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Review: “I’m very into you” by Kathy Acker & McKenzie Wark

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“In declining, the novelist said it felt too much like rooting around in someone’s underwear drawer.” So says the editor, Matias Viegener, of the person he and McKenzie Wark initially approached to write the preface for “I’m very into you”, in its introduction. This is an entirely accurate description of my reading experience but, unlike the unnamed novelist, this didn’t cause me enough discomfort to put the book down. In fact, some of its allure stems exactly from its confidential nature, which I’m sure the people involved in its publication were banking on. Quoth Viegener: “Acker would never have agreed to [the letters’] publication were she alive, but she is dead.” Damn, son.

acker
Kathy Acker

“I’m very into you” is a collection of email exchanges between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark. Acker was a writer who died two years after these emails were composed, Wark is a media theorist who teaches at The New School. Beginning after they first met in Australia and, with one exception, ending two weeks later, they manage to cover every topic under the queer, white, middle-class, academic, semi-famous, mid-nineties sun. The two spent three nights together before parting and some of the force of the text comes from their excitement of finding shared understandings despite being virtual strangers. Some of the things they say made me want to vom—for instance how Acker talks about the terribly meaningful stuff she and her friends do ‘in’ culture, like culture’s a pool you dip in and out of—but I got over it soon enough as this was written not for the public, but with one specific, sympathetic reader in mind, and this is their private shorthand.

What makes this particular exchange so heady is that the writers are flirting with each other, romantically and professionally, and the amount of letters vs. shortness of time adds an intense, frenetic energy.

Because Acker is in the United States and Wark is in Australia the letters cross the international dateline and get mixed up as the frequency of writing increases, so eventually, you read the responses before you read what they are responding to. This is fitting because Acker’s work tended to operate with collage and pastiche, and in this collection these techniques emerge and mirror the confusion she feels regarding Wark and his intentions.

What makes this particular exchange so heady is that the writers are flirting with each other, romantically and professionally, and a number of letters vs. shortness of time adds an intense, frenetic energy. This is both thrilling and sometimes irritating. You can tell that they’re showing off and a lot of what Wark says seems wilfully obscure and detached in order to impress: “Do we need to analyse our encounter with each other? Or can we just assume it, and see what kind of dialogue it anchors to a start in time?” Barf. However, their discussions are, for the most part, fascinating and seductive.

Quickly you notice how their theoretical concerns are often directly applicable to their relationship, as when Acker talks about power: “I mean, I want to be with you and so you set the terms ‘cause that’s how the relation so far has been arranged. I’m not fucking playing games. I’m just being straight-forward and trying to be, like good-mannered. […] Now if you want me to make the decisions, you have to say so. You see, I’m really not into these out-of-bed games.” Or when Wark, on the subject of their budding friendship, mentions his theory of butch/femme: “I always maintain that there’s no escape from the b/f dialectic, but that anyone can occupy either pole if they know how, and that it can oscillate wildly if you let it/want it. I don’t believe in the androgyne or the bisexual as the middle. If it looks that way it’s because it’s oscillating too fast for the eye to see/hand to feel…”. Throughout the text both writers oscillate between genders, sexualities, masculine/feminine, vulnerability/violence, intimacy/superficiality, dense shorthand/run-on sentences, desire for ambiguity/desire for certainty. Their identities and desires in a constant state of flux. In many ways, the book as a whole works as a metaphor for the things they talk about.

The conflation of author and narrator in correspondence doesn’t necessarily collapse that space, but something else happens. I didn’t know anything about either of the writers when I read this, but knowing that they were real people made a difference to my reading. I’m not sure exactly how.

They are both artists and academics and the close-up glimpse of their lives gives us an idea of their tastes and creative concerns. I tried to keep a running list of their references to art/culture/critical theory but gave up less than halfway through, their knowledge was so extensive and eclectic.

McKenzie Wark

They are very candid about their sexual experiences and I was delighted to realise that there’s still stuff left for me to learn about sex. But what’s left out is often as interesting as what’s made explicit. We don’t witness their first meeting, we don’t overhear the one phone conversation they have during the mail exchange, and the only evidence we have of their second meeting is a reproduction of a drawing Acker gives Wark. Towards the end of the emails, Acker goes on a motorcycle trip where we find out that she has done shrooms and dreamt of Wark dead. After that, something changes in her writing, she becomes more willing to contest his theories and ideas. And the question of editing: which mails have been left out?

The inherent remove in fiction between the author, narrator, and any other characters allows for a lot of imaginative space in which the reader can engage. The conflation of author and narrator in correspondence doesn’t necessarily collapse that space, but something else happens. I didn’t know anything about either of the writers when I read this, but knowing that they were real people made a difference to my reading. I’m not sure exactly how. I kept trying to figure out what they meant and, therefore, I didn’t read the text for itself. It was like watching two of my friends flirt: I wanted to clear up any misunderstandings and find signs that they both wanted each other. And there was certainly evidence of that. Acker constantly moulds herself to Wark’s desires: she says the few real men she knows all have cunts and afterwards—due to the dateline delay—we see it’s in response to his statement that he wants real men. Hint. Later he says he’s not bored with one of his girlfriends because she’s super femme and Acker duly notes this. She is forever putting herself down in the most heartbreaking of ways: “what are “access issues”? I’m so dumb. It sounds very impressive… Canberra and Dignitaries. My earrings would make too much noise. You must write it up in a book.” Buddy! Don’t do this to yourself! Though in a sense it’s reassuring that someone as badass as Kathy Acker (seriously, google her, yas queen) could be as insecure as the rest of us.

These letters display the lures and pitfalls of crushes beautifully: how they can become screens you project your needs and wishes onto, and how that screen often is really a mirror. Neither of you see each other, only what you want to see. But that’s a problem with irl relationships too.

I was seduced. Read this book.

For more on ‘I’m very into you’, check out the Ark Audio Book Club podcast.  

Sarah, former child prodigy, has now shed the vanities of youth by shaving off her eyebrows, yet continues to impress. She has co-authored several books with Giovanna Alesandro and regularly shocks the artworld with her world-renowned cartoons.

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