Blood and Guts in High School

by Kathy Acker
   This extraordinary book represents three transitional points in kathy acker’s career as a writer: (1) her first conscious attempt to gain commercial recognition, which was relatively successful; (2) her departure from cut-up experiments and movement toward some semblance of narrative; and (3) her move away from exploring identity (because she had decided it did not exist) and toward experimenting with plagiarism as a formal strategy. More importantly, the novel contains the seeds for her subsequent work and experimentation. Through Blood and Guts, Acker found a much wider audience. The novel might be thought of as a sort of on tHe road for punks, riot grrrls, and cyberfeminists, though the narrator, Janey Smith, transgresses far more than geographical borders on her series of “journeys.” If jack kerouac can be seen as a 20th-century Blake or Rousseau, romanticizing the common man and celebrating, to the tune of jazz riffs, the “power” and freedom that make the poor and downtrodden superior to mainstream culture, Acker is a modern-day Marquis de Sade—she is romanticism gone awry. Her “tune” is a cacophony: a punk rocker portrait of victimhood, oppression, and subordination. Where Sal Paradise in On the Road has nothing and is all the happier for his lack, Janey Smith is nothing—a blank page onto which a variety of male, capitalist oppressors “write” what they want her to be.
   In a 1986 interview, Acker said that with Blood and Guts, she wanted to go beyond the cut-ups and thematically linked stories that she had been writing and move toward making a narrative, so she simply invented Janey but that Janey did not exist (see Acker interview with Ellis et al.). As Acker acknowledged, Janey has no character: “she’s nobody: she’s an ‘I,’ a very empty ‘I.’ And it was a joke, you know, the empty ‘I,’ and I linked everything together as if this was her life.” Janey Smith is a literary Jane Doe; thus, just as other characters in the novel “write” her into existence, so can the reader. Paradoxically, though, Janey is also Kathy Acker, who herself claimed to have no identity even as she obsessively incorporated her autobiography into her work.
   The novel is organized into three sections: (1) “Inside high school,” (2) “Outside high school,” and (3) “A journey to the end of the night.” In part one, Janey is 10 years old and the victim of a variety of horrors ranging from incest to rape, though she appears to be a willing participant on all counts. The father as oppressor is literal as Acker throws a literary molotov cocktail into the traditional family structure, and her so-called rapist is a sadist to her willing masochist. Part two explores the same themes of oppression, but this time the “father” is not a sexual predator. Rather, he is a character named Mr. Linker, but metaphorically Mr. Linker is at least two manifestations of “the Man”: a pimp who forces Janey into white slavery as well as a doctor who controls her mind. For Acker, Mr. Linker is the embodiment of the larger culture, which includes but is not limited to the father, the political system, the capitalist economy, the public education system, the church, and even the academy. In part three, the “father” is language itself, and we see Janey (and Acker) attempting to escape this father subversively: She tries to break the bonds of abstract language through a more visceral language. Much of the narrative in the third section is pictorial, visually similar to William s. burroughs’s The Book of Breeething (1980), and Janey’s journey is a romp through Egypt with Jean Genet. Like Burroughs, Acker wanted to escape the constrictions (and the constructions) imposed by language, but for her it was a feminist quest. It is a mistake, however, to align her with the French feminists of the 1970s who sought a feminine language of the body to escape the constraints of patriarchal language. Acker eventually concluded that such a goal is impossible to realize.
   Before Blood and Guts, Acker attempted to gender Burroughs’s theories about the relationship among power, language, and politics by employing his cut-up techniques. Blood and Guts represents a departure from the cut-up, but it simultaneously foreshadows what became Acker’s return to and increasingly sophisticated and subtle applications of the technique. Where Burroughs was concerned with cutting away at the literal word itself to reveal this unspoken collusion between language and politics, Acker eventually produced more abstract cut-ups in which she cut away at the mindsets and worldviews—the myths—that result from and in turn reinforce the concrete words and texts that were Burroughs’s focus and for Acker represented patriarchal culture. In her later works, Acker disrupts and reimagines myths that produce words, simultaneously slicing and resplicing the myths those words produce. Rather than trying to create a new language or get beyond existing language, Acker simply expressed what is forbidden in the language. This has often been misconstrued as pornography and vulgarity, but Acker felt that she was simply laying bare the horrifying reality that lies beneath the surface of so-called civilized society. For her, incest, rape, and S&M relationships are merely metaphors for political and economic realities in capitalistic societies. Where Burroughs tried to dismantle these realities by literally mutilating what he saw as “the Man’s” most powerful tool—language—Acker saw that this was futile. Her more sophisticated cut-ups are not mutilations but revelations; they cut away at what is taboo by speaking the taboo, as well as speaking through taboo.
   Blood and Guts anticipates these revelations. The most obvious example is Janey Smith’s “book report” near the middle of the novel. Through Janey, Acker rewrites Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The classic novel, which was written by a white, male literary “father” and has arguably reached the realm of myth in American culture, becomes a cut-up dismantling Acker’s own childhood, her own myth of western letters, the culture’s myth of Hester Prynne, the myth of formal education, Acker’s disappointment in the American political system; her reromanticization of America, and her rewriting of yet another literary myth, Nathaniel Hawthorne—these all form a labyrinthine automythography of both Acker and Hawthorne that transcends time and space. In addition, her appropriations of Hawthorne’s and other texts are a taste of what is to come with her next novel, Great Expectations, in which she blatantly plagiarizes Charles Dickens’s classic text.
   Kathy Acker is best understood if all of her works are read as one work, and Blood and Guts in High School sets the stage for her lifelong fuguelike textual performance. The novel should be read within the context of her larger project. To dismiss it as juvenile or nihilistic, as some critics have, is to misread and misunderstand Kathy Acker. She is not or was not nihilistic; rather, she ran into society’s nihilism and began to deconstruct it as she reconstructed by remythologizing, and she did so through her automythography. For Acker, the personal is indeed political.
■ Acker, Kathy. Bodies of Work. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
■ ———. “Me Talking About Me” folder. Typescript of “An Informal Interview with Kathy Acker on the 2nd April 1986” by F. J. Ellis, Carolyn Bird, Dawn Curwen, Ian Mancor, Val Ogden, and Charles Patrick. Box 4. Kathy Acker Papers. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. Duke University.
■ Lotringer, Sylvère. “Devoured by Myths.” In Hannibal Lecter, My Father, edited by Sylvère Lotringer. Semiotext(e) Native Agents Series. New York: Semiotext(e), 1991.
■ Scholder, Amy. “Editor’s Note.” Essential Acker. New York: Grove Press, 2002.
■ Siegle, Robert. “Kathy Acker: The Blood and Guts of Guerilla Warfare.” Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
■ Winterson, Jeanette. “Introduction.” Essential Acker. New York: Grove Press, 2002.
■ Wollen, Peter. “Don’t Be Afraid to Copy It Out.” London Review of Books 20, no. 3 (February 1998): Available online. URL: woll0_.html. Accessed May 31, 2006.
   Bebe Barefoot

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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