics, sex, and identity under the microscope and emerging with something that was uniquely her own. To truly find one's self, I suppose, one must get lost along the way. -- Jennifer Hall