Losing Control of the Language

Kathy Acker’s chronicle of a crush foretold.

Very Into You.

Illustration by Fumio Obata

About halfway through I’m Very Into You, a collection of the 1995–96 correspondence between the writers Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark, Acker writes, “Life’s too short not to be lived as fully as possible. Wonder what’ll happen next?” In Acker’s case, a few months later, the cancer she thought she had beaten would return. In just over two years, she would be dead at the age of 50. But before that, she indeed lived as fully as possible, playing a role in almost every American cultural moment and movement of the last half of the 20th century: from New Left political activism to conceptual art, punk to third-wave feminism.

Abhorring limitations of all kinds, Acker exploded the borders between novel and poetry, philosophy and journalism, art and entertainment—most interestingly, between reading and writing. She notoriously, brazenly plagiarized and reworked texts both classic (Cervantes, Propertius, Dickens, Faulkner) and exotic (Bataille, Harold Robbins, Pierre Guyotat), collaging these with scraps of her own diaries, sexual fantasies, gossip, political screeds, and blunt analyses of capitalism, patriarchy, and linguistics. When she died in 1997, she’d published 14 groundbreaking novels, give or take; some of her books are so unclassifiable that the precise number’s debatable. She was that rare, and now almost inconceivable thing: a celebrity experimental writer. Patti Smith with a post-doc, maybe; Anne Carson, if she’d studied Greek during her breaks at a peep show.

Acker’s plots, such as they are, hinge on rape, revolution, and doomed romance. She wrote obsessively and hyperbolically, about sex, gender politics, and the treachery of love, concerns that also consumed her everyday life. Raised in a reasonably prosperous but oppressive Upper East Side Jewish family, she cast her beginnings as equal parts Electra and Hansel and Gretel. In her early 20s, she famously worked in live sex shows in Times Square and stripped in sailor bars in San Diego. She appeared in a handful of arty porn films. Her refusal of literary propriety extended to a refusal of conventional feminine identity. (“The only things that appall me are babies,” she writes in I’m Very Into You.) She was married twice, identified as queer, and went through a legion of bohemian lovers that included film theorists P. Adams Sitney and Peter Wollen; writer Rudy Wurlitzer; musicians Richard Hell and Peter Gordon (her second husband); artists Alan Sondheim and (reportedly) Sol LeWitt; Sylvère Lotringer, the literary critic, philosopher, and founder of Semiotext(e), the publisher of I’m Very Into You. Sex and writing, for Acker, were as inextricable as writing and reading, writing and politics. “I’m looking for what might be called a body language,” she told her friend and occasional lover, R.U. Sirius in io magazine. “One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing—writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what that’s like.”

She inspired both admiration and bewilderment, sometimes at the same time. David Foster Wallace described Acker’s early novels as “at once critically pretty interesting and artistically pretty crummy and actually no fun to read at all.” Actually they can be pretty fun, and also funny, numbing, sexy, shocking, confusing, breathtaking, and monotonous. Especially for younger readers, Acker was an icon of liberation, giving permission to read, think, and write differently. She didn’t write to entertain, or to tell stories, or out of the impulse we tediously call “self-expression.” Writing was far more serious than that for her, nothing less than a tool of survival and transformation. “My life was very, very dark,” she told Bookworm’s Michael Silverblatt in 1992, “and has gotten relatively lighter as the years have gone on. I changed myself by using literature.”

Acker emerged in the late ’70s and early ’80s,when cutting-edge American and English literature was briefly dominated by so-called transgressive fiction. In the Los Angeles Times in 1993, Silverblatt honed in on the hallmarks of the genre: a belief in the body as the locus of knowledge; a pervasive sexual anxiety; an obsession with abjection and dysfunction. Silverblatt lumped Acker in with provocateurs like Dennis Cooper, A.M. Homes, Bret Easton Ellis, Jeanette Winterson, and Lynne Tillman. While Acker, who was friends with a few of these writers, shared with them a certain sensibility and some formal concerns, her work had a singular intensity. Acker’s essence was mutiny. The criminal and outlaw always beguiled her. In both life and work, she assumed their defiance.

