Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978)

ss_acker_bghs_covBlood and Guts in High School‘s (BAGIHS) narrative is a collage of drama, rough pornographic illustrations, dream geographies, angst- and art-fueled journal entries, a book report reinterpreting (and deconstructing) the Scarlet Letter (1850), language-learning exercises, poetry, &c. Whatever the format — whatever the readability — BAGIHS seems to follow young Janey’s short-lived maturation and self-education in a world that offers her and her sort nothing but condescending, appreciative inequality.

I tend to have trouble with transgressive fiction, but Acker’s work is something special. She was brilliant — really had a knack for both tearing apart literary canon and social injustices; she was delightfully odd; and she was really, really, justifiably grumpy.

How do you feel about yourself when every human being you hear and see and smell every day of your being thinks you’re worse than garbage? Your conception of who you are has always, at least partially, depended on how the people around you behaved towards you. You sense the people around you aren’t right: what you did, your need, you weren’t defying them to defy them, it was your need, was OK. You don’t know. How can you know anything? How can you know anything? You begin to go crazy.

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Acker, a friend of author Neil Gaiman, was the inspiration for the Sandman‘s Delirium of the Endless — whose unpredictable personality was an homage to Acker’s frantic narratives

Her work’s often built on her own feelings of oppression — of being treated like she was incapable of, e.g., Jean Genet’s greatness because she’s not a man; of being told all the year after year men like Hawthorne, Dickens, de Cervantes, Faulkner, and Stevenson are responsible for western canon; of reading a western canon, like with the Scarlet Letter, that tries to tell women’s stories for them because their place is not to be intellectually-influential. It’s the kind of anger I see as increasingly relevant and necessary in an age of proud anti-intellectualism* that says women can’t get angry about inequality and injustices because it negates any rationality underlying their arguments.

If there’s anything in Acker’s writing that doesn’t gel with me, it’s her decision to include narrative structure in the list of masculine canon’s influence. I get that rebelling against quest structure contributes to the message, but, much like the non-fiction chapters of Moby-Dick, it detracts from the readability. Similarly, spending so much time rewriting that canon using proudly-stolen and original language (inspired by hyper-masculine postmodern writers like Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman) contributes to the message, but not the readability.

Genet doesn’t know how to be a woman. He thinks all he has to do to be a woman is slobber. He has to do more. He has to get down on his knees and crawl mentally every minute of the day. If he wants a lover, if he doesn’t want to be alone every single goddamn minute of the day and horny so bad he feels the tip of his clit stuck in a porcupine’s quill, he has to perfectly read his lover’s mind, silently, unobtrusively, like a corpse, and figure out at every changing second what his lover wants. He can’t be a slave. Women aren’t just slaves. They are whatever their men want them to be. They are made, created by men. They are nothing without men.

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Acker with author William S. Burroughs in 1988.

Most of Acker’s work becomes more about the experiencing a delirious mindset rather than following an escapist plot. Whether we’re trapped with Janey’s incestuous father, a Persian slave trader’s closet, or in a Moroccan jail with Jean Genet, the cohesion is brought about by the message rather than character growth (because how much growth could a woman have?). Like submerging yourself in a dense academic journal of sociology with graphic depictions of genitalia every 10 pages, BAGIHS gives the reader the best of all possible worlds.

8 / 10

Kathy Acker (1947 – 1997) was an early voice for the punk movement in the ’70s. Her grimy style was modeled on the early post-modernists in its experimentation — a fact of which her writing often seemed aware of and frustrated with, given the masculinity of the movement (e.g., William S. Burroughs). Her novels tended to tackle that very aspect of Western Canon, including works like Great Expectations (1982), My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1984), Don Quixote (1986), Empire of the Senseless (1988), In Memoriam to Identity (1990), My Mother: Demonology (1994), and Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996). She died of cancer in 1997.

Sahih: All she does is weep. You should get rid of her. We might be animals, but at least we know to keep our feelings locked in us. Women are worse than animals. They don’t understand what’s happening as we do.

Janey: For 2,000 years you’ve had the nerve to tell women who we are. We use your words; we eat your food. Every way we get money has to be a crime. We are plagiarists, liars, and criminals.

[..] Sahih (to Janey): You have to understand that you’re stupid. And you’ll never be able to make enough money to get away by working.

Boss: Unless she spreads her legs.


* For example, the rise of Men’s Rights Activism (or hegemonic masculinity: Coston & Kimmel 2013; Kahl 2014); GamerGate (Chess & Shaw 2015); increasing xenophobia in response to globalization; Donald Drumpf’s presidential campaign; or, most relevant to my work, the manufactured debate over climate change research (Oreskes & Conway 2014).

reviewed April 2016, revised December 2016
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