Friday, April 1, 2016

Empire of the Senseless

Kathy Acker
Completed 3/23/2016, reviewed 3/24/2016
2 stars

I never had a class in postmodern literature, so my ability to understand it has been hit or miss.  “Empire of the Senseless” is a miss.  It’s sort of a novel about a post-apocalyptic Paris narrated by Thivai and Abhor, a pirate and a half- robot.  But it isn’t really a novel.  It’s a dark, transgressive, deconstructed look at society told in something akin to stream of consciousness narration, made to shock rather than entertain.  It’s a very hard book to read.  I found myself trying to simply take in the words and sentences as images and not worry myself with the nearly non-existent plot.  In the end, I didn’t get it.

Kathy Acker was big in the underground art scene of New York in the 60s and 70s.  She was a playwright, novelist, essayist, and punk poet.  Some of her works are semi-autobiographical, drawing on experiences ranging from the suicide of her mother to a brief stint as a stripper.  She taught classes at universities and she is taught in post-modernism English classes.  Her point is to traumatize the reader into thinking about society, politics, money, language, and sexuality.  In reading the reviews of this book, I find that what some people hate about the book is what others find brilliant. 

The plot of course is thin.  Thivai and Abhor narrate the book.  They are sometimes lovers, sometimes not, who traverse Paris after it is overthrown by a revolution by Algerians.  The story is told with lots of references to sex, death, suicide, and scatology.  It had the most impact for me when the characters tell the stories of their dysfunctional childhoods.  The language is bizarre, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s hyperbole.  The style ranges from non-sequitor to alliteration.  And there’s a lot of profanity.  Again, the point is to not make for a pleasant read, but to force the reader to think about life from different perspectives. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the experience to be as profound as it’s supposed to be.  As a wordsmith, I thought Acker was quite lacking.  At times I thought that this is the kind of book John Waters could have written if he tried to be serious and wanted to emulate Jean Genet.  Most of the time, I thought that Waters was the better literary wizard. 

I know that there are many people who would disagree with me, as is evidenced by the glowing reviews that are out there.  There are also many people who would say I went too light in my review.  But I can appreciate the author’s intent.  That’s the one part of post-modernism I do understand.  What I don’t get is the execution.  I have yet to read Burroughs, Genet, and “Ulysses” so I don’t have anything to compare (though I have seen a Genet play that I sort of got).   

I give this book two stars out of five.  I only recommend it for people who want a literary experience or were English majors, and aren’t easily shocked.  I’m glad I read it, mostly because it took me out of my reading comfort zone.  But I still feel John Waters is my preferred master of shock.

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