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The rebel speaks for herself

Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective and, The Burning Bombing of America, Kathy Acker, Grove Press: 202 pp., $14 paper Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, Edited by Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper, Grove Press: 336 pp., $15 paper

February 02, 2003|Ben Ehrenreich | Ben Ehrenreich is a fellow of the Sundance Institute's Writing Arts Program.

I bought my paperback copy of Kathy Acker's first published novel, "Blood and Guts in High School," at a used-book store and didn't notice until I got home that its previous owner had marked it up with ballpoint ink. He -- I always imagine the scribbler as a puritanical and rather over-excited adolescent boy -- drew a small blue circle around every single naughty word: three on the first page of text, three on the second. He had apparently had enough by page 21, because the circles (five in one paragraph) end there.

This is not the smartest way to read one of the most audacious and brilliant American novels written in the last 30 years -- a book about politics, power, writing and heartbreak that fearlessly mixes the diary of an adolescent whose father-lover has taken up with another woman with scrawled dream maps, discourses on Nathaniel Hawthorne, handwritten erotic poetry in Farsi, parody translations of the Roman poet Propertius, imagined dialogues with French writer Jean Genet and with Death and a fantasy affair with former President Jimmy Carter. It is, however, all too indicative of how Acker has come to be remembered, by fans and detractors alike. "Blood and Guts" was banned in Germany and South Africa but won Acker a devoted following among the literary avant-garde. Today she is remembered as the queen of "transgressive" punk-porn literature, the bad girl with tattoos and piercings who dared to write about sex with more unsentimental frankness than even boys were allowed or an over-hyped postmodernist tramp to be resented in perpetuity for unzipping the fly of American letters. When she died of cancer in 1997, this newspaper devoted one slim paragraph to her passing, headlining the obituary "Kathy Acker; Wrote Novels About Sex and Violence."

Such prim dismissals were not uncommon. They conspired with friendlier, more sensationalist caricatures of her work--take the Guardian's obit: "Outrageous Author Acker Dies" -- to ignore the one thing she left behind that mattered most, her writing. There is hope. Acker has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in the past year. Grove released an anthology of her work titled "Essential Acker," as well as a volume containing two previously unpublished early novels: "Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective" and "The Burning Bombing of America." A conference devoted to her writing was held at New York University in November, with presentations by such giants of postmodern feminist academia as Eve Sedgwick, Gayatri Spivak and Avital Ronell. Acker, it seems, has been canonized.

None of this is without its share of irony. Acker was allergic to institutions of all kinds, and academia was high on the list (though she did her time, studying under Herbert Marcuse in the late 1960s at UC San Diego, later teaching in universities). "I'm telling you right now burn the schools," she wrote in 1984's "My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini." "They teach you about good writing. That's a way of keeping you from writing what you want to...."

Acker wrote what she wanted and died broke -- at a holistic cancer clinic in Tijuana, where she ended up in part because she mistrusted Western medicine and "teachers-analysts-doctors of all kinds," in part because she could not afford decent care. She was born into an affluent New York Jewish family. Her father left before her birth and her mother cut her off financially when she was 18. In her early 20s, Acker began working in a live sex show in a decidedly pre-Disney Times Square. And she began writing, mailing her work to friends, self-publishing pamphlets and hawking them door to door to bookstores. The first piece in "Essential Acker," an excerpt of a work called "Politics," was written during that period, when she was 21, and in its first lines it neatly encapsulates two of the obsessions that would mark Acker's writing for decades: sex and identity. "the filthy bedcover on stage I'm allergic to this way of life mine? the last time I got on stage for the first ten minutes I felt I wasn't me...."

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