Sunday, September 27, 2015

On "Blood and Guts in High School" by Kathy Acker ***

I've read about Acker for years, mentioned generally in relation to things like post-postmodernism (alongside Bret Easton Ellis), which I'm not sure is a thing that really exists. And so I've finally given her a spin--and certainly what's she's written is different from most things of I've read before. It's a collage of sorts, a mix of styles and speakers and ideas and pictures and words, all put together in one text.

I was reminded of two other things while reading this book. I was reminded of some photocopied literary journals that I would come across in Los Angeles when I was in my early twenties and idealistic. These journals generally aimed to be shocking in some way, dropping swear words vicariously and including pornographic drawings and generally being anticapitalist, antiwar, antisociety. The purveyors of these magazines were somehow going to change the world. I wanted to change the world too but not in such an anarchistic way. This book looked like one of those journals. I would immediately not have liked it as a young man--mostly because it was too lewd in a coarse obvious way.

The other thing the book reminded me of was a David Lynch movie, something akin to Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. The movie makes sense at the beginning and is interesting because it's so strange, but as the film continues, it becomes stranger and stranger and more and more impossible to follow. Eventually, we don't know what's going on--and we're left with just bits and pieces we were introduced to early on that show up from time to time that we can sort of wrap around our minds around to give the piece structure.

And that's what happens here in Acker's book. We're introduced straight off to Janey, a ten-year-old who is in a sexual relationship with her father/boyfriend. Acker, of course, is looking to shock right from the start. But as I read, I saw the relationship as in some ways not really literal, as I saw the book as not being literal. Acker walks in the realm of dream and desire, as Lynch does. Sure, we have an incestuous/pedophilic relationship at the center of the piece, but what Acker is doing is making psychological theory literal. The book then at the start is about how women, in relationships, are seeking their fathers, at least as some psychologists might theorize. A boyfriend is simply an image of the father who raised the woman. Read that way, the early sections are theoretically interesting (is what we look for in a relationship inevitably a mirror image of a parent?), especially as Janey's boyfriend breaks up with her to pursue another woman who is sexier and who allows him more freedom. This could be any relationship. (I particularly enjoyed a paragraph that was repeated multiple times as a refrain throughout certain pages as the relationship comes to an end--a set of incidents being played over and over, the way we tend to obsess over breakups, looking for meaning.)

As the novel continues, however, we begin to lose sight of Janey at times. And we descend more and more often into the realm of dream--Acker even provides us with some sketches of dreamscapes. Janey leaves her father to go to school in New York, where she works, falls in with a group called the Scorpions, has lots of sex, and eventually loses all her acquaintances in an auto accident.

Janey is kidnapped by a couple of men who intend to turn her into a prostitute/sex slave. She is kept in a room by a Persian man. She writes poetry, a book. She gets cancer, and the Persian man leaves her. She ends up walking around Tunisia with Genet, but not having a passport, she can't go back to the United States. And then she dies. And then she goes into some kind of Egyptian otherworld, where of course sex and death meet, because they often do in literature. Meanwhile, Acker gives us asides on President Carter, The Scarlet Letter, and other famous works, people, and ideas, often without really identifying how these necessarily fit in with the narrative or who the particular speaker is.

It's nice to read something that is not a straightforward narrative from time to time, and I enjoyed some of the writing just for its sheer inventiveness. But in many ways, I did not feel invested in the book--just wanting to get through it. Had I slowed down, I'm sure I'd have picked up on more themes, and were I to trace some of the motifs, I'm sure I could make more of what's here, but given the lack of investment I generally felt, the book does not lend itself to me wanting to reread it, which is what would be required to dig those ideas out.

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