Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1504
Kathy Acker 1948–1997
(Also wrote under pseudonym Black Tarantula) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, librettist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Acker's career through 1997.
A controversial avant-garde writer and cult figure of the punk movement, Kathy Acker is considered among the most significant proponents of radical feminism and the postmodern literary aesthetic. Associated with the discordant, irreverent music of punk rock, Acker's iconoclastic metafiction—a chaotic amalgam of extreme profanity, violence, graphic sex, autobiography, fragmented narrative, and plagiarized texts—rejects conventional morality and traditional modes of literary expression. Her best known works, including Great Expectations (1982), Blood and Guts in High School (1984), and Don Quixote (1986), feature female protagonists whose psychosexual misadventures, involving rape, incest, suicide, and abortion, underscore their individual struggles to discover meaning and identity in deconstructed patriarchal language and sexual masochism. A well-versed literary theorist and sophisticated experimenter, Acker's provocative fiction offers a serious challenge to established literary forms and the possibility of human understanding in a nihilistic, decentered world.
Born in New York City, Acker was raised by her mother and stepfather. Her biological father, whom she never met, abandoned her mother before she was born. Her mother later committed suicide when Acker was thirty. Acker attended Brandeis University and the University of California, San Diego, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1968. Twice wed—first to Robert Acker in 1966, then to composer Peter Gordon in 1976—and twice divorced, Acker returned to New York during the 1970s to work as a secretary, stripper, and performer in live sex shows and pornographic films while promoting her fiction in small press publications. She began a combined doctoral program in classics and philosophy at the City University of New York and New York University, but left after two years. Her first publication, Politics (1972), is a combination of poetry and prose heavily influenced by the work of William S. Burroughs. The next year, under the pseudonym Black Tarantula, she produced The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973); an expanded edition of this work appeared in 1975 under the title The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula. Acker followed with I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac (1974) and three short novels: Florida (1978), a brief satire of the film Key Largo; Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978), which recounts the sexual exploits of a girl visiting Haiti; and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1978). She won a Pushcart Prize in 1979 for the publication of New York City in 1979 (1979). During the early 1980s, Acker moved to London where she achieved a degree of fame and maintained a steady output of novels including Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, Don Quixote, and Empire of the Senseless (1988)—all among her best-known works. She also collaborated with Peter Gordon to perform her opera libretto, The Birth of the Poet (1985), at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985. A film based on her screenplay, Variety (1985), appeared the same year. Acker republished several short novels in Literal Madness (1988), including Kathy Goes to Haiti, Florida, and My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, originally included in the 1984 English version of Blood and Guts in High School. Returning to the United States in the early 1990s, Acker published the novels In Memoriam to Identity (1990), Portrait of an Eye (1992), My Mother (1993), and Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996), which contains reprinted versions of The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac, and The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec. An amateur bodybuilder, tattoo enthusiast, and adjunct professor at the San Francisco Art Institute beginning in 1991, Acker also appeared as a visiting instructor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Idaho in 1994. Shortly before her death, she produced Bodies of Work (1997), a collection of essays, and Eurydice in the Underground (1997), a volume of short fiction. At age fourty-eight, Acker succumbed to breast cancer at an alternative cancer treatment center in Tijuana, Mexico.
Acker's trademark fiction is a pastiche of visceral prose, sensationalized autobiography, political tract, pornography, and appropriated texts in which characters—often famous literary or historical figures—easily move through time and space while frequently changing personalities and genders. Deliberately non-chronological and usually evoking a quest theme, her largely plotless stories progress through disjointed, jump-cut sequences that incorporate fantasy, personal statement, and the juxtaposition of excerpted texts from various sources, such as Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and the Marquis de Sade. Acker's trenchant criticism of oppressive middle-class mores, phallocentric culture, and all hierarchial power structures permeates her writings, particularly as symbolized in repeated scenes of rape and incest. In The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, a sixteen-year-old female narrator explores alternate identities as a murderess and prostitute, copies passages from pornographic books in which she imagines herself the leading character, and participates in public sex acts. I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac describes a young woman's artistic aspirations, philosophical musings, and the evils of corporate America in fragmented, unpunctuated passages—some of which are repeated verbatim in other parts of the text. In The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, a female incarnation of the French painter relates the life of her brother, Vincent Van Gogh, while accompanying Hercule Poirot, an Agatha Christie detective, through the streets of Paris in search of clues to a murder mystery. Meanwhile, Van Gogh's daughter, a prepubescent Janis Joplin, has a love affair with James Dean. My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, another fictitious autobiography, reconstructs the 1975 murder of the Italian writer and filmmaker through a series of loosely related vignettes, including Shakespearian parodies and an obscene epistolary exchange among the Bronte sisters. Increasingly dependent on borrowed texts, Acker's first major novel, Great Expectations, begins with a blatant plagiarism from Dickens's own novel of the same title, then shifts to autobiographic detail about her mother's suicide, and allusions to the writings of Madame de La Fayette, John Keats, and Herman Melville. Drawing on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Blood and Guts in High School describes the plight of Janey Smith, a ten-year-old girl who is spurned by her father, with whom she is sexually involved, when he takes a new lover. Fleeing to New York, she joins a gang and is kidnapped by a Persian slave trader who locks her away. When Janey develops cancer, she is released and travels to Tangiers, where she wanders the desert with Jean Genet until they are imprisoned. Don Quixote, a reinterpretation of Miguel de Cervantes's seventeenth-century novel, follows the peregrinations of a female Don Quixote in contemporary New York and London. After an abortion, Acker's romantic protagonist searches for her sidekick Saint Simeon, a talking dog who represents Sancho Panza, in an absurd world dominated by male texts and female subjugation. Acker's subsequent novels similarly describe perverse degradation and ubiquitous violence in surreal contemporary and near-future settings. Empire of the Senseless recounts the picaresque adventures of Abhor, a female protagonist of mixed race and human-robot composition, and her male accomplice, Thivai, as they look for meaning and legitimate modes of expression amid war and revolution. In Memoriam to Identity presents the early life of poet Arthur Rimbaud through examples of his poetry and excerpts from biographies, followed by the stories of two heroines, Airplane, a rape victim and stripper, and Capitol, a performance artist, both of whom resemble characters from novels by William Faulkner. Acker's final novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, is a partial adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with allusions to The Story of O and Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, in which two ex-prostitutes hire a band of female pirates to help them locate buried treasure in a matriarchal society.
Acker's radical experiments with the postmodern novel have attracted considerable notoriety. While some critics praise her technical skill and adroit manipulations of plagiarized texts, others find her amorphous narratives unnecessarily obscure and incomprehensible. In addition, Acker has drawn mixed reactions to the incorporation of graphic sex acts and violence in her fiction. As some critics note, the intensity and frequency of such episodes produces a numbing effect that diminishes its shock value and undermines Acker's ability to evoke outrage or disgust. For this reason, some feminists have condemned Acker for depicting women as degraded sex objects. However, others commend Acker's persistent efforts to defy literary convention and to unmask the inherent misogyny of Western culture by portraying sexual domination as the primary tool of female oppression. Influenced by the cut-up techniques of Burroughs and the narrative strategies of French anti-novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, Acker's audacious attempts to appropriate and rewrite her own versions of literary classics are recognized as an intellectually challenging endeavor, especially as revealed by her impressive grasp of complex literary theory and comprehensive knowledge of Western literature. A subversive literary inventor and a defiant voice against patriarchal society, Acker exerted an important influence on postmodern fiction and contemporary feminist discourse.