Spineless Books.



Larry McCaffery

Judge said, “What have you got in your defense, son?”
“Fifty-seven channels, and nothin’ on.”
—Bruce Springsteen, “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)”

I first heard Postmodern called Postmortem by a tattooed postfeminist mucker named Kathy Acker in my office just after the first tremors in the Pacific started making my literary sismograph go haywire. She also called deconstruction decuntstruction. I didn’t think anything of what she had done to the literary categories at the time, but later I heard commercial fiction editors and tenured critical theorists who can manage their s’s and c’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thives’ word for dictionary.

Of course, I wasn’t seeing most things clearly in those days. I was daydreamin’, hell, we all were—sleepwalkng through roles that felt comfortable enough but didn’t provide much in the way of . . . action. I like to think now that just before going on the nod back in the early 80s, Americans had somehow at least gotten it together enough to ask for a wake-up call—that way at least the wave of avant-pop iterary disruption dumped on our heads was something we welcomed, had in fact invited to happen. But frankly, my dears, the avant-pop gang don’t give a damn whether they’ve been sent a fancy invite card or not. Don’t let their kookie surface textures or sicko humor mislead you into lumping them in with all the “counter-culture whimps” you see hanging out on the street corners trying to look tough—you know the ivory tower academics, the limo Marxists, bland bore-ons and commodified “radicals” you see these days. I mean A-P guys are hardened professionals—a new breed of pop-cultural demolition artists, cultured terrorists who’ve put in their hours of training in front of the boob tube with all the regular zombies so they can know enter the enemy terrain, the pop figures who lives there, the local lingoes. They’re like the Green Beret—the Special Forces unit developed by the U.S. Army to serve in ‘Nam as counter-insurgency specialists. And as in ‘Nam, A-P exists because the kind of weapons, tactics, and know-how used by ordinary writers ain’t gonna cut it with what we’re up against today.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me set the scene of that first night by sketching in a few details and then you connect the dots. . . .

I’d been sitting in my office, keeping company with a fifth of cheap whiskey and a review copy of the latest anthology of “bold and daring” new fiction—the kind of slick-looking trade paperbacks that began showing up in bookstores back in the early 90s, after it became obvious there was now this whole audience of jaded yuppies, tenured radicals, and graduate-students-with-attitudes—people still looking for an angry fix but now willing to settle for a Madonna video or a Guns ‘N’Roses tee-shirt (both retailing for 26 bucks). I’d only agreed to review this collection of ludicrous garbage after my department chair surprised me one afternoon by reaching into her desk and pulled out a .44 mag in a solid steel caste—thereby putting a whole new twist to the phrase “publish or perish.”

So, you know the scene: me in my swivel chair with the bound galleys and sweet stains coming through my wilted shirt, the overfowing ashtray, the desk cluttered with student papers and quality literary magazines and small press publications, the muggy heat being slowly redistributed by the overhead fan, the sound of rain coming down the drainpipe mixing with the shadows and the whiskey and a kind of melancholy ache I get whenever I come across the sort of pre-packaged “dangerous writing” these days. I was only a few pages into the anthology and already fighting off the droopy eyelids and yawns when my department secretary who’d been working late that night preparing y tenure-review files stopped by my office. “Yes, sweetheart?”

“There’s a girl wants to see you.” She has a rich throaty voice that made me think of Bacall back in her 40s heyday. “Her name’s Kathy.”

“A student or a customer?”

“Hard to tell. You’ll want to see her anyway: she’s a knockout.”

“Shoo her in, daring,” I said. “Shoo her in.”

A voice said, “Thank you,” so softly that only the purest articulation made the words intelligible, and then a woman came through the doorway. It was quite an eyeful: she advanced slowly, looking directly at me with brown eyes there were both shy and probing, her steps hindered by black dominatrix-style stiletto heels retrofitted into motorcycle boots. Black rainwater spilled down over her blackleather jackets and black leather pants, leaving behind what looked like pools of blood and ink on the red linoleum floor. She was average height and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere except where dog-eared copies of paperback books and literary journals jutted out from the numerous pockets in her jacket and pants. Her body had the scupted curvers and surprising texture I associated in those days with female wrestlers—an impression that somehow didn’t match up with the copy of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish she was clutching in her right hand. The punked-out hair curling out from under her black sweat-band was a rainbow variety of red, her red full red lips reddest of all.

I rose and idicated the oaken armchair beside my desk. She sat down on the edge of her seat and began, “Dr. McCaffery,” and I got my first glimpse of that piercing smile, the gob of bronze embedded in one of her white front teeth somehow transforming her face from Vanity Fair good looks into something out of a Mappelthorpe exhibit.

