Kathy Acker's work is not outrageous. That is what first comes to mind reading the abortion scene that launches her new novel, "Don Quixote." We have all been there--not to the bloody chamber of horrors she describes--but to the highly fabricated world of this story. Unless we have been wrapped in cotton wool or sent to the nunnery, we are fully prepared for the sexual and political extremes with which Acker purposes to alarm, amuse, and, at times, anesthetize the readers of her fiction.
Described rather nervously as punk, postmodern, or even postpunk, her novel is not all that hard to classify: It is fashionably self-indulgent Lower East Side Lit Major. Happily, Acker is better educated, more thoughtful and more talented than most of the practitioners of LESLM. Starting with her title, she leads us into a world in which rip-off and pastiche are common currency just as they are (we can't miss the parallel) in our helter-skelter, image-ridden culture.
In Acker's earlier "Great Expectations," she used a parody of Dickens' famous opening lines to set the flip-to-feisty tone for the autobiographical Bildungsroman that followed. In this new work, she re-imagines Cervantes' romantic knight as a woman. More precisely, Acker gives herself, via Cervantes, a new first name: "As we've said, her wheeling bed's name was 'Hack-kneed' or 'Hackneyed,' meaning 'once a hack' or 'always a hack' or 'a writer' or 'an attempt to have an identity that always fails.' . . . So, she decided, 'catheter' is the glorification of 'Kathy.' By taking on such a name which, being long, is male, she would be able to become a female-male or a night-knight."
This little passage is a fair example of what "Don Quixote" holds for the reader: a highly personal performance full of modernist tricks--with Acker, the willful impresario, always in sight, always playing with language and literary forms, switching tenses and voices. Any attempt to convey what transpires in "Don Quixote" is likely to make the reader feel like a chump. Still, it is to Acker's credit that those whom she manages to engage will, almost as a point of honor, want to have a go at the intention of her hip, fragmented novel, for, despite her embrace of the irrational, she does grant us a skeletal, throwaway plot.
After Don Quixote's abortion, she and her "sidekick cowboy," Saint Simeon (early Christian Bishop-Martyr?) descend into madness, troubled dreams of the polymorphous-perverse variety, and deep disillusion before setting out to find "love in a world in which love isn't possible." Thus, this first and shortest section ends in unoriginal nihilism: "It's not necessary to write or be right cause writing's or being right's making more illusion. It's necessary to destroy and be wrong."
The second and most successful "chapter" of "Don Quixote"--a chapter entitled "Being Dead, Don Quixote Could No Longer Speak. Being Born Into and Part of a Male World, She Had No Speech of Her Own. All She Could Do Was Read Male Texts Which Weren't Hers"--takes us on purely literary adventures. A feminist rewrite of the classics is not a fresh idea, but Acker is funny and savvy with some of her appropriated material, which ranges from Russian Constructivism to Shakespeare, Milton, Genet, a few lines of Dante and more. I cannot help but stress how literary Acker's work is. She is like a graduate student in comparative literature gone looney-tunes under the pressures of orals.
Sometimes the clowning pays off. One of the best bits tunes in on a man and a woman who toss around the gossip of current literary theory ("Do you think there's something fishy in the semiotic theories, especially in Deleuze's and Guattari's?") like Mike Nichols and Elaine May in their "Bach to Bach" routine. Another fine set piece is a conversation in which two chicks talk about their sex lives, describing the explicit arrangement of bodies until, as in Beckett's exhaustive dealing with limbs, human gesture is reduced to nonsense. In a few impressive pages, a hopeless sexual obsession is rendered as a hilariously one-sided epistolary novel.
But these brilliant flashes are rare in Acker's long, bewildering trek toward self-definition. There is a tedious precis of Visconti's "The Leopard," which is supposed to function--Acker is often our instructress--as a romantic distraction from memory and pain. There is a replay of scenes from Frank Wedekind's "Lulu," with Acker written in.
Acker is smart. German Expressionism of the 1920s is a natural for fiction that proceeds in a cartoonish way against the background of name-brand plenty and our supposedly disposable culture. "I am a pirate," she insists upon many occasions, openly adhering to the mighty fashionable notion that the authors of the dear old masterpieces are dismissable if not dead, and that therefore she can appropriate any text, no matter how sacred or how profane, for her writing machine.