While on the phone with my mother, she asks me what I want for my upcoming birthday. My go-to present is a book; they’re cheap, easy to come by and a gift I always appreciate. She asks me which books I’d be interested in. I bring up Kathy Acker¹ (whom she doesn’t know of) and explain her body of work. She agrees to send me the book but before hanging up, she warns me: “Don’t tell your father.”
As bothered I was by that statement, I understand where it was coming from. Kathy Acker was a prolific writer in the 70s and 80s, known for avante-garde work that reflected the aesthetic of her East Village peers. Her art was grounded in experiments of the old-guard minimalist and conceptual artists but included extreme pornography, parody, politics, gossip and trash. She was most known for her uses of pastiche–an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period–by using materials that ranged from Shakesphere to Rimbaud. Still, her literary style was akin to that of William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet.
Although she had been slowly garnering attention with the release of Great Expectations (a rewriting of Charles Dickens book by the same name) and The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses, her breakout novel was Blood and Guts in High School (1984). The novel follows Janey Smith, a teenager that leaves her incestuous relationship with her father and moves to New York. From there, Janey hangs out with Jean Genet, is eventually kidnapped and sold into sex-slavery. It sounds like a bummer but its strength is her use of fragmentation and genre play. Within the actual novel, it hopscotches through prose, transcripts, poems by Janey Smith, pornographic drawings and literary theory. She includes scans of her self-illustrated “Dream Maps”.² Janey’s time in the novel is often frightening, grotesque but also funny.
She didn’t intentionally consider identity politics in her work, because, to her, facets of identity are like a kaleidoscope: what we see is not stable nor permanent. Instead, they hide the reality that there is no unified “You” nor is there any comforting master narrative. The body is in danger, but not up for appropriation to address politics. Acker emphasizes the idea of freedom in her work, but does not equate “freedom” with the “free market”.
Although her work was and still is often misread, I think the most important thing us as readers can take away from her work is that we have to transform the political landscape and fight for something new. Blood and Guts in High School reminds us that freedom is endless becoming and potentiality. As Janey Smith wrote, “The only thing I want is freedom. Let me tell you: I don’t have any idea what that means.”
Written by Sofia Alfaro