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Review: Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

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Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, originally printed in 1984, came out earlier this year on Penguin’s Modern Classics, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1961 to supplement their series of “Classics”, which was launched in 1946 with a new translation of the Iliad. Their lists of books are important works in the Western literary canon, also meaning that it’s largely male names that appear on the covers. Change takes time, but in 2017 it really sticks out. That Kathy Acker has been reprinted in the Modern Classics series is both wonderful news and also kind of ironic, as much of her authorship consisted of tearing apart the aforementioned literary canon in what seems to be both an ode and a giant fuck you to canonized literature.

In Blood and Guts in High School we meet Janey, a ten-year-old emotionally impaired girl, in a coming of age story from hell that lasts four years and ends in death. She starts out in Mexico where she lives in an incestous relationship with her father, who dumps her in order to be with his new girlfriend and to “find out who he is” through some couch-bound soul searching. Janey moves to New York, works in a bakery, has abortions and joins a gang, but when her fellow gang members are killed in a car crash, she moves to the slums before she is abducted, sold, and trained as a prostitute, until her release upon the discovery that she has cancer: “Having cancer is like having a baby. If you’re a woman and you can’t have a baby ‘cause you’re starving poor or ‘cause no man wants anything to do with you or ‘cause you’re lonely and miserable and frightened and totally insane, you might as well get cancer” – an extra suckerpunch added by the fact that Acker herself died from cancer in 1997. Deciding that she is bound to die from cancer anyway, Janey abstains from suicide and travels to Tangier where she, very appropriately, meets the French author Jean Genet. They travel through North Africa, in an appropriation of language and in a story that could also have been written by him, until he leaves her and she dies. Such is the story of Janey aged 10-14.

In a fragmented narrative, Acker paints a portrait of a woman that loves her perpetrator, a woman who knows that she is being used, and a woman who continues to come back for more.

The book consists of three parts: “Inside High School”, “Outside High School” and “Journey to the End of the Night”. It’s a cluster fuck of literary references that don’t necessarily lead the reader anywhere, and a word count of “cunt” might turn the labile reader into a good born again christian, or create a longing for some pietist porn such as The Scarlet Letter.

The language is nervous and violent and the text appears raw and unfinished. Acker doesn’t create a coherent world, on the contrary, her use of cut-ups and collages, lifted from Burroughs, decreates a mimetic realism while reassembling the pieces into a world full of lack, violence and confusion.

In a fragmented narrative, Acker paints a portrait of a woman that loves her perpetrator, a woman who knows that she is being used, and a woman who continues to come back for more.

Parallel to the story, the text is an exposition of an experimental writing style, making the story a trampoline to bounce ideas off of, and when it isn’t strenuous, it’s a delight in its own fucked-up way, offering a raw and unapologetic female narrator, that voices her deepest insecurities in a world populated by men that are both heroes and violators in equal measure.

Rich in illustrations and maps of dreams that are impossible to decipher, what stands before me is a book I have not been trained to read. Yes, there is a story line, but good luck following it. Instead, the book ends up revealing me as a one trick pony that is desperately trying to categorize this in order to understand it. It tells me that there is not necessarily anything beyond language, that the words don’t point to any deeper truth and that the importance of this book lies in its resistance to format and conventions, pushing the boundaries of literature.

Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School was originally published in 1984. Come by Ark Books shop on Møllegade to pick up a copy. Listen to the Ark Audio Book Club podcast here 

Giovanna, wildly gifted pedestrian, yet is able to remain humble. Would love to engineer a lovechild/super-breed author between Ben Lerner and Chris Kraus, but will also settle for a coffee table book with pictures of them and/or a documentary where they walk the Camino together.

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