The Head Space een of Po-Mo Lit Kathy Acker’s Flaming Vision of Art, Love, Revolution, Death and Sex BY BRAD TYER PUSSY, KING OF THE PIRATES. By Kathy Acker. Grove Press, 1996. 279 pages. $21.00. AS A LAY CRITIC called upon to review a substantial number of contemporary works of fictionmost of which employ relatively standardized narrative strategiesI find myself a wee bit baffled by the work of Kathy Acker, whose book jacket describes the author \(with, I asbeen “a major figure in postmodern literature for many years.” That’s certainly the take on Acker I accepted when I first read her novel Blood and Guts in High School, at an age when the title alone was enough to insure my approval. I maintained the secondhand opinion through a subsequent reading of another Acker novel, Great Expectations, and the parts I was able to muddle through of a third, Don Quixote. Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker’s tenth novel, offers me no reason to challenge the po-mo lit queen’s title, but still, I fear that this new book will eventually join those others in my experiential conception of “postmodern literature.” The simple fact of the matter is this: I cannot now remember a damn thing about any one of those books. No, that’s not strictly true. What I can’t remember is what I’m accustomed to rememberingstandard issue critical coatracks like plot and setting and character. All scattered, vanished. What I can remember is generalization and abstraction. Acker is known \(to the extent that she is as a self-conscious barbarian at the gate, storming the walls of conventional, or safe, literary convention. She steals titles from the classics, and characters from everywhere. Her narrators appear and disappear, recede and thrust from gender to gender. Acker’ s sense of time and place is hypertextshe points, clicks and jumps from exotic Moroccan locales to coldwater flats to something I can describe only, if hesitantly, as “head space,” in the twitch of an eye. Her language is one of blunt, raw nerves, brief, penetrating syllables and almost accidental poetry. She pulls no Observer pop music correspondent Brad Tyer is a freelance writer based in Houston. punches for conventional taste, either, and it’s just one example to point out that she continues her frequent use of the dreaded word still regarded as pornographic by many men, and as almost unbearably icky by a good many women. Acker is disorientingor her fiction is disorientingand there’s every reason to believe that disori Kathy Acker MICHEL DELSOL entation is her consciously chosen aim. So what do we have here? Pussy, King of the Pirates partakes of many things, though, being as it’s so damn postmodern, I’m finding it difficult to put any single name to it. It’s advertised in part as “loosely related to” Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and to the extent that the book incorporates maps, pirate girls, shanty songs and buried treasure, I suppose that’s true. Pussy also claims to incorporate a “retelling” of The Story of 0, which I can’t vouch for, though I can affirm that one of the book’s most-frequent-persons is indeed a character named “0”. Theatrical insanity martyr Antonin Artaud \(or, notes, is resurrected as the godfather of the Punk Boys, the book’s death-worshipping apocalyptic survivalist nihilists. I might also add that the book contains shades of Jean Genet’s play The Balcony and Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, in its conceit of incarcerated revolutionary whoredom. I also get a whiff of Andre Breton, though that odor’s probably strongest in those passages where I just could not figure up from down. It’s impressive, and I’m sure I didn’t catch half of the clever allusions. Nonetheless, underlining passages of Acker’s prose that jumped out and struck me as somehow important turned into a page by page exercise. Anybody looking to start a hep new bumper-sticker manufacturing firm could fill a decade’s catalog with deadpan quips like “The only thing in the world that’s worth beginning: the end of the world,” and “Chaos had once been a clothes store.” Acker is full of this stuff. Her worlds are al. ways beginning from scratch, or coming to is to have a character explain, “We called her virgin because her father had raped her.” Acker’s narratorsI’m not sure they’re characters so much as disembodied intelligenceshave a lot on their minds. Art, drugs, love, death, revolution. But mostly they’ve got sex on the brain. Lustful sex, neurotic sex, hetero sex, homo sex, inanimate sex, paid sex, necrophilic sex, rape, incest, and so on and so forth. If you, reader, draw a line at some boundary between normal sex and the other kind, Acker will push you across it. In the contemporary spectrum of sexual discourse, Acker is likely thought extreme. In this, I think she is a brave and truthful writer. THERE’S ALSO LOTS of oblique politicking of a revolutionary nature, and Acker’s, or whoever’s, sensibili ties seem to be generally anti-consumerist, anti-ownership, and anti-patriarchal. The “father” is variously presented as hanged, absent, a rapist, or “every man I ever fucked.” The mothers here are no picnic either. If I read the book a certain way, I can lose the words and see the pictures contemporary photographer Nan Goldin took of herself as she blundered through a depressing world of sexual and emotional abuse, and I can recall once hearing a grad student ask Goldin if she’d ever, just once, flirted with joy? “Joy?” Goldin shot back. “Is that a dishwashing soap?” Acker too, midway through the book, writes what seems to be 16 MAY 17, 1996
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