Off The Shelf - "Literal Madness"

by Marcus Pan

Chain Border

Ok, I need a break. I've been reading some rather high-end shit lately (unabridged Legends of Sleepy Hollow, Interzone, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, etc.) and I should slip back into some comfy, cozy, not-too-difficult pulp fiction. But I can't. I started Sybil, a tale of psychoanalysis and multiple personalities, earlier this afternoon immediately upon finishing the latest stream of consciousness, part surreal part drug-laden Literal Madness by Kathy Acker.

Kathy Acker is an author similar in style, intent and subject matter as William Burroughs, master of the spoken word. Considered a heroine of punk-feminism, her book, Literal Madness, purports to contain 3 novels of hers - Kathy Goes to Haiti, My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Florida. The last, Florida, is very short though - I wouldn't consider it a novel. The opening piece, Kathy Goes to Haiti, has been my favorite of this collection.

Acker's writing style is very juvenile, but does so with a flair. She's a controller of subtle alliterations with repetitive words, phrases and rhythms that flow through paragraphs. Full circle rants that seemingly make no sense but come around to meet the beginning as it draws to a close.

Kathy Goes To Haiti makes me wonder just how autobiographical it is. In the story the main character, Kathy, speaks in first person. She visits Haiti for the first time - a lost soul with a mock naiveté that borders on sexy. The innocence and purity combine to make her more attractive, at least to me, so that when things do turn to sex - and they often do (this is not a book for children, oh not at all) - her actions and speech during these scenes serve to heighten her attractiveness when compared to the blatant mock purity she is built up with throughout other portions of the novel.

Kathy visits Haiti in an effort to figure out what to do with herself. Unattached, looking for nothing more than to get away and maybe a bit of wisdom, her story here ends with the closing of a ceremony by a voodoo chieftain. You're left to wonder what the ceremony purposed - was it just a call for luck, so to speak, or did it have a specific purpose? Kathy Goes To Haiti abruptly ends as she leaves the hut of the priest. This was unfortunate - I wouldn't have minded following her for a while longer. I enjoyed the story. The cultural aspects of Haiti - poverty, openness and political power struggles - are laid bare for the outsider to see.

The next selection, My Death My Life, I found to be disturbing. Striking at artistic beliefs in a harsh and brutal manner, Kathy takes us on a whirlwind tour of ideals that reads like a screenplay. Indeed she even applies Shakespearean and other characters to her demented storyline. Other lesser topics she rails against here include politics, war and the ambiguity of sex and love. At times the characters get downright boorish - she peppers her narrative with swears and curses, but while Burroughs would string them together like beads on a necklace Kathy uses them more sparingly to strike points deeper into the reader.

Florida is short and confusing. Built around an old-style gangster movie plot, the main character is seemingly the girlfriend of a two-bit mid-level tommy boy who in the midst of a Floridian hurricane takes over a hotel until the arrival of his getaway boat. The story is dropped quickly leaving half a plot, half-live characters and a confusing aftertaste.

Kathy Acker is Burroughs' female and subtler counterpart. Her narratives are introspective studies that forces one to question your own motives and ideals on various levels and subjects. Her use of known characters in selections like My Life My Death is done with a kick to the groin of the character's original creators. At first you feel that she's being insulting in their blatant use, but you realize later that the characters are true to their original - only modernized and made more truthful. In some cases, as in her scenes between Romeo and Juliet for example, she modernizes the characters to such an extent it borders on comical. Sometimes truth is simply shitty. And you realize it's even worse when it's played for you by characters that were once bastions of half-truths being forced to show the other halves their past creators didn't dare to bare.

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Buy Literal Madness

"Literal Madness" by Kathy Acker
Published by Grove Press
Copyright © 1978, 1984, 1987 by Kathy Acker
ISBN 0-8021-3156-5

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