We’re All Basically Fiction

Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker: A Biography

Allen Lane, 352pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780141986654

reviewed by Lucie Elliott

‘Acker’s life was a fable’ says Chris Kraus, author of what 'may or may not be a biography’ of Kathy Acker. After Kathy Acker chronicles the life and work of the punk writer and countercultural icon of the late 70s and 80s. It is an exhaustive but porous account of Acker’s life: her childhood, the fractures within her family, her turbulent sex life, her writing career, through to her untimely death from cancer, in 1997.

Kathy Acker was born in New York in 1944 to middle class Jewish parents, from whom she became estranged in the latter half of her youth. Peripatetic by nature, Acker was always on the move, from New York to San Francisco, London and San Diego. She believed she was destined to live her life in the margins, and was always anxiously in search of her community.

Acker was deeply involved in the construction of her image, and her fictive personas, ‘like a hall of mirrors’ to her own detriment. She was largely responsible for the mythology that surrounded her, 'Because in a certain sense, Acker lied all the time [. . .] She lied when it was beneficial to her, and lied even when it was not.' Kraus goes on to note, ‘perceptive readers of Acker’s work have observed that the lies weren’t literal lies, but more a system of magical thought.’ Kraus would argue that Acker was merely doing what all writers do: creating a position from which to write.

Kathy Acker is the author of 13 novels, depending on how you categorise them, most notably, Blood and Guts in High School, Great Expectations and Don Quixote. Acker’s oeuvre has been described as disjunctive, highly personalised and emotionally continuous – shrewd observers may notice a similar narrative repeated throughout. Repetition functions as a thread, tying much of her work and personal life together. The facts shift slightly; stories are often told ‘through the veil of a plagiarised text’, and Acker’s life is transformed into myth.

Kraus begins her ‘almost biography’ immediately after Acker’s death, at the funeral: quite literally after Kathy Acker. She follows Acker’s life chronologically. It is an itinerant, occasionally fragmentary account; there are an abundance of peripheral characters, subplots and digressions which authentically replicate the sense of chaos and disorder in Acker’s own life. For a reader, this can occasionally be hard to follow.

The virtue of this book is Kraus’s ability to vividly shape a moment in place and time, without succumbing to nostalgia or romance. Acker was a writer with strong ties to New York’s avant-garde scene in the 1970s. Kraus uses a nexus of artists, theorists and thinkers, lovers, friends and contemporaries of Acker’s, to bring this scene to life. While the primary motive for the biography was Acker herself, Kraus also saw an opportunity to write a revisionist history of Seventies New York, an era she believed is overly mythologised. Kraus delves deep into archives of ephemera: letters, emails, memoirs, journals, articles, videos and exhibitions. She draws from her constellation of sources, all the while noting, that to describe the love and confusion and conflicting agendas of the period would be 'to sketch an apocryphal allegory of an artistic life in the late twentieth century’. In the biography’s weakest moments, Kraus’s ‘sketches’ drift into caricatures, cartoons, gossipy scribbles:

‘They’d all just attended Anne Waldman’s St. Mark’s Wednesday night reading of, mostly, poems about her and Bernadette’s summer affair. By now it was well after midnight, and Acker ignored Bernadette’s plea and buzzed Anne in anyway. Waldman had just had a huge fight with her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, Michael Brownstein, who, as Acker reports, told Waldman that “she had no right to reveal so many person feelings” in her poems.’

Kraus assembles events into tangential narratives that can read as superfluous and often even irrelevant, however, narrative sections of the biography ought not to discredit the meticulous attention to detail and scrutiny elsewhere. Kraus works to demystify and uncover some of Acker’s lies, frequently calling (without judgement) her decisions and statements into question.

Kraus had the idea to write a biography on Acker shortly after she died, but felt too close to her subject. After writing My Summer of Hate (2012) almost 20 years later, Kraus felt there was enough distance to write, and felt able to approach the subject of Acker as, ‘someone who understood her work very well.’ Kraus is ideally suited to write the biography of Acker for many reasons. She has inherited Acker’s phenomenological approach toward writing, alongside the blending of sex and cultural theory, and the importance of form – a concept central to both writers. Acker’s style is corrosive, hyper-feminised and emotionally direct, she shows a curiosity about the self; both divided and united, and always wrote from the I, ‘When my mother died the ‘I’ I had always known dropped out.’ The influence Acker had on Kraus is most apparent in the seminal feminist text, I Love Dick (1997), a contemporary work of auto fiction that confuses the divide between reality and performance, and redefines ideas of the subjective female experience.

