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An Exercise in Public Drowning : PORTRAIT OF AN EYE : Three Novels By Kathy Acker , (Pantheon Books: $15, cloth; $12, paper; 310 pp.)

March 22, 1992|Kate Braverman | Braverman won the O. Henry Award for her current short-story collection, "Squandering the Blue." Ballantine will publish her new novel, "Wonders of the West," next year.

Kathy Acker has achieved cult status in the small-press world, presumably for the graphic sexual content of her fictions and the nasty bad-girl attitude that fuels them. She is, fundamentally, an experimental minimalist. This collection consists of three mini-"novels" (two of them are fewer than 100 pages) which were previously self-published in the early and mid-'70s. And one wonders at the wisdom of bringing forth such raw and marginal early efforts.

"The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula" is a series of disparate fragments, fantasies and meditations by a protagonist who may or may not be imagining that she is turning into a large black insect without feelings. There are unconnected sequences in which the protagonist inhabits the consciousness of murderesses and prostitutes, offers scenes from her childhood, decides to "revolt against the death society," reads pornography, masturbates, engages in public sex acts, discusses her boredom, wonders why she can't kill her parents for their money, hangs out in leather bars and concludes that she is too shy and gentle, too artistic to get a job.

"I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining" also is a series of disjointed fragments about a woman determined to be an artist. At one juncture, she says, without apparent irony, "I'm a poet and what I do is sacred. The people who keep me from the few lousy instruments I need to disseminate this crap are evil."

The protagonist philosophizes about abstractions such as the nature of substance and time. Cliche litanies adorn this section like land mines, blowing the serious reader away. The author reveals the "real evil." It is, among others, the secret combination of Rockefeller and Pentagon, fake shortages to raise prices, Standard Oil Co., coffee, IBM, CBS, Metropolitan Life, Allied Chemical, Kimberly-Clark, AT&T, American Express, Con Edison and the Chase Manhattan Bank.

This second collection of fragments is awkward for numerous reasons. Acker repeats entire sections, word for word, like a broken movie projector or a kind of psychic stutter. This spasmodic feeling is amplified by unpunctuated sentences. In essence, the reader is encountering what seems to be a compendium of effects without a coherent central mechanism to make it run. It's like discovering you have deciphered the blueprint for a dead machine.

"The Adult Life of Toulouse- Lautrec by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec" consists of fragments that are simultaneously more conventional in both structure and content. Paradoxically, these sections are also less interesting than the more vivid and confused previous scenes from adolescent hell. Here, the author tries to sustain her ideas but the ideas prove to be pretentious and trivial.

In one piece, Toulouse-Lautrec is envisioned as being a sex-starved woman in a kind of mystery story set in a Paris slum that resembles contemporary San Francisco. There is a mildly amusing section about a 9-year-old Janis Joplin having an affair with the young James Dean. This is intercut with dialogue from the film "Rebel Without a Cause." Interspersed throughout these jagged fictions are political diatribes and apparent revelations about the history of capitalism and the role of multinational corporations on global affairs.

In point of fact, these "novels" are without narrative, character or plot. They have no structure or dramatic line and nothing coalesces or resolves. These fragments lack even a minimal guiding sensibility or unifying principle, if only the manic and demonic passion and outrage of, say, William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch." Burroughs maintains a consistent sense of fury, and "Naked Lunch" is composed of, at the very least, fully realized vignettes.

In contrast, these pages read like a writer's journal littered with powerful story ideas and descriptions of real events that have yet to be transformed into fictions. They are not viable stylistic assaults on the traditional forms. The author is clearly in touch with chaos but unable or unwilling to tame and orchestrate it. There are elegant passages here and spasms of real lyrical clarity, none of which are developed or shaped. This dereliction of direction is not a new art form. Rather it is like watching the captain jump from her ship, over and over again. This is an exercise in public drowning.

These "novels," textured in layers of self-indulgence, deliberately oblique and willfully solipsistic, have produced a curious anomaly. This is a kind of novel in reverse. Rather than creation, this is a literary autopsy where the reader is forced to sift through the severed pieces of what goes into making art.

The elements of novels are here and they are wasted. This is, at it's core, a coolly deliberate pseudo-literature. And these are anti-novels presumably for anti-readers.

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