“Why don’t you call me Mac?” I said, trying to put her more at ease. “Now what can I do for you?”

She caught her breath and looked at me. Then she swallowed and said hurriedly, “A friend of mine who works at Small Press Distributions over in Berkeley gave me your name and address. I didn’t know where else to turn. Could you—?—I thought—that is—have you read Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies?” With very delicate movements, she began to arrange her books and magazines on my cluttered desk. There were a lot of pockets and zippers to go through.

I smiled and nodded as if I understood, but pleasantly, as if nothing serious was involved. The Calvino reference, puzzling at first, seemed like an invite for me to devise a narrative from the stuff she had laid in front of me like tarot cards. Seeing as how she didn’t seem too eager to supply me with any of her own close textual readings, I started rummaging through the stuff for clues—checking the inscriptions and marginal comments, seeing what pages had been folded or seemed unusually worn—you know, the usual sort of lit cric detective work.

You didn’t need to be a Private E to see that it was an unsual assortment: critical studies by the usual trendy poststructuralist suspects (Barhes, Bataille, Jameson, Lacan, Baudrillard, etc.); Bill Vollmann’s Fathers and Crows (the latest installment on his septology of “Dream Novels”); Harold Jaffe’s Madonna and Other Spectacles; Stephen Wright’s Beckett-meets-the-Munsters take on the UFO phenomenon, M-31; something old by Samuel R. Delany (Babel 17) and something new (one of his post-Derridean sword-and-scorcery-and semiotics series about Neveryon); rare editions of Derek Pell’s late 70s collage masterpieces, the Docktor Bey series were stacked of top of 3-D Sade—a plastic case containing a bloodied copy of Sade’s Justine through which Pell’s alter ego, Norman Conquest, had thrust a huge nail; wild comic book stuff by some of the leading underground graphic novelists (mostly sicko surrealist stuff like Feret’s Phoenix Restaurant and John Bergin’s Bone Saw); next to a couple of Harry Polkinhorn’s journals devoted to “border writing” Atticus Review, Fiction International) she’d also lined up Native American po mo books (a couple of Gerald Vizenor’s “trickster” novels, Misha’s Red Spider, White Web); and Eurydice’s f/32, the scandalous (but American Book Award winning) bildungsroman (with Lacanian overtones) that is literarlly narrated by a cunt.

Next came two anthologies I’d edited, opened to specific selections: Rob Hardin’s poems from Storming the Reality Studio and Mark Leyner’s the opening passage from Mar Leyner’s “I was an infinitely hot and dense dot,” the lead story in the Mississippi Review’s cyberpunk issue in ’88 which helped Leyner—the most intense and in a certain sense the most significant young prose writer in America (but now buffed, and carrying high literary explosives)—gain entry into an unsuspecting commercial publishing scene without having to pass through any metal detectors. Rounding things out were manuscripts by several promising new kids on the block—a crazed Faulkner-meets-Burroughs manuscript that Doug Rice had submitted as a Ph.D. thesis somewhere back in the Midwest; a story about transsexuality by a San Francico lady-boy whose moniker was Jill St. Jacques; and a huge pile of pages about some crazy Indian living out in the California desert with hummingg birds, monkeys and rose gardens by a guy named David Matlin, whose return address was listed as some prison in upper state New York.

In short: not the sort of thing you’d expect a lady-wrestling motorcycle mama to be carrying around with her for bed-time reading.

I’d been glancing through the evidence with the kind of furious, silent contemplation that produces a satisfying turd. And sure enough, pretty soon a narrative began to emerge, something about her growing up in an extended family that rivaled the Mia Farrow brood in terms of racial, economic, and age-diversity—only these kids were all innovative writers whose parents were 60s postmodernists—troublemaking radicals who’d dropped outta sight in the mid-70s once the Gulf and Western accountants who pulled the chains of all the commercial pubishers discovered what kind of medicine these outlaws had been mixing up down in their basement.

