Few publishing phenomena in recent years have been as gratifying as Chris Kraus’s cult 1997 masterpiece I Love Dick becoming a signifier of Twitter and Instagram chic. The ‘lonely girl phenomenology’ it exemplified has now attained cultural status, with first person, inventive writing by women often enjoying centre stage.
It’s interesting, then, that just as the wider culture has caught up with her, Kraus has pivoted away, delivering ‘what may or may not be a biography of Kathy Acker’ — the underground punk novelist who is still, even 20 years after her death, awaiting the recognition she deserves. Penguin’s newly published modern classic edition of her most famous work, Blood and Guts in High School, will help; but Kraus’s book is likely to have more impact.
Acker was, and remains, an outsider’s writer. Her work is still startlingly visceral, poorly attuned to a literary climate as sensitised as ever to transgression and discomfort. As Kraus remarks: ‘While the use of “the personal” by female writers has been largely redeemed, satirical excess has been pushed off the map.’
Kraus, who has admitted the ‘incredible frisson of feeling that often I could write “I” instead of “she”’ in this biography of Acker, finds her way into the life with ease. She begins, movingly, with the funeral and then focuses on the formative years in which Acker became the version of herself we now recognise. The research is painstaking, and Kraus clearly feels a heavy responsibility to pin down the facts, perhaps because, as she puts it, ‘Acker lied all the time’.
She is especially good on the development of Acker’s writing — from her early experiments cutting up the texts of others, through to her fashioning a new literature and self-mythology from the raw material of her emotional life.