Book Review: After Kathy Acker – A Biography by Chris Kraus

after kathy acker chris kraus cover

Kathy Acker, a writer perhaps better known by reputation than from her actual writing, was in many ways a pioneer of the kind of work Chris Kraus became known for. Radically autobiographical, centring female desire and quoting liberally from books like Great Expectations and leaving as much room for discussions of theoretical texts as sex, her books caused a brief controversy on their initial publication before her critical star fell precipitously. It seems fitting that Kraus, author of I Love Dick, should be the one to write Acker’s biography and perhaps herald a long-needed reassessment of her writing.

The title of the biography, After Kathy Acker, can be read in a number of ways. It has literally been published “after” Kathy Acker, since the appropriation artist par excellence died from complications of cancer at the age of 53, in 1997. In the intervening two decades, Chris Kraus has been afforded the distance necessary to eulogise her accordingly. Which is to say truthfully, although truth is a slippery thing with this particular subject.

Kraus does not lionise Acker, allowing the voices of both the writer herself and those who knew her to collage together a picture of a complicated, often frustrating but brilliant writer whose work remains critically undervalued. She is helped also by those who set out on this route before her, who helped organise Acker’s extensive archives whilst researching their own books, as well as those whose opinions and memories of the writer have crystallised in the years of her absence.

It’s also “After” Kathy Acker because the book is largely told in her voice. Kraus quotes extensively from the many, many journals, Acker kept, large sections of which were frequently appropriated into her own “fiction.” It makes for an episodic narrative in places, as Acker falls for a new romantic partner, makes her infatuation known in her correspondence and diaries, and then places thinly veiled versions of these (often married) men into early serials such as Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula By the Black Tarantula. Part of the biographer’s job here, then, is allowing the veil to drop off, using Acker’s own words.

It could be said to be “After” Kathy Acker because, besides her diaries, she had already pilfered much of her personal life for her own work. She got there long before Kraus. This is something which is both a help and hindrance to her biographer, who makes a decent fist of trying to untangle the (mostly unsubtle) coded references to spurned/spurning lovers and other actors and episodes from her subject’s own life who popped up in her writing, but also because “although she wrote first-person fiction and gave hundreds of interviews in which she was asked to recite the facts of her life over and over, these facts are hard to pin down in any literal sense.” It’s difficult to provide a linear, definitive narrative to Acker’s life when she herself did her best to resist such. Kraus feels at times like both a partner in crime and a detective frustrated at the behaviour of the erratic individual she’s investigating.

These sections introduce an interesting and important stylistic choice. All the quotes from Acker’s writing, whether it’s journals or correspondence or published work, are presented in italics, flowing seamlessly in and out of Kraus’s authorial voice. Whenever somebody else is being quoted, either from contemporary articles or their own writing or interviews conducted by Kraus after the fact, their words are contained within speech marks. Separated from Acker and Kraus’s first-hand telling of things, emphasising these contributors as spectators. It also helps tone down the potential prurient tone the accounts of the more gossip-worthy elements of Acker’s life, from her participation in sex shows when she first moved to New York to her subsequent pelvic inflammatory disease and S&M-filled relationships.

Finally, this book can be said to be “After” Kathy Acker because of that strong influence her writing had on that of Kraus. Their careers overlapped chronologically somewhat, as did their personal lives. They moved in some of the same circles, and apparently, a copy of Kraus’s I Love Dick was hovering around the vicinity of the alternative cancer clinic in Tijuana where Acker died, although it’s not known if she read it. That book’s willingness to blend reality and fiction, and how game Kraus was (and is, in later works like Torpor) to put everything on the page from – sex to theory to matters even more personal and/or mundane – all feels indebted from Acker.

It’s a somewhat thankless task, trying to pin down Acker in a book, when she herself spent decades across numerous forms and styles and appropriating the writing of others to attempt to capture something of a constantly fluctuating sense of herself and her perception of the world in writing. A large part of that was in her use of appropriation, a technique developed from former teacher David Antin and the cut-up poetry of William Burroughs, snipping sections from Bataille and cheap dime store porn titles, mixing them in with her own writing to try and find some complete picture in the collage. At one point Kraus quotes the scholar Liz Kotz on the act of “atom[ising] personal experience into an endless flow of pictures and recited recollections; its authorship is distributed among various functions that don’t necessarily cohere into a single self.”

There was no single self to Kathy Acker. “Isn’t that what all writers do?” Kraus asks at one point, “Create a position from which to write?” Without ever becoming a Rashomon-style choir of voices all giving different perspectives (the only person who ever consistently contradicts Acker’s telling of events is Acker herself), what Kraus does fantastically is provide a patchwork which, laid out all in one stitched-together piece, perhaps gives you enough of an overall view on how each of them related to the other, where they came from, and where they eventually ended up.