New York

Kathy Acker

Being a good storyteller in large part means having a good story to tell; Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations is a good story, an inventive series of burlesque vignettes, a venture through the seamy sides of the lives of a decadent cast of modern characters.

Acker’s writing is rich in visual and visceral texture; as she reads from her elevated podium, she shifts theatrical personae to take us from France to the bowels of Egypt to 73rd Street in New York where a husband and a wife have a quarrel that ends with the shooting of an unidentified four-year-old girl in a blue bonnet. The characters are a sex-crazed, unwanted poor girl who inherits a fortune, a nagging wife, an Italian terrorist, a catatonic who hates humans and can’t communicate, a tortured, mad letter writer who harasses God, Susan Sontag and the Mudd Club. After the sex and sadism, we end in a taxi; the ride costs a dollar.

Acker is concerned chiefly with the blood and guts aspects of life—sex and power, submission and exploitation. Her satirical, brutal humor is tough-minded and strong-stomached, reminiscent of a Flannery O’Connor tale for the “alienated” ’80s. Although her material lacks the ironic continuity of O’Connor (and certainly the Catholicism), the relentless sensibility is there at every twist and turn—nothing good happens here. And like Flannery O’Connor, one senses that what is being so mercilessly treated is that which the artist takes with the greatest seriousness—the subject of women. Her portraits of women are ugly and disquieting, of the stereotypical, nagging, manipulative wife, of the sex-hungry girl, of the catatonic. But it is through a process of force-feeding that Acker manages to illustrate and penetrate some very unpleasant but honest expectations and delusions.

Acker’s material was written to be delivered orally, although I suspect it would be sustained equally well in print. As a performer, she is smooth and professional, although as she moves from one character to the next, she vacillates a bit between acting out theatrical personae and reading as author. Great Expectations, as delivered, is finally a written story rich in imagination and intelligence, a written story to be heard. My only problem with it was that somewhere between Egypt and New York I couldn’t help but wonder about its untapped theatrical possibilities.

Joan Casademont