Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Bumper crop of reviews this week

I'm in the last stages of Superheroes! so not posting much, in place of which

Lust for Life - On the writings of Kathy Acker (Verso 120 pp.)

edited by Amy Scholder, Carla Harryman and Avital Ronell

The practice of avant-garde art is indistinguishable from the process of thinking about it. Kathy Acker aspired in her every published word to break down standard expectations of what prose fiction might be like, replacing its assumptions of identity with the free play of constantly shifting genders and selfs. Her use of cut-up technique was a deliberate refusal of the notion of originality; the artist has to experiment in form and life and act as the canary in the mephitic darkness of a dying and disgusting culture.

This was how Kathy Acker saw herself and the personal material in this collection of essays by people who knew and cared for her is a pious celebration of that particular aspect of her life and work. When Avital Ronell writes about the disagreements she had with Acker about Heidegger, the discussion is intellectually interesting and emotionally poignant: Peter Wollen writes movingly about the shift back towards the Classical in the works Acker wrote during the years of her slow death.

And yet, what is missing from this book is a sense of the immediacy which separated Acker's work from much other avant-garde writing. She saw every moment of pleasure and pain in her life as a text to be deciphered and then transcribed, over and over; the notebooks in which she wrote version after version of her work are a demonstration of something in her that was deeply traditional as well as passionately concerned with the creation of the New. The Acker presented in most of these essays is as much philosopher as poetic novelist, and if she were only a second generation disciple of Burroughs and the Situationists and Bataille, she would not have been as interesting and radical a writer as she was.

Acker was a magpie and a trickster and a compulsive inhabiter of the personae she tried out in front of whatever audience she had . Cultural theory was important to her because it offered a framework in which she could legitimize contradictions which might otherwise have seemed pathological. She would have liked this celebration of her art for its intensely felt partial truth about her; it conclusively avoids being definitive about her as New York Princess tattooed porn- cinema ticket clerk bisexual mythomane. and

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate 272 pp £17.99)

reviewed by Roz Kaveney

There is nothing like guilt for distortine one's sense of what happened. one of the many things that makes Joyce Carol Oates' new novel so intrinsically mysterious is that its narrator Genna believes that she is telling someone else's story rather than her own. Genna is convinced that, had she acted otherwise fifteen years ago, her college room-mate Minette would not be dead, and everything she remembers confirms her in that view. Yet, much of the time, the reader finds herself saying 'yes, but...' and suspecting that the story we are being told by Joyce Carol Oates is altogether more complex than the story Genna is telling us. We have, after all, a hindsight somewhat longer to look back from - this is quite crucially a tale of the seventies being told in the nineties.

'Black Girl/White Girl' is a story of culture clash, of a college's well-intentioned pairing-up of the intense daughter of a charismatic and buttoned-up Black minister with the daughter of a long radical tradition, Quaker benevolence metamorphosed over time into marxisant self-doubt. Genna is far too prepared, for example, to assume that Minette is far stronger and healthier than she is, and takes far too long to question whether various racist assaults on the other woman are quite what they seem. She envies the certainties of the other woman's faith, but does so entirely from the outside, without a sense that there might be disadvantages to it, that what seems to be a strength might be a source of pain.

Genna is, far more than she realizes, caught up in family troubles of her own. Her increasingly estranged parents were damaged by the choices they made in the Sixties; radical lawyer Max spent far too much time with some very dangerous people and bears some responsibility for what they did. Veronica retreated from the knowledge of Max's complicities into the usual escapes of sex and drugs - Oates' portayal of these standard declines is far too specific to be easily punitive cliche. To some extent, her very real concern for Minette is handicapped by the degree to which it is an escape from her own concerns far more than a practical attempt to help.

Minette is caught up in what seem like petty persecutions - one of her books disappears and turns up soiled and mutilated, as does a glove knitted by her mother. In both cases, Genna tries to make good the damage and Minette brushes her off as an irritation, as she does when Genna passes on to her an expensive present from her mother. Minette walks out on the college glee club, although singing is one of her few pleasures.Genna finds out one crucial fact and entirely fails to see its importance - Minette has ceased to attend church, instead spending her Sundays crying on a park bench.

It is entirely of a piece with Genna's character and upbringing that she fails to understand that this implied loss of faith is the most devastating thing that could have happened to her friend - fails to see this even after fifteen years. Oates never lets us see clearly what might cause this, or the self-hatred that makes Minette, and Genna after her death, into binge-eaters who devour cakes and junk food to a point where they become unrecognizable. This is a book which quite controlledly leaves us to speculation about Minette's sexuality which have to remain entirely tentative.

The most shocking of the racist attacks - a drawing of the Hottentot Venus shoved under a door, the letters NIG scrawled on it - are the ones which make Genna gradually realize that Minette is quite literally her own hidden enemy. They also involve the college authorities to an extent that makes it impossible for Genna to share her growing scepticism - Minette moves into other accomodation and Genna is trapped by the honour code into not discussing what she cannot prove to herself with any certainty.

This is a novel which moves quite shockingly from the vague and speculative to the utterly specific. Genna tells the story of how Minette died, but her real story is how her own life ended in a set of shocking betrayals - in the sense that the open-ended possibilities of her youth became a set of lasting responsibilities as historian of her radical ancestors, chronicler of her own failure and the only confidant of her blind imprisoned father. Oates gives us real pathos along with her strange mixture of certainty and mystery - this is a quietly powerful novel of regret.

Fragile Things (Headline 355 pp. £17.99) by Neil Gaiman
reviewed by Roz Kaveney

This collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman helps consolidate his reputation as one of the most individual and smart of modern fantasists. He has the moral compass of Stephen King without the good ol'boy folksiness and the intelligence of Peter Straub without the obsessive perversity; he can be as funny as Pratchett and as dark as Barker, and can do both at the same time in a way neither of them quite can. What he also brings to the table is an almost remorseless fertility with ideas that sit at an angle to anything else you might read.

If you want to know what the really really rich do for sexual release, or what characters in Gothic novels put into their story-telling, or what happens to the characters in famous children's books whose author happens not to like them, this is a book that will leave you mildly disturbed at what you wanted to know. Anyone else asked by an editor to provide a Sherlock Holme story set in HP Lovecraft's mythos of Great Old gods coming back to eat us all would probably tell a story in which Worst Things were narrowly avoided; Gaiman assumes that Worst Things already happened, and takes his characters' lives on from there. At every point, what is important is not just the sheer cleverness of the ideas, it is the way that those ideas get turned into lived human experience with tears and pain.

Gaiman has a childlike curiosity about what comes next and what the secret is; one of the reasons why he writes verse as well as screenplays and short stories and novels and comics is that they set him neat but manageable technical challenges. Solving the challenge, though, is only half the game; it is cheating if you end up with something that does not matter to you deep down where it counts. The child in Gaiman is balanced by a weary adult who has found out the worst about things, and very occasionally is pleasantly surprised.
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