Morgan Mansour on Blood and Guts in High School
Blood and Guts in High School
New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1978
I got a fever reading Kathy Acker. Impossible to distinguish the force of a flu from the rush of her prose; aching, chaotic, and shivering. Conflation becomes instinct in her boundless world, with text and touch interchangeable. "Every day,” she writes, “a sharp tool, a powerful destroyer, is necessary to cut away dullness, lobotomy, buzzing, belief in human beings, stagnancy, images, and accumulation. As soon as we stop believing in human beings, rather know that we are dogs & trees, we'll start to be happy.” To the degree that she adheres to any pattern whatsoever, Acker sears and soaks, only to slip into a prescience so casually intoned before more whiplash and dissonance.
Blood and Guts in High School (1978) is as staggered as its name, and you can hear Acker’s wide-eyed smirk in every word. Told in the harsh voice of a teenager, with splashes of insight and omniscient interludes, the book follows “Janey Smith” from Merida, Mexico -- though you wonder what details deflect with Janey’s Anglo name, and her father (“Johnny”) cast as her “boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement.” Janey moves to New York, where she spends not much more than a page in high school, and gets kidnapped into the sex trade. In her cell, she pencils an erratic diary on paper scraps and amnesic love poems to her captor. At the end of her “training,” she gets thrown out with cancer and no place to go, then happens upon “a passport and a paid ticket to Morocco” in a stairwell. There, she meets Jean Genet, who takes her to Egypt. (This time, Acker will make Janey wait in line at a squalid embassy to get her own passport. What ruse is at stake here?)
At every turn, Acker flashes impasse like a toy weapon. A deus ex machina will drop in, then abandon Janey to brutal banality. The frustrations feel exacting, elicited; we are meant to confront them, but perhaps not untangle the deliberate mess she makes. Such contradictions glare of glass; if you press they will shatter -- but sharp fragmentation stuns as texture here, too. The text breaks into script-like dialogs and bursts into all caps (“WHEN SOMEONE’S IN PAIN, HE CRIES OUT”). Pornographic illustrations interrupt throughout, with captions collaged from the main body of prose. A cutesy adolescent scrawl labels panoramic cartoons in hyper-detail: ancient ruins, Persian translations, esoteric visions, and maps of dreams.
Acker’s sting is a radical tactic to sporadically reveal her raw vulnerability. You couldn’t get there any other way in this sick world, she suggests. “Once she notices someone,” Acker recalls of a child in The Scarlet Letter, “she’ll stick by that person she’ll open herself up she is soft and totally hurtable that’s what being wild is. (Secretly.) (Privately.) ‘Cause once you’re open like that you’re a real person ‘cause you’re no longer separated from other people. It’s dangerous.” The wonder of this book is how tender it can be beneath the brawl.
A pair of tights spills sheer from a hanger, clipped at its elastic waist. In an exhibit coordinated by the writer Dodie Bellamy, garments lilt in a gallery to commemorate “Kathy Forest” through her wardrobe (Bellamy quotes Acker: I am a child of the forests and the wilds; I am all that is American). Each piece is impressive in its own right and even more electric together -- yet a photo of the tights lingers in my mind, awkward and intimate. Acker exudes flair and fervor, but can also be found in the lining, running along a leg. The bark on a tree, clinging delicate.
Read about Morgan Mansour's stay at ZVONA i NARI.
Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian are the editors of Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977-1997.
Blood and Guts in High School is only one of the amazing titles you can find at ZVONA i NARI Library.