Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

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Kathy Acker’s book is a lot of things at once: a nightmarish, surreal collage/novel/text/drama complete with drawings and doodles; the life story of a bodily and emotionally damaged, brutally exploited girl, told sometimes in the first and sometimes in the third person; a whole lot of social criticism and analysis, mostly from the perspective of power and who has it; and connected to this last one: an exploration of all the (possible) ways a woman can be vulnerable (with abundant, extremely graphic details).

The story is very fragmented, but mainly it’s about ten-year-old Janey, who lives in an incestuous relationship with her father until he chases her away from home. Janey then goes to New York, where later on he gets imprisoned by a Persian pimp who turns her into a whore. Finally Janey somehow ends up in Morocco, and she dies not long after.

The story is, by the way, strangely impersonal – I can hardly find a word for this quality. Janey, for a long time, hardly even possesses a sense of self or an identity of her own, because her identity has always been defined by her relations with men, and she has mostly come into contact with men who were eager to tell her that – being a woman – she’s even lower on the hierarchy of beings than animals.

There is, however, a kind of development in the novel – as time passes, Janey slowly awakes to herself and she wants to get out, wants to get away from – from men, from capitalism, from mechanical sex – but she doesn’t stand a real chance, and she cannot be (is not allowed to be) other than what she is: a totally dependent and vulnerable girl/woman who is forever denied even her most basic needs (food, shelter, love), a woman who channels all her desires and needs into sex because that’s the only thing she’s known from time immemorial and the only things she’s always been given – but only until the men in her life realize that Janey uses sex to express and experience all her emotions. As soon as Janey’s elemental need for love surfaces (and this doesn’t take long, usually – she’s unable to control her emotions), men even deny her the relief of sex.

The text – like Janey’s life – is often full of vulgarity, there’s a whole lot of cocks and cunts here, Janey’s mind is constantly filled with erect penises and violent sex, but I think the reason for all this is that Janey only has words for this. It’s not detailed, but it’s very probable from the text that Janey’s been a victim of sexual abuse from a very early age. What we learn is that her mother died when Janey was one year old, and from then onward she depended on her father for everything and used his father to fill all the roles – friend, boyfriend, brother, sister, father – in her life.

Throughout the story, by the way, Janey learns a language, too – a different one from the language of sex – this is also a part of her development, her increasing self-awareness – and the most unsettling part of the novel for me is when she writes/translates poems for the Persian pimp with whom she falls in love, for lack of a better option. Her poems are filled with rage, pain, desire and destructive love – they are devastating and beautiful.

And as regards the whole book: it’s unbearably real, brutal, upsetting, and extremely sad – reading this was a similar experience as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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I had a secret dream when I started reading this novel. I was hoping that perhaps it’s going to be as good as Macrae Burnet’s other novel, His Bloody Project, which was one of my favorites last year – I was starving for something to really blow my mind because I haven’t read anything like that yet this year.

And there’s no sad and dramatic turn coming here, because this novel did manage to blow my mind, and I dearly hope that Macrae Burnet will write many more novels, because I could read any number of books by someone who can write in such an intelligent and darkly funny way, and who knows the possible ways humans work this well and can write about these ways with such sensitivity, precision, and effect.

So, as for the novel – like His Bloody Project, this novel also seems to be a simple (not really) mystery novel, set somewhere in the countryside, far from the noise of the world, in a secluded environment.

The protagonist, Manfred, is an eternally awkward outsider, he suffers from all kinds of repressions and he’s completely at loss when it comes to any kind of casual (or other) human interaction. Manfred is following a routine in every moment of his life, and he’s convinced that the slightest diversion from the routine would immediately be noticed by everyone and would throw the shadow of some dark suspicion on him. It’s not as if anyone suspected him of anything originally, and it’s not as if Manfred (who is, by the way, a well-groomed and respected office worker, but not of the Patrick Bateman but rather, the Meursault kind) was doing anything wrong – still, he struggles with an eternal sense of guilt, and he’s forever waiting for the moment when someone – anyone – will accuse him of something – anything.

The moment of a sort-of accusation arrives when Adèle, the waitress of a bistro frequented by Manfred, disappears without a trace, and the detective investigating the case interviews Manfred. The detective’s only doing his job, and he doesn’t really accuse Manfred of anything. Yet, for a reason that only becomes clear(er) later on, Manfred lies to the investigator, and from this moment on, his paranoia goes into full swing – after all, he’s really kind-of guilty now, and he’s really kind-of pursued by someone now.

