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Homage to the Great Punks of Our European Heritage : IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker (Grove Weidenfeld: $19.95; 265 pp.)

August 12, 1990|Tom Clark | Clark's most recent book of poetry is "Fractured Karma" (Black Sparrow). and

In previous books like "Don Quixote" and "Great Expectations," Kathy Acker has patented an audacious, irreverent, provocatively high-handed method of recycling classic literary texts in a manner variously reminiscent of Dadaist and surrealist procedures, Burroughsian cut-up and the "appropriation" tactics currently in vogue in the visual arts.

Effecting an arresting tacit critique by wrenching original works out of context and re-scaling them to purposes quite distinct from their authors' intentions, these collaged "ready-made" novels also manage to generate a formal modality and impetus all their own. It is a technique uniquely suited to Acker's radical aesthetic strategies, central among which are the subversion and redeployment of language as an instrument of power.

Here, in her ninth novel, Acker explicitly identifies her sources in a candid closing note: "All the preceding has been taken from the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, the novels of William Faulkner, and biographical texts on Arthur Rimbaud and William Faulkner."

Acker's piratical plunderings of the public domain are comparatively less manifest in the case of the latter author from whom she merely adopts her book's structural template, lifted out of "The Wild Palms," and a major character, Quentin, one of her several, relatively faceless and disposable male protagonists, transplanted out of "The Sound and the Fury" and put to appropriately degenerate uses as the suicidally demented hero of the third of the three obsessive, interrelated romances which make up "In Memoriam to Identity."

The image of an androgyne-prole Rimbaud, on the other hand, not only supplies a hero for the first of these romances but also hangs like an enigmatic totem of Freedom and Bad Attitude over the entire book. "I a man other"--as Acker quotes Rimbaud at one point--could serve as epigraph to her unsentimental farewell to identity, though even as she implicates the poet in the explosive fission of her various selves into a sort of electric sexual plurality (her heroine is actually several separate female characters, who share a single voice), she is careful to note that "Rimbaud wasn't a woman . . . Perhaps there is no other to be and that's where I'm going."

"Pushing the emotive, perceptive and rational capacities beyond their limits," a faithfully Rimbaudian motive, is the compulsive project that makes Acker's explorative, libidinous heroines go--and come, over and over and over. Somewhere here it is casually stated that to have fewer than two orgasms a day should be seen as a pathological symptom. "Sexuality must be closely tied to reality," Acker proposes. "You can't lie to yourself sexually." Her prose assaults social and cultural taboos with all the subtlety of a helicopter gunship, employing the graphic shock-tactic grammar and four-letter vocabulary of a relentless language of genital revolt.

Acker puts forth, with no little vigor and seriousness, a hard-eyed view of human relations in our "insane society" as ultimately reducible to the model of the act of rape. In her fiction, the inevitable counter-exploitation of the perpetrator by the victim, the rapee turning upon the rapist, and reifying back at him with a vengeance, is seen not only as a defensive surival tactic on the woman's part but also--and, in moral terms, it must be said, somewhat more gratifyingly--as a poetic turning of the tables.

" I'm always scared," declares Acker's alter-ego heroine. "That's true, but everyone in their world's scared and most of everyone are zombies. I learned that this world is insane. There aren't any roles in an insane world. A world of power. It has something to do with sex. And men have the power, within all the fear; those men who deny this, lie . . . ." Taking back that power, the alienated but highly resilient and self-reliant multiple-identity woman of her tale "had decided to survive. Somewhere in sexuality was her strength. . . . She would survive."

Largely plot-free, wanderingly picaresque, naive and superficial in its characterizations and finally less- novel-than-revolutionary tract, "In Memoriam to Identity" is a weird, violent, searing, angry work, full of pain, dislocation, desire, hate and the raging drive of resistant creation. Acker writes out of open rebellion--against, among other things, God, love, America, the hierarchic structures of patriarchal societies, middle-class values, humanitarianism, history, Harvard, television, Freud, Santa Claus.

"Do you prefer," she challenges her reader and herself with characteristic aggression early on in these pages, "do you think it's better to accept everything that you have been taught, that society has taught, to accept what is considered truth in the circle of your family, friends, and world and what, moreover, really comforts and seems proper? Or do you prefer to strike new paths, fighting the habitual, what goes against questioning? Do you prefer to experience the insecurity of independence and the frequent wavering of one's feelings and moral decisions, often having neither anyone to support you nor consolation, but only having this vision, this mental picture called 'truth'?"

Kathy Acker has invented a form of secret historiography, a language of shock and sensation that provides a vivid, disruptive, unsettling readout on the psycho-social trauma of our time.

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