Her childhood must have been pretty odd—George Sand, Monique Wittig and Burroughs for bedtime reading, Patti Smith and Stein as pin-up girls for the walls, thinking Rambo was some punked-out French poet. By the late 80s, the kids signed a pact in blood to carry out a kamikaze Mission Impossible/Dirty Dozen assignment: relying on their parents’ yellowed maps (passed on for over a hundred years by generations of the avant-garde clan) and state-of-the-art literary weapons originally hand-made for ‘em by Billy Burroughs back in the first postmodernist counter-Insurgency uprising of the 60s (brutally suppressed during the 70s), the A-P family’s attack plan relied on the use of concentrated bits of aesthetic disruption to blast through the coccon of habituation imprisoning most Americans (a cocoon mostly composed of dangerously addictive pop cultural stereotypes, cliched attitudes, reductive role models, and narrative formulas that the media was passing out to people just like the Brits did with opium to the Chinese). Once gaining entrance, the A-P gang hoped to rescue the badly malnourished creative imaginations, and lead everybody the fuck out of the banal prisons they’d grown so comfortable curled up inside of.

All these was obvious enough. Only one thing seemed to be missing: where was Kathy Acker, the tough, street-wise dame who was the obvious choice to play the role of heroine in this tale of guerilla resistance against the logic of late capitalism’s media industry? Across my desk, my client had decided to give me something new to chew on by taking off her leather jacket and giving me a muscuar demonstration of how tattoos could be seen as a self-empowering sign system that she was perfectly in control of.

Come to think of it, had my secretary mentioned if this damsel in distress spelled her name with a “C” or a “K”?

“Suppose you tell me about it, from the beginning, and then we’ll know what needs doing. Better begin as far back as you can.”

“That was New York.”

“Yes . . . “

Once she got started, her story spilled out of her in the kind of non-linear stream of disconnected phrases, references to people and events, bits of dialogue and literary allusions that you used to find in Barthelme or Burroughs back in the 60s. Or Acker in the 90s.

“. . . serious literary journals didn’t pay anything and no creative writing program was ever going to hire somebody like mommy or daddy anyway . . . scolded for appropriating Shakespeare in my second-grade writing contest but I couold tell daddy was proud . . . ‘you can’t just do the blank page when you’re 12—it took Bekett 70 fuckin’ YEARS to get to the blank page!!!!’ . . .pretty weird having this goddess from Crete as a step-sister but it turned out she was also interested in reclaiming the word ‘cunt’ . . . should’ve realized it was a set-up—no way a commercial house is going to put up that kind of dough for an anthology of our work . . . got to the reception late, but as soon as I got there, I cold tell something was terribly . . . locked from the inside but nobody . . . no word for a week . . .the run-around from the academic specialists assigned to the case . . . the way he said ‘cyberpunk’ like it was unclean made me want to shove that pipe up his ass . . . ‘Look, lady, you’d be better off hanging out at the gym with your friends that worrying your pretty little head with’ . . . guy’s voice leaking down the hall in the morgue saying, ‘You didn’t hear? Lady, I hate to be the one to tell ya this, but the avant-garde is dead!’ . . . ‘what’s a nice writer like you doing in a science-fiction bookstore, anyways!?’ . . . smug librarian in the inter-library loan laughed at me . . . ‘Graphic novels?’ he said, wiping his greasy chin and leering, ‘don't you mean comic books?’ . . . Mac, you’re the last chance I have to find my family.”

This had gone on for a while like one of those late Ceine novels when I finally cut her off. She was one fast and loose dame, alright—the scary kind who makes some guys want to go fishing. Me, I just poured myself another tumbler of cheap bourbon and started rolling a fag with the same deliberate care I used in the library tracking down some renegade footnote, sifting a measured quality of tan flakes down into the curved paper, speading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depresssion in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edges as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while my tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to my mouth, all the while thinking how I’d have to be crazy or bored or desperate to work on this case. But by the time I had picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor and drawn a deep hot drag from my fag, my mouth had decided to say, “Okay, I’ll take the case. But, look, let’s lay some ground rules here.

“Look, I don’t know who it was up in Berkeley who mighta been whsipering the kind of sweet nothings in your ear that would bring you over here to the lunatic fringe part of the literary neighbhorhood, but now that you’re here, there’s a few things you should know straight off. One: with kind of bread the state pays me for being an English professor, the moonlighting I do as a Private Editor has got to bring in enough dough to keep me stocked in books and literary magazines—with maybe a little left over for airfare to a few conventions. The bottom line: I don’t come cheap. I get 10 bucks a day, plus expenses, and unlimited xerox and mailing privileges, a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, and no committee work!! Two: no dice to any deal that takes me outside my own literary neighborhood. Now maybe this neighborhood is inhabited mostly by odd balls, kooks—guys and gals who used to live in the underground until they got evicted back during the 80s, when all the federal grants and support for the arts started drying up. Most of ‘em are criminals who don’t think twice about what literary convention they have to bump off if they can see an aesthetic advantage in it. It’s a fucking jungle out there alright; you step outside your turf, chances are good you’ll get mugged by some tight-assed reviewer in a leather jacket who’s out to look cute.

