Portrait of an Eye (Acker, Kathy) Paperback – 18 Dec 1997
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About the Author
Kathy Acker was a novelist, essayist and performance artist whose books include " Blood and Guts in High School, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, Empire of the Senseless, In Memoriam to Identity, Don Quixote, My Mother: Demonology", and her last novel, "Pussy King of the Pirates". Born and raised on New York's Upper East Side, she died of breast cancer in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1997.
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For me, the least successful of the three was the _The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula_. Call this one three stars. In BT, Acker takes scenes from the lives of famous murderesses and from pornographic novels and inserts herself into them. Interesting idea, but too much repetition. It felt too much like a formal experiment.
My favorite was _I Dreamt I was a Nymphomanic: Imagining_. I found it really sweet for Acker, although the chapters were a little too disjointed for comfort. For me, her best work tempers the anger with a kind of dreamy happiness, and this is one of her best works.
_The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec_ has been anthologized elsewhere. It's definitely worth a read (Lautrec as a lonely woman in a whorehouse) or a re-read if (like me) you'd read it before.
I got a lot more out of reading these early works having read the other novels. I could appreciate where she was going in a way that I'm not certain that I could have had I read them cold. Start with Blood and Guts or _Empire of the Senseless_ if you're an Acker newbie.
The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula is in the form of a theme and variations, with the theme being Kathy's early life (characterized chiefly by a loveless relationship with her mother and frustrated sexual desire), and the variations being six different literary or historical works. In the first chapter, for example, she retells the lives of several famous murderesses with her own life experiences and feelings interwoven with those of the killers. She returns to the theme of murder in the final chapter by drawing on the life and philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. In the intervening segments her literary models include a collection of historical rogues and the works of Alexander Trocchi and William Butler Yeats.
Feminism is the principal theme at first, as Acker depicts each of the murderesses as victims of gender prejudice and/or sexual abuse. For the most part, however, the novel is an anguished self-portrait of a traumatized young woman who craves the warmth of a physical relationship but rejects all emotional involvement. The style varies from documentary to stream of consciousness, resulting in a sometimes seamless blend of the historical/literary subject, Kathy's own past, and Kathy as she is writing in the present.
In I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining the narrator names herself Kathy Acker, though the details of the narrator's life do not match those of the author's. This is the most conventionally structured of the three novels: it is roughly chronological, and when we hear from a different narrator it is in a chapter identified as "Peter's Story." The focus, as one might guess from the title, is on sex and sexual identity. The narrator craves sex almost as a physical addiction, but is perpetually frustrated in emotional relationships with both men and women.
Gender identity is a transient characteristic in this novel. The narrator is bisexual (as was the author). Some of the characters identified as male in one sentence are female in the next. There are relationships between women posing as men and men posing as women. Interwoven with the ideas of sexuality is a growing sense of political frustration and exclusion. The novel ends with a diatribe against the California penal system for its persecution of prisoners for their political activities, citing cases where men incarcerated for minor offenses have been kept indefinitely in solitary confinement because of their ideology. There is a metaphor here tying sexual frustration and political repression.
The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec is both the most difficult and the most interesting of the three novels. The narrator is Henri Toulouse Lautrec, only "he" is a young woman. She lives in the 1880s in a Paris bordello along with other artists including Vincent Van Gogh (also a woman, but later a man). This narrator, as in the previous novels, is beset by sexual desires, complicated in this case by the fact she is crippled and undesirable.
The novel opens with a party being given at the whorehouse where all the rich and powerful of Paris are present. Suddenly a girl known as "the Twerp" runs in screaming that she has witnessed a murder. No one pays any attention to her, but at the end of the party the Twerp herself is found dead. A detective named Poirot takes on the case of the girl's murder. He goes to the poorest sections of Paris where the Twerp lived, and is accompanied by the narrator. The depiction of the misery and squalor of Paris segues into an essay on the nature of imperialism and its relationship to poverty and injustice. Interwoven with this is a biographical essay on Vincent Van Gogh (now male) with scenes of poverty and exploitation among coal miners reminiscent of Zola's Germinal.
The intermingling of fiction and editorial continues as the novel begins to shift back and forth in time and focus. Events in Paris of the 1880s are blended with those in the Unites States in the 1960s, and the novel ends with a scene involving CIA-paid assassins and plots against Fidel Castro and Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Along the way, and randomly interspersed, there are essays on the origins and evils of capitalism, the power of multi-national corporations, and the life and diplomatic philosophy of Henry Kissinger.
Kathy Acker's writings are disjointed, strident, radical and explicit. They are probably best appreciated by those of her generation who will understand the political background and references to such things as the SLA and "Tania" (Patricia Hearst). The combination of feminism, sex and politics may seem irrational, but there is a deep connection. In the late 1960s and early 70s, people in the U.S. enjoyed new freedoms of expression and behavior. Works like these novels were openly published for the first time in history. There was a surge of optimism that radical social change would take place, abolishing war and poverty. But what happened instead, and what Acker deplores in The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, was that the political and economic establishment became even more entrenched. The United States continued (and still continues) to operate on a war economy, to support dictatorships, and to conduct assassinations. The gap between rich and poor continued to grow, and corporations became more immune to political control. The sense of political freedom was like the sense of sexual freedom and gender empowerment: an illusion with nothing of substance behind it. Freedom of expression without power is like sex without love; it only makes the hunger and the frustration grow.