Kathy Acker's latest takes on Stevenson

January 21, 1996|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,special to the sun

"Pussy, King of the Pirates," by Kathy Acker. Illustrations. Grove Press. 288 pages. $21

At the risk of sounding reactionary, maybe women just aren't cut out for piracy. The film "Cutthroat Island," which cast Geena Davis as the swashbuckling captain of its ship, went down almost upon embarking. Now a new novel by Kathy Acker recasts Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 classic, "Treasure Island," with girls. Alas, "Pussy, King of the Pirates" sinks like a stone under the weight of the radical politics - and avant-garde posing - that power it.

Ms. Acker, the "enfant terrible" of contemporary fiction whose graphic "Blood and Guts in High School" (1985) was banned in West Germany and South Africa, has written her ninth in-your-face novel. Once again, traditional literary methods are rejected. Once again, they fall in favor of the same postmodernist aesthetic that is fast rigidifying into its own creaky conventionality.

Here, as she did in "Great Expectations" (1984) and "Don Quixote" (1986), Ms. Acker conducts her repudiation of literary conventions in large measure by literary appropriation.

Indeed, the book's promotional material makes it clear that we should understand Ms. Acker herself to be the real girl corsair, "ransacking world history, literature, and language itself." Unfortunately, her own limited creative coffer has long been looted, and her swashbuckling - fresh and energetic enough in her early career to excite many readers of experimental fiction - has calcified into mere posturing.

Traversing a bleak dreamscape rife with anachronism and disjunction, the novel's intermittent heroine O and her friends have liberated themselves from the whorehouse - and thus the traditional female roles that a patriarchal society has imposed on them - to become pirates. Since Ms. Acker knows that buried treasure rings up on the Freudian register as the mother's genitals, O's quest is undertaken "to find that place out of which we come." "Yo-ho-ho," Kathy.

Ms. Acker also aspires to import certain ideas from late-20th-century philosophy into her artistic work - or at least to flaunt her knowledge of them. Thus, her characters continually switch identities, showing that she has absorbed critiques of the notion of the unified subject: "ooh!" The same characters also defy gender classification, bespeaking Ms. Acker's familiarity with radical feminist attacks on the idea of an essential female nature: "aah!"

But better writers have put the same theories and insights into play in their fiction with far more imagination, and more respect for the theories: witness Thomas Pynchon's work, or the novels of Jeanette Winterson. Ms. Acker throws feminism, deconstruction, and post-Freudian psychoanalysis into her pot whole, not assimilating them to her art but underwriting her art with a brittle, excessively literal understanding of them. For example, cheating the best French feminist work of its subtlety, Ms. Acker regurgitates this impoverished version: "This city was patriarchal, that which allows the existence of none but itself, for it had arisen and was arising only out of the rational, moralistic, bends of minds."

With intentionally crude language and tireless emphasis on the oppressions of patriarchy, Ms. Acker seeks to smash the romanticism that animates popular adventures like Stevenson's. The island to which Pussy and O voyage is overrun with filth, rats and excrement; the specter of the forbidding father is invoked every few pages as a terrifying figure for the pirate girls to rebel against. The narcissistic Ms. Acker can't help romanticizing their rebellion, however: it reminds her of her own swaggering defiance of the "fathers" of Western culture, so ably romanticized by her publicists.

Laura Demanski works at the University of Chicago Press an has worked for Simon & Schuster. She is pursuing a doctorate in English literature at the University of Chicago.

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