McKenzie Wark, an Australian media theorist and writer who now teaches at the New School, met Acker in Sydney in July 1995. She was 48, he 34, and he’d just published his first book, Virtual Geography. Both were involved with other people at the time, the bisexual Wark to a greater, more complicated, extent. The breathless, hastily composed letters in I’m Very Into You were mostly written over a period of a few weeks; their sexual and romantic relationship didn’t last much longer. The collection comprises a tantalizing time capsule—the letters touch on Acker’s relationships with Lotringer and Sirius; contemporary films like Safe and Bandit Queen (both of which Acker says she adores); Portishead; writers like Judith Butler, Blanchot, and Bataille; hit TV show The X-Files and a new one called The Simpsons; even the form of their correspondence itself, this weird and unfamiliar medium, email. Acker and Wark flirt, preen, dissemble, gossip, joke, analyze, reveal too much, reveal not enough. Like pretty much every collection of private letters, it’s simultaneously exhilarating, dull, and embarrassing. As Matias Viegener, Acker’s literary executor and a writer and artist in his own right, suggests in his introduction, they’re not so much love letters as mash notes, a chronicle less of a love affair than a mutual, short-lived seduction.

It’s a slim, curious collection but a revealing one. Both Acker and Wark quickly slip into roles that seem comfortable to them—Acker, the foul-mouthed, big-brained, high-maintenance diva; Wark, an eager, earnest pupil dazzled by Acker’s charisma and striving to assert his own. Both are big-time name-droppers: In one note, Acker recalls a visit to the Groucho Club with Neil Gaiman, while Wark talks about a meeting with the Australian prime minister. For the most part, Wark is cerebral and cool, even when discussing his own sexual orientation and messy love life. It’s Acker who, characteristically, really lays her heart bare, most vividly in a longish email written drunkenly on Aug. 16, 1995, the sentiment of which can be summed up in these sentences: “If you don’t discuss the rules, then the shit power games are outside the bed and they hurt. And I’m truly no longer interested in either hurting or being hurt.” Wark’s emails lose a bit of their ardor at that point, the courtship seemingly curdled by Acker’s compulsive self-exposure. When Acker writes, “I love being wanted. I love being someone’s object,” Wark never really responds to this admission, choosing instead to focus on the books she’d previously mentioned. In the early stages of her affairs, Acker tended to act, she said, like a geisha—coquettish, solicitous. But like almost everyone, Acker was animated by contradiction, and that performance quickly gave way to a more demanding, needy, uncompromising side. Throughout her adult life, Acker always did exactly what she wanted, no matter the consequences. Most of her relationships did not last long.

Years later, it’s invigorating to see these details of Acker’s real life. While Acker gave dozens of candid interviews in her lifetime, and returned relentlessly to her own biography in her fiction, she was also a resolute mythmaker, burnishing her legend with the determination of a Dylan. “We are all, to some extent, self-created,” Lynne Tillman said to me in a conversation about Acker last fall, “but few created themselves as much as Kathy. Her need was great.” At the point of these letters, however, the feral persona Acker had spent a lifetime cultivating had become a kind of prison. Acker’s work always insists that the self is a mutable fiction, but she had been frozen into a very specific, and easily caricatured, image—one no less troublesome for the fact that she herself constructed it. As she writes to Wark: “… the KATHY ACKER that YOU WANT (as you put it), is another MICKEY MOUSE, you probably know her better than I do. It’s media, Ken. It’s not me.” The “me” that Acker shows Wark in these letters is much more fragile and vulnerable. If Kathy Acker was a complex, colossal self-invention, what Acker ultimately reveals in these letters is how difficult, and lonely, that invention was.

I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995-1996 by Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark. Semiotext(e).

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.