Essential Acker by Kathy Acker

20th Jan 2011


Her most infamous books, Pussy, King of the Pirates and Blood and Guts in High School are represented here, alongside other rarer works such as Hello, I’m Erica Jong (originally published as a chapbook in 1982)and The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (published in 1973 under a pseudonym).

The collection comes courtesy of some swoon-inducing literary names; it was compiled and edited by Dennis Cooper and Amy Scholder, with an introduction (albeit an uncharacteristically weak and disappointing one) by Jeanette Winterson (among other generalisations, she claims that “Acker was never a woman writer, but she was a writer who was a woman,” with not even an acknowledgement of the numerous feminist theorists likely to hotly dispute this statement).

The anthology effectively showcases the appropriation techniques Acker was so renowned for; inspired by the cut-up writings of William Burroughs, she plundered classics such as Charles DickensGreat Expectations and Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes as well as pop culture, current affairs and religious texts for plot and characters.

Sex, power, paranoia, desire and disgust are recurring themes, focusing on visceral bodily responses; sex scenes are described in terms of muscles, nerves, hair and liquid. Similarly, there’s an emphasis on textures such as leather and fur and the sensual responses that they evoke.

Using the same stream-of-consciousness narrative pioneered in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Acker pays careful attention to sound, syntax, cadence and rhythm, and uses imagery which would be equally at home in Patti Smith’s poetry or Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (“I’m suspended in space by strings of diamonds the paws of cats rub against my ears”).

Some critics have called her impenetrable, and claimed that the numerous anonymous sexual encounters in her writings (for instance, while held hostage in The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula or in an airplane toilet while posing as a private investigator in Rip Off Red, Girl Detective) are simplistic masturbatory fantasies of no literary value.

But whatever your take on these accusations, there’s no denying Acker’s influence. Her use of repetition in The Burning Bombing of America is clearly echoed in contemporary experimental fiction, such as Stewart Home’s Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton.

Her later writing, although more conventional in terms of structure and grammar, are stronger than her earlier works, while the shorter stories and other texts included in their entirety don’t have the same impact as the extracts from Acker’s novels.

Nevertheless, Essential Acker is a comprehensive introduction to this influential and transgressive author for those who haven’t encountered her before, and a handy compilation for the already-converted fanatics. You can buy it from Amazon for £8.51.

Jane Bradley