Reflection: Great Expectations by Kathy Acker

I feel like I come across authors at just the right time in my life. In my early 20s, as a young and terrified queer woman, it was Jeanette Winterson. She was gifted to me on my twenty first birthday by a schoolfriend. Ten years later (and late to the party), it was Angela Carter. She was a writer whose urgency leaked through the page and into me. Most recently, it has been Kathy Acker. Her rage, her despair, her passion, resonates with me right now. I don’t know if it’s because she seems a long past oracle of the current zeitgeist; her depictions of toxic masculinity, written during the early 80s could have been written last week. She is a Casssandra. Her Great Expectations, made me work as much as Dickens’ rambling tome did. But where Dickens’ skill is in setting scene, hers in in unpacking a character.

In truth, I think that Acker is playing less with Great Expectations than she is with Orlando. Like Woolf’s hero, Acker’s narrator is unreliable and ambiguous. Like so many other writers (particularly those who are women) she plays with the question of focalisation, pushing readers to remember that the narrator is a character, not the author herself. The story jumps literary styles, prose, to poem, to script. It jumps times and locations, it circles back on itself. Anxieties and neuroses reappear as the narrator tries to resolve their sense of self, a sense of self that is a product of post-modernity, that has no centre with which to locate itself. Life writing is, if anything, a search for that centre and Acker cannot be the centre for that dislocated focalisor. The story moves between worlds, the only continual theme being the ways in which men betray and hurt women. Men enact these violences in a number of ways: the are economic, they are sexual, they are systemic and they are internalised. The book made me think about the ways in which I search for approval, the expectations I have of others as well as of myself. Great Expectations is a slow read. It bears reading, and re reading while the reader tries to trace the peripheries of this Pirrip. What grows from this pip will change with every reading.

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