The Weird, Sexy, Touching Emails of Writer Kathy Acker
This new book collects the passionate and discursive correspondence between the postmodern feminist/queer writer and Australian media theorist Ken Wark.
For all those who have semi-jokingly suggested historians will comb our Gmail accounts for wisdom and gossip after we die, there is, as always, an app. Founded in 2010 as "the place to render your communications eternal," Memeoirs is a startup company that converts users' emails, Facebook chats, and WhatsApp messages into a "beautiful book" that will immortalize your typos (and, many would say, devalue the written word) in a few easy steps. You specify the contact(s), the time frame, and cover, and Memeoirs does the rest: puts it into chronological order, deletes redundant content like your quirky recurring signature, and even divides your messages into chapters based on—aw—the season of the year.
The upcoming publication of I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995-1996 seems like the highbrow version of the impulse that has given us Memeoirs, though the former probably has more insight and gossip than the majority of the output from the latter. A 117-page email correspondence between the experimental-slash-postmodern-slash-feminist-slash-queer American writer Kathy Acker and Australian media theorist-slash-public intellectual McKenzie (Ken) Wark, I'm Very into You is not just any book of emails, slung together for novelty or keepsake; it's a book of love emails, exchanged with several-times-daily intensity in the two weeks following Acker's brief visit to Sydney, where she and Wark had what sounds like a touching, powerful, and deeply confusing fling.
It's a weird book, also touching and confusing, and of course it feels voyeuristic, even if you ignore the sex talk, of which there is some. In his introduction, the writer/artist/critic Matias Viegener—who wrote the introduction and also appears as a friend and kind of character in Acker's emails—doubts whether it should have been published at all. "Initially very enthusiastic," Viegener says of the respected novelist he asked to write a preface, "on closer reading the novelist found the letters too personal. In declining, the novelist said it felt too much like rooting around in someone's underwear drawer."
Ultimately, obviously, Viegener goes ahead, deciding that the personal nature of the book is in keeping with the personal natures of Kathy Acker and Ken Wark. Indeed, that's part of the reason this book is so weird: Most works involving either writer are weird; their reputations precede them, both within their encounter and in this book. Acker was a real fucking punk, influenced as much by the underground sex and art scenes of New York and San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s as by critical and French theory; she rode motorcycles and was fascinated with and covered in tattoos; her novels, plays, and artwork are dedicated to the brazen depiction of topics like incest, rape, and violence, plus stuff like gender-bending and queerness and sex-positivity that no longer terrorizes us enlightened Internet people of 2015, all in a boldfaced, antiestablishment style. When Ellen G. Friedman, interviewing Acker for the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1989, asked her, "Are you a bad writer purposefully?" Acker replied, "Yes, sure—'piss, fuck, shit' scrawled over a page—sure, of course. This appalls the literary establishment." My favorite Acker quotes come from the interview she did with Mark Magill for Bomb magazine. He asks her, "Why do you feel you are qualified to give this interview?," and she replies, "I want to fuck you, Mark." A radio producer once introduced her on his program as "the most evil person in the world."
Wark was (and still is) a dynamic figure, too, but Acker, a likely candidate to follow Joan Didion and Susan Sontag as internet feminism's next pseudo-intellectual obsession, is far and away the book's headliner. I've never liked her work—actually, when I first picked up Blood and Guts in High School, her metafictional novel about a ten-year-old who has a sexual relationship with her father, becomes a prostitute, and ends up in Northern Africa in an abusive relationship with the French writer Jean Genet, I reacted with a swift "I fucking hate this." But pissing people off is a big part of the point, so I ultimately buy what she's theoretically selling; you don't have to like everything you respect.
...Except that over the course of this book, I think I did come to like her. I'm Very into You both reaffirms and undoes the popular image of Acker getting off on a motorcycle as she rides it into a drag fisting party; what emerges from her emails that's not as obvious in her work is a person, rather than a persona.
Why? Despite being sourced from the early days of the internet, when what was quintessentially email was still being defined, this book depicts an intimacy that is quintessentially email. (Acker: "MY phone just rang? Can my phone ring when I'm on this?") If I had to tell you honestly what it is I live for, it would probably be a toss-up between emails and sex, though I think what I like about both is similar: the anticipation, the unexpected joy at an unexpected response, the development of a closeness with another person as you gradually (or quickly, over the course of a couple of weeks) learn more and more about them. Viegener says, "To call [the emails] love letters would exaggerate their tenor and consequence, but there is an irresistible tug of seduction in them. Not love letters, but certainly letters of intention." This isn't Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. "Love emails" doesn't have a ring to it, but that's what they are.
These aren't your perfunctory It was great seeing you last week. Let me know when you're back in town! kinds of messages, though. They range from one line to hundreds of words and cover a wide array of subjects, from Baudrillard to gossip to Portishead to gender "slippage" to can we please clear up some mixed signals you gave me to Acker's fuck-these-games crescendo: "I do want to sleep with you again and wish we didn't have to hedge around (is that a phrase?) each other so much... I'm very into you." They're messy and often composed drunk but not totally unconsidered or uninhibited, given the amount of "hedg[ing] around" they engage in; there's room for "blabbing" about work to turn into a lengthy discussion of what the fuck sex is, exactly.