Critics have argued that After Kathy Acker, reveals Kraus is unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, in her approach to Acker. Kraus has been clear with her intentions for the book from the start. The biography's epigraph is a quote from a contemporary artist and friend of Acker’s, Rudy Wurlizer:

‘You realize that the past is just like everything else—it’s a dream. And it’s just as much of a fiction as if you were actually writing fiction and we choose to say or choose to remember or can’t remember how to remember whatever it was you were trying to remember. It comes out filtered and redefined and has an envelope of fiction to it. Because we’re all basically fiction.’

It would seem this statement is intended as a reminder that the biography isn’t concerned with the task of trying to extract the real Kathy Acker from the fictitious. Kraus seems more interested in showing Acker, as an origin myth, in all her inconsistencies and complexities, amid the harsh realities of her time. Besides, ‘facts can be hard to pin down’ when the subject of the biography was seemingly a habitual liar. Furthermore, Wurlizer’s quote speaks to the frailty and impossibility of memory, as the opening line of the biography states: ‘Like everything in the past, everyone remembers it differently’. Kraus has described writing After Kathy Acker as: ‘as close to a novel as I could get’ –an appropriate approach to biography for a subject who felt reality was never coherent, and whose identity was always fluid, unfixed.

One of the most thrilling aspects of After Kathy Acker is the access to Acker’s immersive and synthetic process of writing: her method of plagiarism, cut and paste, and use of the historical present:

'I was very interested in the use of the ‘I.’ So I went to the UCSD library . . . and took out whatever books about murderesses I could get . . . I took these books home . . . and then I sat down and wrote out . . . I tightened up the language and played games with it. Basically I just copied . . . only I changed the third person to the first person, so they’d seem to be about myself. And then I set up sections within parentheses what were just diary sections…about who I was, what I was doing . . . train of stuff . . . so there were two I’s in the book, the I out the parentheses and the I within the parentheses. . . Gradually what happened was the two I’s started playing games with each other, becoming one.'

Acker was known for her bricolage, a Burroughsian approach to writing, following her impulses wherever they lead. She was deeply influenced by French theory and modernist writers, such as Georges Bataille and Pierre Guyotat; they helped place her literary and existential sense of fragmentation and multiplicity. She dedicated vast amounts of time to writing and rewriting her memories, ‘until, like the sex she described, they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became myth’. Kraus’s literary criticism and understanding of Acker’s work is compelling: she describes her as the first female writer, ‘to relentlessly pursue the artfully naked ‘I’ of French modernism.’ Her influences and intentions are explored with depth, and this does not prevent Kraus from sensitively critiquing her work. Two pages are devoted to Acker’s use of colons in the novel, Great Expectations, written shortly after her mother’s suicide: ‘The colon functions as a slap, a jolt, an epinephrine shot that yanks the sentence – and by extension, us – from grief’s downward drift into present time. Consciousness just is: no time.’ Great Expectations chronicles ‘a cosmological self-interrogation’. It enacts a working through grief – the colon provides space to breath, something to hold onto amid the chaos. There is an elegance to Kraus’s literary criticism, she seamlessly infuses the personal into criticism of the prose without sentimentality or bias.

Kraus rarely employs the personal herself, the ‘I’ is only used four times, yet she has been widely criticised for being too present in the text, and too close to Acker personally; a criticism largely due to an overlap in their romantic history. (Acker was romantically involved with Sylvère Lotringer for some years. He would later become Kraus’s husband) Some critics have penalised Kraus for not disclosing this information, given her need for honesty and transparency elsewhere in the book. I would argue that Kraus has deliberately de-personalised herself in this text, deciding to ‘step way back as a character in the novel’ as a way of being ‘a medium for Kathy Acker.’ Her role in the biography is more of a ventriloquist for Acker – and so the inclusion of her ex-husband’s romantic affair would be arbitrary, unnecessarily prioritising Kraus’s voice over that of her subject.

Kraus skilfully tracks the trajectory of Acker’s personal and professional life in a manner not dissimilar to the lucid, dense, and intricate dream maps of Acker’s fiction; maps which materialised in sub sections of Blood and Guts in High School. Kraus’s portrait of Acker is so self-assured, so littered with idiosyncrasies and detail that it seems almost irrelevant whether it is made of fact or fiction, or both. Kraus’s abiding question is built into her method: how do we want to see Kathy Acker?