In Memoriam To Identity

Kathy Acker

Grove Press

Bang For A Buck

Catherine Roman

Somerville Press

Using incest as a metaphor for human relationships is not something American writer Kathy Acker is likely to shy away from. In fact, it’s probably her best weapon.

Her use of it makes her the only living writer who embodies what Angela Carter called the ‘moral pornographer.’ She employs metaphors to explore the true relations between women and men, and individuals.

In an introduction to a recent reissue of her earlier works Acker wrote “I began to investigate language in terms of memory … I realized that identity is made, the legend of Daedalus is true, and perhaps of Icarus, that when one writes, one doesn’t express true or false identity, truth or falsity, one makes identity.” Identity is therefore, according to Acker, more than just a fractured con.

In each of the four sections which comprise In Memoriam To Identity Acker juxtaposes characters who believe their identity is predetermined with individuals struggling to make identity.

In “Rimbaud”, the French poet Rimbaud consecrates his love for fellow poet Verlaine by smothering himself in the shit of the sewers, while Verlaine is caught between his desire for Rimbaud and the comfort and calling of his birthright. Airplane, the title character of the next section, submits to the protection which a rapist promises her. Capitol, another title characters, asks herself “Who am I?” and “What’s my story?”; she writes “I fuck every man in sight. Men open me up or sex with them opens me up, or so I learn about myself. My story has something to do with opened out flesh.”

Acker draws her characterizations by asking questions for her protagonists, questions which are invariably about control. This concern exists from every character to the author herself, and how she manipulates texts. In Memoriam To Identity is another feast of rampant plagiarism for Acker; the chapters on Rimbaud steal from autobiographical sources and his lengthy monologues break into his verse from Un Saison en Enfer. The last section, “Wild Palms”, appropriates the life and work of William Faulkner.

Whereas Acker expounds with an unparalleled emotional precision on the stuff of identity, it is precisely this subject which Catherine roman manages to elude; this unfortunate choice on her part sabotages her own foray into gender politics. The aggressive tone and hipster drawl of her confessional and its relentless pacing distance the text from any real insight.

This biography, which could be summed up by Roman’s credo, “I’ll do almost anything to prove I’m corruptible,” follows her from her tiniest days living with her prostitute aunt (the “johns” were her uncles), to when finally she too is working in the sex trade. Her teens were spent transporting dope, helping illegal aliens make it across the St. Lawrence to the U.S., and stealing cars.

She promises herself early on that she despises her gender, and will have nothing to do with a world in which women hold control. As often as Acker uses sex and rape as devises to delineate the true relations between her characters, and the moral transgressions they seek, Roman finds herself in equally excessive compromising positions.

Her lovers are all strict sociopaths, from whom she accepts torrents of abuse, both mental and physical. Inexplicably, Roman sticks around; she can only reason that “Maybe … I’m here strictly to please the Philistine tendency in man: to take, conquer, and claim.”

She spends the ’70s working the Yonge St. tract of massage parlors and strip bars, narrowly escaping innumerable rapes and arrests, waiting for lovers either to get out of prison or return from mercenary adventures in Africa.

It takes some time until she finally realizes that she is a prostitute: “Back at the hotel it’s only when one of my Johns whispers in the middle of heated foreplay, ‘You’re awful soft-skinned for a whore,’ does it suddenly occur to me that I am one. Then I stand before my mirror in my room and repeat the word until I get a mental picture of Eve’s one-acre plot. And what do you know, the clothes fit like my skin.”

Only then does she begin to reclaim her experiences, and everything she has survived as portents of her being. If anything Bang For A Buck is Roman’s attempt to take back her soul and assert its sovereignty of the self, especially her body. But what insight she retains is sadly hidden, and only hinted at.

Roman’s brute form bears its greatest resemblance to Acker’s earlier fictions, Blood and Guts in High School and Don Quixote, but again while Acker was excavating each piece of dialogue for all its inherent melodrama, and vulnerability, Roman surrenders her own revelations in toothless dirty talk.

Sold in a dust jacked labeled “A True Story From the Dark Side of the Street,” Roman’s hard-boiled presence seems that much more contrived. The only thing which raises Bang For A Buck above the pulp heap of expose is her awesome descriptive powers, and her occasionally brilliant monologues, like the one about a little germ named “Orgasmo.” Though her self-professed sensationalism may hinder her creative breadth, you can’t help admiring Roman for her powerful resilience, considering all that has befallen her.