Call Her Crazy, Call Her Avante-Garde, Call Her Kathy Acker, Part of Our Experimental Summer

~Post by Brian C.

This is the latest in a series of reviews of experimental fiction written by BookPeople Brian C. and Jenn S.

Brian and Jenn have made it their mission this summer to open up their reading lives to the weird, the odd, the curious, the avant garde, and the totally out-there in the world of fiction.  The previous review in this series, of Anne Carson’s novel in verse, The Autobiography of Red, is available HERE.


Madness is a strange thing to diagnose, but we do. We call something crazy or label it insane with such regularity that no one ever bothers to check our math. I’m not an anti-label guy. In fact as a bookseller, I use the crutch of labels all the time. If you like Paul Auster, and Paul Auster is labeled as __________, then you might like Jennifer Egan because she’s also labeled ____________. But what happens when somebody like Kathy Acker comes around and writes stories that appeal to the base elements of our nature, but are also impenetrable? We grasp at straws. She’s punk, she’s postmodern, Avante-Garde, Feminist, pornographic…etc. It goes on, but never gets us any closer to understanding her writing. But, because the writing also has a lightness, or frivolity about it, we think that we should be able to understand her. We can’t easily grasp her novels, so we callously call her crazy. We dismiss her. I’ve been guilty of this arrogant dismissal, and that’s why this Summer of Experimental Literature is a good exercise for me. The third book I’ve read for the series is Acker’s Great Expectations, and it’s been a failed experiment in understanding, but a great exercise in reading and humility.

The slim book is the author’s reaction to her mother’s suicide. It is often vulgar, darkly humorous, and sparingly tender. It’s a contradiction in forms, moving from narrative to poetry to an epistolary experiment to blatant and unapologetic plagiarism. The book asks for no mercy, and gives none in return. I’ve never encountered a text that cares so little about whether I ‘like it’ or not. For some reason, that’s refreshing.

You’ll notice that I haven’t told you much about what happens in the novel. I haven’t because I’m not sure if I can. But that shouldn’t dissuade you from taking the plunge yourself. The book inhabits you, and not always in a good way, without informing you. It’s an odd experience. We have so many accessible, readable books about humanity, and hopefully we’ll keep getting more of those. But sometimes it’s good to read something ugly and hard, to really stretch those reading muscles. If you’re the same reader at the end of 2011 as you were at the beginning of 2011, that’s sad. It’s important to push yourself, and with this book Acker helps you out, not with a push, but with a shove and a punch in the mouth.

2 thoughts on “Call Her Crazy, Call Her Avante-Garde, Call Her Kathy Acker, Part of Our Experimental Summer

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