Christopher Owens with his thoughts on a novel that is anything but linear.
Subverting the classics to kick start the future.
That's what the late Kathy Acker did in 1982. Taking the idea of the classic Dickens tale of aspiration and discovery, setting it in the no holds barred 'no wave' New York of the early eighties and then promptly forgetting everything about Dickens by forging a path through drug dealers, high rise artisans, abusers and the collective New York psyche. All while retaining the identifiable title and the connotations.
It's an act of iconoclasm, but a necessary one.
Living in the Lower East Side around the same time as hardcore punk bands like Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, where violence was an everyday occurrence was bound to be a big influence on Acker, who grew up in a middle class Jewish neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly, this tension seeps into Great Expectations.
Much like her hero William Burroughs, there is no 'tale' to speak of here. Rather, it becomes a series of borderline nightmarish vignettes where women are reduced to mechanical objects to be raped by men and murdered by their mothers before killing themselves. Gluttonous wealth overshadowing the desolate and desperate. And the only place that's truly free is a "female terrorist house."
Rape is a common form of control in Great Expectations, in much the same way Burroughs used heroin as a metaphor. But where Acker differs is that she combines and conflates differing intentions and actions so they all read to the reader as rape. At times, they read like one of Andrea Dworkin's fervent dreams but the end effect is to see how sexual power and violence can be institutionalised in such a way that it becomes perfectly normal and doesn't overly effect anyone.
This confusion of such an appalling ideology, as well as the ever changing narrative, can be found in the following quote:
She realizes that she is at the same time a little girl absolutely pure nothing wrong just what she wants, and this unnameable dirt thing . . . This identity does not exist . . . All the men she has don’t recognize her humanity ... But I want him to love me. He's never going to give me what I want, but I'll still fuck him.
The end effect is one of queasiness, confusion and alienation.
But this writing can also accurately depict the tension of everyday life, as is reflected here in a manner which T.S Eliot would have been proud of:
Red up the river, where it flows among the green pines and old mining camps; red down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of the shipping and the dock pollutions of a going-to-be-great (and going-to-be-dirtier) city. Red on the rain marshes, red on Queen Anne Hill. Red creeping into each of the abandoned cabooses; red creeping over the half-torn-away train tracks and lying on each weed; red climbed over the hacked-up docks into the commercial steel ships.
These contrasts of stark reality, stream of conscience ramblings and sickening situations make for a uneven, difficult and unpleasant read, especially if one tries to consume it expecting a straightforward novel with a beginning, middle and end. Indeed, like Naked Lunch, it requires the reader to abandon any preconceptions of what a 'novel' is, and simply go with the text from page to page. Acker herself described it as a 'pleasure dome', where one could come and go as they please.
This is a difficult process, 'unlearning' what we know about reading novels in a linear fashion. But once you get to grips with the process, the imagery and intent will overwhelm you, making you put the book down for respite.
Since her death in 1997, Acker's literary standing has outgrown her cult roots and seen her embraced as a second wave, post-modern feminist whose work chimes with the "all sex is rape" mantra of such people like Julie Bindel and Dworkin. However, reducing Acker's message to such a simplistic and brutish statement does her a disservice. The exploration of the self and the world around them won't be pretty, but it's one infused with contradictions: "One of the most powerful forces in the world is love. Love can tear anything to shreds." And once that is considered, everything else falls into place.
People like Dworkin and Bindel aren't necessarily interested in contradictions or loose threads. They prefer straightforward narratives. Something that Acker seems to provide, but closer inspection reveals otherwise.
Tough reading, but certainly one for those who enjoy their books as "word virus."
Kathy Acker, 1982, Great Expectations. Penguin Classics ISBN-13: 978-0241352144
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.