The Memeoirs promotional materials speak to this thing about email that makes it, as Viegener writes, "perhaps do best with crushes": The PR almost exclusively depicts couples. The homepage of the Memeoirs website features a video that will make all long-distance relationship graduates cringe: A sheepishly lip-biting Anaïs (yes) and lovingly warm-eyed Henry (I'm not kidding) drinking their respective hot drinks, performing their respective genders, typing away in their respective parts of the world, sad to be apart but happy to be at least cosmically together, knowing it will one day all be worth it when their wrinkled, as-in-love-as-ever hands get to hold a bound copy of the typoed sappy bullshit they emailed each other in the halcyon days of their coupledom before Henry realized Anais does actually fart sometimes.
This is not and was never going to be the fate that awaited Acker and Wark, who would make a bizarre but very entertaining pair for a promotional video—not least because at the time they were writing they had funny haircuts, multiple lovers of different genders, and Wark was 34 and Acker 48. There's also no happy ending or growing old together. Rather, the narrative that emerges is that of a fierce and intense relationship that's over as quickly as it began: The emails stop after two weeks, when Wark visits Acker in San Francisco on a brief stopover on his way to Vancouver; she sends one message six months later; and then a little less than two years after that she dies of breast cancer complications in an alternative treatment facility in Tijuana.
Wark initiated the correspondence after driving back from (presumably) dropping Acker off at the airport. He writes that he's "in a daze," alludes to a previous in-person conversation about books, and then drops a paragraph full of feelings that would surely be classified as "coming on way too strong" by all the world's emotophobes:
...The shared intimacies of the body, mind and spirit: it's such a fleeting thing, so singular. I think we're both probably pretty solitary in our own ways, but for a slice out of time we were singular together. There are no words. I just want to say there are no words. I'm glad you came; and I'm glad you came. Thinking about you sleeping on a plane with those knockout herbal sleep-bombs of yours. Bear with me. I'll have something to say for myself sometime soon. When I remember who I thought I was in the first place. Even if I've been displaced a little from wherever that I was.
This is the kind of thing we want when we click on one of Maria Popova's endless links to literary love letters from history: sappy bullshit, done poetically, and it's a bonus if there's a tragic ending. In turn, Acker, the woman who will later tell Wark she is experimenting with "how you can piss and come at the same time," receives this lovely sentiment with an excitement that is positively tender: "It's so great coming home to your message... what becomes/became present was how easy it is to be with you. Like: you the one I want/wanted to talk to."
Although Acker's novels are full of emotion, there she wields it like a weapon; here she has to claim it, and that makes her endearingly flustered. She says she's "not good at saying things emotionally"—she "just get[s] awkward"—and her email, so suited is the form to crushes, makes this very clear. Crushes are all about vulnerability—they're an embarrassment of emotion—and what most people understand Acker to be is completely counter to that. Acker's confidence in discussing Georges Bataille and scrawl[ing] "piss, fuck, shit" all over the page dissolves into insecurities that will be familiar to anyone who has slept with a person they actually like. At one point Acker confesses that she "didn't want to bug" Wark but nevertheless has some burning questions—as long as her asking them won't jeopardize their friendship, which she repeatedly notes she values and has been "working hard for":
1. The last night we slept together, why didn't you want to touch me?" (You don't have to answer this one. I've thought of all sorts of possible answers and they run the gamut from understand even cool to awful....
2. How should I have acted? Ignored you? Held you? I didn't have a clue and I was scared to do the wrong thing.
Avant-garde intellectuals—they're just like us! Acker moves on to the juicy stuff—"What do you like best sexually?", "What turns you on in women when you're in bed with one?", "How to give the best blowjobs?"—and then ends this message (after a brief explainer on Blanchot) with a self-conscious shield against rejection, also very familiar: "You'll probably hate me after all these questions anyway."
It feels petty to ascribe so much significance to a form of writing we often produce automatically, without much thought, but that's exactly why this book is so personal—emails contain the breadth of the automatic and the depth of the confidential (and they're often composed when you're vulnerable, drunk). I've not yet enjoyed a relationship in which I gave myself over to the sharing of Gmail passwords—and I don't know if that's something anyone does—but it seems like the final frontier of closeness. Until then, I guess I have a crush on Kathy Acker. I'm Very into You disrupted all my dismissive notions of her as a necessarily inflammatory radical who just wasn't my thing and made me feel like I was understanding something beyond her public persona. Unfiltered access to Acker's emails, even—or perhaps especially—this small sample, fabricates a relationship with her that's very weird, but only because it's a pretty normal thing we all go through, liking someone more as we get to know them. Of course Wark didn't hate her after all those questions. I don't see how anyone could.
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