In After Kathy Acker (2017), you are after a woman who was a professed self-mythologizer. Acker liked to play hide-and-seek, and buried herself in a room full of distorting mirrors. All you dispose of to find this woman is a collage of contradictory testimonials, and her own words. You can try to uncover her, or you can hide back from her. Either way, you know you are doomed to fail. You’ll never find each other.
The book begins at the end, “after” Kathy Acker, at her funeral, in the midst of a group of underground artists, academics and fake healers. You weave in together Acker’s heterogenous network of colleagues, mentors and enemies, as well as her desire for fame, her refusal to accept her medical condition, and her compulsion for self-mythologizing and lying.
Born Karen Lehman into a wealthy Jewish family, Acker grew up on New York’s Upper East Side. Her biological father abandoned her mother during pregnancy, and Kathy never met him. In 1978, her mother checked into a hotel on Christmas Eve and killed herself. From this early material of loss and neglect, Kathy would later get the main recurrent themes of her work.
She attended Brandeis University, got married while still in college, and followed her husband to San Diego, where she audited creative writing classes with the poet (and first mentor) David Antin. “Go to the library and steal”, he would say to his students. She took this method to heart, and started to write using collages of other books – the technique that would later become her signature, and would almost earn her a plagiarism lawsuit in 1989. Acker herself would eventually become a collage of different identities: a post-punk icon, a bodybuilder, a scholar, a stripper, a member of the BDSM scene, an underground artist, a narcissist, a badass (and a crashing bore). “‘But then again, didn’t she do what all writers must do? Create a position from which to write?’”, argues Kraus.
In the early seventies, she divorced, moved back to New York, and started performing a live sex show at Fun City in Times Square with her lover. She rose through the underground art scene in New York, performed poetry, was taken up by big publishers, spent down her inheritance and struggled to find a university teaching position. Acker spent her life moving between London, New York, San Diego, and San Francisco, before her death at an alternative medicine hospital in Tijuana. “Do you think they’ll make a film about me?”, she asked in the last few weeks of her life. (They did)
Your account resembles a collage – in a sense, your writing here “takes after” Kathy’s own style. You use excerpts of Acker’s notebooks and diaries, letters and published books, along with interviews with her and her contemporaries. You assemble an array of – often contradictory – testimonials from friends, colleagues and lovers, forming a multifaceted portrait of Acker and the avant-garde world she dwelt in. By doing so, you mimic not only Acker’s style, but also her process of intermingling life and art – a process Acker imposed on her work and on herself, as a way of hardening fact into fiction, life into myth, flesh into word, and back.
Kathy mixed together fragments stolen from other books – classics, porn, comics, pulp fiction, structuralism – and extracts from her own letters and diaries, juxtaposing high and low culture, often with a mocking tone: “Dear Susan Sontag, would you please read my books and make me famous… Dear Susan Sontag, will you teach me how to speak English? For free.” You highlight Acker’s main influences – Burroughs, Deleuze, Duras, Genet, Bataille – as well as her literary peers and mentors – Bernadette Mayer, Eleanor Antin. Your own juxtapositions provide not only the historical background of Acker’s books, but also close readings of those books and of the way they are located in Acker’s life.
The task of writing a biography of a woman who professed to make life into fiction (and constantly lied about herself) is a self-defeating one. We don’t need as much a biographer who uncovers the truth buried under the myth, as we need one who engages with the myth as a form of truth. We need an unreliable narrator – and one who acknowledges himself as such. And that is precisely what I found lacking in this book – it is stuck halfway between wanting to uncover a lie, and participating in a fabulation; between narrating the facts, and creating a myth about another myth; between clearing away her subject’s lies, and telling a story about the story she told herself. I got the impression that you wanted to do both at the same time; that you weren’t clear about the position from which you were to write from; and that you knew you were doomed to fail anyway. Still, what you wrote of Acker could also be applied to your task as a biographer: “To lie is to try. Like most fabulations, the story contains a kernel of truth, or at least of desire.”
You wrote yourself out of a story you were never really absent of. As in traditional biographies, the biographer in this book becomes a void from which the story springs, an absence around which the story organizes itself. I could not help but feel that your moral condemnation of your subject’s self-mythologizing was turned into Acker’s defining feature. However, that condemnation disregarded an important aspect of the mythologizing process itself: the fact that, for Acker, it was less urgent to unveil hypocrisy than it was to create something new. For her, self-invention, as a form of world-making, was a political act. Maybe this way of framing the question was also part of her show, a deception, self-promotion, or a form of wishful thinking; maybe she was lying to herself about the meaning of her own self-invention. But this book somehow disregards the ways in which a lie unveils the world where this lie is made possible, or necessary.
The reader is made to dismantle your deceptions about Acker’s deceptions, as if in an endless corridor of distorting mirrors. You “are after” Acker, but you keep bumping into an image of yourself. We could be Kathy Acker, you mention in the end, not without a condescending tone. We could be in her shoes, we could be her inheritors, you mean. I am more interested to know in which sense the act of morally condemning Acker – even if only in-between the lines – could also be taken as a form of world-building, self-invention, or plain narcissism. We could be the liars, the crashing bores, the desperate ones. And I am somehow reminded of one of Kathy’s projects, when she asks Sondheim: “How close can we get to each other? Will we become each other?”
I would have preferred a biography more obviously tormented by those questions. How close can you get? Have you become each other? Tell me about it.
“Perceptive readers of Acker’s work have observed that the lies weren’t literal lies, but more of a system of magical thought…Then again, didn’t she do what all writers must do? Create a position from which to write?” – Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker
“One of the ways of making your work legitimate is to work it through yourself. If you are not the ‘I’, but the ‘I’ becomes you, then you have it to offer as some sort of performance… [But] what happens when you’re a dealer of myths [is], you become myth” – Lotringer in conversation with Acker, in After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus
“Acker worked and reworked her memories until, like the sex she described, they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became myth. This was the strength, and also the weakness, of her writing.” – Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker
“It’s as if there’s a territory. The roads carved in the territory, the only known, are memories. Carved again and again into ruts like wounds that don’t heal when you touch them but grow.” – Kathy Acker, Indentity
“But to lie is to try. Like most fabulations, the story contains a kernel of truth, or at least of desire.” – Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker
“But then again, didn’t she do what all writers must do? Create a position from which to write?” – Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker
About the book
- Allen Lane, 2017, 352 p. Goodreads
- My rating 3,5 stars
- I read this book for Nonfiction November
- This book was kindly sent to me by Penguin Books for review.