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Kathy Acker: Blood and Guts in High School

Well, at least she did not plagiarise the title from any well-known author. Plagiarism does come into the novel, as we will see, but much of the novel is about the degradation of women. Various critics condemned this work because it is about the continual degradation of a woman and it certainly is not pretty. The story is about Janey. At the start of the novel, she is ten years old and is having an affair with her father, Johnny. The pair live in Merida, Mexico. Her mother died when she was one and regarded her father as boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement and father. (One of the many hand-drawn illustrations in the book is for this phrase and shows the bodies of two circumcised men, one with an erect penis, the other with a flaccid penis.) Johnny, however, is now interested in a woman more his own age, Sally. To get rid of Janey he sends her to school in New York. She hangs out with a wild bunch of kids called the Scorpions, has two abortions, the second one of which gives her pelvic inflammatory disease. After earning money by shop-lifting and working in an organic bakery, she is kidnapped by Mr. Linker, a Persian slave trader and taught to be a whore.

While imprisoned by Linker, she rewrites and writes about The Scarlet Letter and compares her situation to that of Hester Prynne, particularly as regards how badly women are treated if they step out of the male-imposed limits, leading to self-hatred. She also learns Persian and writes Persian poems, which are essentially phrases from a language learning book and basic phrases relating to her current life (Is there any fate? Yes, Mrs., your fate is better than Janey’s.) From Persian she moves to Propertius, whom we have already met in Great Expectations. Again, his poems are rewritten to suit her needs.

Just as she is ready to become a whore, she contracts cancer so the slave trader dumps her. On her way out she sees a passport and plane ticket to Tangier and that is where she goes. In Tangier she meets and hangs out with Jean Genet. Genet helps her get a Moroccan passport and they set off travelling together. But, in the end, Genet shows that he is a man and that his role as a woman is only for sex, and he leaves her to go and see the production of one of his plays. She dies. In conclusion, the woman is exploited and abused by men and that, of course, is the point of Acker’s tale.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Picador