Later on, though, Adèle’s disappearance becomes more like an excuse than a main plot driver because Macrae Burnet is, again, less concerned with the investigation as such, and more deeply interested in what goes on in the characters’ mind. Slowly, therefore, we learn some details that can (partly) explain where Manfred’s awkwardness, alienation, paranoia and eternal distrust stem from – but Macrae Burnet is an extremely smart writer, and he doesn’t make the mistake of using some cheap pop-psychology to establish direct connections between Manfred’s youthful traumas and his behavior as an adult. And this is immensely enjoyable – that the author leaves questions open, that he dares to fill his text with delicate ambiguity and multiple possible meanings.

Moreover, his writing is amazingly alive and visceral. Even though he uses a third person narrative, he manages to give the illusion of being inside Manfred’s mind – which is deeply disturbing, because Manfred’s inner monologues, doubts, fears, and conspiracy theories follow a very strict and rational logic, and they are so convincing that after a while I also start developing my own conspiracy theories, and start to entertain weird fears about what my colleagues would say behind my back if the next day I went to the kitchen for my morning tea not at 8:10 a.m., but, say, at 8:13, thereby disrupting a well-oiled routine.

As you can guess, this novel is not action-driven – the plot hinges on the characters, and the most important one is, of course, Manfred. But all the other characters are sharply drawn, too, and it’s a relief that the focus sometimes shifts to them – if I had to see everything through Manfred’s eyes only, I would end up being even more paranoid than I am now.

The most interesting character besides Manfred is the detective working on the case – he’s also an eternal outsider, forever worrying about what others might think, forever battling with a bad case of impostor syndrome. Like Manfred, he also tends to envision apocalyptic scenarios in his mind, and he’s also a gently ironic example of the mystery novel convention that the detective must intuitively enter the mind of the possibly culprits or suspects. In this case, the detective isn’t exactly intuitive, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy, either – it’s only that the way his mind is messed up is very similar to Manfred’s own messed-upness.

And I could go on still, and describe how Macrae Burnet again creates intriguing extra possibilities of interpretation by pretending that the novel was written not by him but by someone else. This time he pretends that he translated the cult novel of a French author, Brunet, into English – and this Brunet just happens to be a lot like Manfred, and also happens not to like it when someone assumes that his novel is autobiographical. What can I say – it’s very exciting, dark, disturbing, and weirdly funny. For me, a perfect read.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

winternightBefore getting down to any details about this novel, I just want to say quickly that this a magnificent and enchanting work of fiction. Or metafiction – as you wish. And indeed you can make your choice, because as it happens, you are the protagonist of the book.

As you might have noticed if you had read a couple of my reviews that I have no problem with metafiction or any kind of meta-stuff in general; I even like that sort of meta-literature which excludes the reader from itself, and which is mostly about the writer who would like to experiment with forms, points of views, narrative techniques or anything else, without thinking about the consequences. I love to read other people’s experiments, and I love to see how someone fools around and plays with ideas or styles just for the hell of it.

But Italo Calvino is way more polite (or way more cunning) than this. He doesn’t exclude me from his fiction – on the contrary, he makes me the protagonist: an adventurer, an explorer, a detective, and a young lover, and he tells me: “this is you”. And because I happen to be a sucker for books which tell me that they are about “me”, I immediately fall for this novel. (Even when I’m re-reading it for the third time. And I’m pretty sure I will fall for it again the next time I re-read it.)

It would be good to know what’s so very-very appealing and tempting about a novel which starts by saying that I’m just starting to read it, and then offers me some advice about the best position in which I might read it, and tells me that I should take care of my bodily needs before really getting involved in it, and then goes on to elaborate on the feelings I experience while I’m reading the first couple of pages.

Really – what’s so stunning about this? Perhaps I really love to read about myself, and I really like to be the main character. (On the other hand – who doesn’t?) Or perhaps the novel amazes me because it implies that someone’s paying attention to me and knows me inside out. Or maybe it’s fascinating because it gives me the illusion I used to know well when I was a more naive reader, but I don’t experience too often nowadays (even though I’m always looking for it): the illusion that I’m within the story; that “I” am “you”, and “I” am “me” at the same time; that I’m inside and outside at the same moment – I’m paying attention to the story, and I’m observing myself as I’m paying attention to the story. Or maybe it’s so enticing because it promises that it will tell me why and how I read, and what’s so good about reading.

I said in the beginning that Calvino is a polite writer, and that his metafiction is not in love with itself but always makes sure to include me. But in fact, this is not politeness – this is trickiness of the highest order. I know he will fool me, yet, I let myself be fooled. And I know he knows that I know that I’m being fooled. And I know that I’m alone while reading, but I let him persuade me that in fact I’m not alone.

So, yes, I know he’s not only playing with his text. He’s playing with me as well. But I don’t mind – I just hugely enjoy it. And anyway, if we “must” be postmodern-smart-playful, then I think the best, most entertaining and most uplifting way to do it is to do it together – the writer and the reader.