Review: SF literary outlaw Kathy Acker finally gets her due in big, bold biography

Jason McBride is the author of “Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker.” Photo: Liz Sullivan

The first time Kathy Acker called San Francisco her home — it was 1973; she was in her mid-20s — she was impressed by the peculiarity of the place.

“[I]t’s like a cloud of nuttiness covers this city,” she told a friend.

Acker, the boundary-smashing novelist and essayist who died in 1997, called plenty of places home during her too-brief 50 years on the planet. A New York native who often went back and never lost the accent, she studied at Brandeis University outside Boston, clocked some early years in San Diego and embedded herself in post-punk London.

But it was San Francisco, as Jason McBride points out in his aptly nervy biography, that might have suited her best. The author of “Blood and Guts in High School” spent her whole life “trying to invoke a world where she belonged,” McBride writes, “and San Francisco at the end of the twentieth century, a city on the precipice of enormous change itself , would be the closest she’d ever get.”

Her first stint in the Bay Area had come about when her then-husband, the experimental composer Peter Gordon, arrived to study at Mills College in Oakland. Acker would not remain subordinate to Gordon, or anyone else, for long.

By the time she returned in the early ’90s to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute, Acker had established her reputation as a literary outlaw, a pansexual fabulist who borrowed liberally from classic texts and titillating mass-market fiction alike. A bodybuilder and tattoo enthusiast who cultivated the looks of bikers and bondage fetishists, Acker was a master of personal branding long before the idea took hold. She was “that rare and now almost inconceivable thing: a celebrity experimental writer,” McBride writes. “Patti Smith with a post-doc … Gertrude Stein in Gaultier.”

Acker was an early adopter of the online world. She instinctively understood that the moment had arrived when identity could be altered, art could be appropriated and truth was debatable. For her, as McBride makes abundantly clear, reading and writing were not augmentations of life. They were life itself.

“Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker” by Jason McBride. Photo: Simon & Schuster

“To read is to write,” she wrote during the last year of her life. “[T]o write is to write the world; to elect to neither read nor write is to choose suicide.”

For lovers of tales from the underground, “Eat Your Mind” is a smorgasbord. Acker was a natural successor to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, who devised the “cut-up” method of literary manipulation (cutting up and randomly reassembling texts), and she was inevitably drawn into Burroughs’ orbit. In New York, she had trysts with Richard Hell and was occasionally lumped in with the “literary brat pack” of the 1980s. As a member of the Groucho Club in London, she befriended Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and many more.

Far more importantly, Acker was a beacon for young women looking for creative outlets for their anger and their restlessness. While running a workshop in Seattle in 1989, she met a 20-year-old college student who said she was a spoken-word artist. “Nobody likes spoken word,” said Acker, who had made her own name largely on the strength of her eventful readings of her. The young woman should start a band instead, she said. Kathleen Hanna took her advice on her and formed Bikini Kill.

Like so many cultural figures worthy of full-length biographies, Acker was demonstrably ahead of her time. But by the year of her death her, as McBride notes, her shtick her no longer seemed unique. The riot grrrl subculture had gone mainstream in the form of the Spice Girls (Acker wrote about them for the British Guardian). Quentin Tarantino had transformed Hollywood with the relentless allusions of his “quick-draw pastiches of his.” And everyone, like the characters in her last major work of hers, “Pussy, King of the Pirates,” was pierced and tattooed.

Now Acker’s legacy has gotten a proper biographer. It’s a crowning moment after years of posthumous activity: Her personal library has its own room at the University of Cologne in Germany, and her papers are divided between New York University and Duke. A feature-length documentary, “Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker?,” premiered in 2007. And Olivia Laing’s debut novel, 2018’s “Crudo,” was an homage to Acker.

“If you’d wondered what it would be like to have Kathy Acker writing in the age of Twitter and Trump,” McBride writes, “well, here was one answer.”

Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker
By Jason McBride
(Simon & Schuster; 416 pages; $29.99)

City Lights presents Jason McBride in conversation with Neil Gaiman: Virtual events. 6 p.m. Dec. 1. Free; registration required. citylights.com



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