“What I’m saying is: are you sure you want my kind of Privarte E instead of one of those commercial editors who wears suits and takes you out for sushi? I specialize in the true weirdos, throwbacks I call em, writers who are there on the wire with no safety net because they like the danger and feel that playing it safe, aesthetically or in subject matter, ain’t good for them or their audiences.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong—I’ve been living out here in the darkness on the edge of the postmodern town so long that loneliness and weirdness feels like home by now. Hell, offer me a place with a linear plot line, a strong overall sense of character development, and an epiphanic conclusion that draws everything together and produces a pleasing sense of closure, and my instincts are to light out for the territories. I’ve done enough time working for obscure literary magazines to know what part of the river to check for underground writers, who’s most likely to have turned their backs on their pals to go mainstream—before they turn up wearing a pair of concrete galoshes! I can tell you which jazz joints the old-timers like Coover, Pynchon, Federman and Sukenick are likely to be hanging out at in, and which rave locations the younger kids like Cruz, Leyner, Eurydice, and Vollmann like to get all talkative and ecstatic at.

‘Let me put it for you country simple: I’m no good hustlling the big money books or the specialty come-on’s in flashy covers. But if you got a problem that requires an off-beat, twisted sensibility, somebody who knows where the real innovative action is going down these days, well, maybe you came to the right place after all.

I was going pretty good, and I could see from the expression in her eyes that my overture had jumped-started her rhythm section, so that she was now ready to pull me out onto a dark dance floor. I stabbed out my fag.

“Let’s see if I catch your drift. You’ve risked coming over here because you’ve got some missing literary relatives and you’re desperate enough to try anything—even some guy whose last review started out, ”Larry McCaffery is either an idiot or a lunatic, and someone should stop him”—right? You keep running into dead ends with the big-name editors, creative writing profs, and contemporary fiction specialists. Nobody’s even heard of any writers matching your descriptions, right? It’s like they fell off the earth, right? So now you’ve showed up in my office because every respectable editor is sick of your pestering and then somebody told you that if all else fails, there’s this guy down in the boondocks who specializes in missing writers cases.”

A light in Kathy’s eyes pulled me in and I headed straight for the roadblocks and the signs marked DANGER! DO NOT ENTER! She rose and for several long moments we stood there silently. I honestly didn’t know at that moment if I wanted to take her in my arms and comfort her—or catch her off guard with one of those straight right hand leads that Ali surprised Norton with in the second fight. It must have been while I was contemplating my options that she made her move . . .

I don’t recall much about the next few seconds. The next thing I knew, everything was topsy-turvy: Kathy now sitting behind my desk, browsing through my address book and secret editorial computer files. Me sitting in her chair, a little embarrassed, a little afraid, my wrists clasped behind me already aching from the cuffs she’d somehow slipped on while I was making my exit lines. Once we started the next round of dialogue, though, things started started getting really screwy.

“Look, Mac,” Acker was saying, all traces of weakness confusion and everything else else gone from her voice so her voice kept disappearing, “don’t you think that this sexism thing has gone far enough? Under the sign of racism, everyone who has any color skin is a victim⁄I am talking about you and me.” She started to masturbate because basically, she liked being alone. “Likewise, under the sign of sexism, men, women and everyone else are fucked.

“Do away with the whole thing.

“I mean,” she whimpered, backtracking, retracking, trying to remember what she had just said, if she meant anything because her pussy was starting to smell, “well, I mean something. I mean that I’ve got a pussy and pussies are forever. But a pussy is a pussy is a pussy. It’s not dominatrix or submissive, a tyrant or a victim. Get off it, buddy: I am not interested in whipping anyone. I can’t even tell myself what to do and why should I want to, when I smell so good.” Then she became lost trying to hide her nostrils in her pussy.

But this cunt couldn’t even manage to succeed at anything. Even masturbation. “Listen,” she murmured, having failed, “if there are any rules, even literary ones, they aren’t mine. Or yours. So they must be the rules of chaos, chance, the body. Throw the rest out, it’s made up anyway. Have you heard the new Sinead O’Conner?

“And as far as rules go, all there is is missing evidence: Pirates, smells, and foreignness. Everyone is always missing.”

The idiot in female clothes named Acker was now making mewling noises. “So when are you gong to play with me and make me giggle. I love being happy.”

As you can imagine, my reaction to this was pretty mixed. Two counterpunctal voices struggled for control of my inner libretto. The hoarse rain-and-butt stained growl (c. Tom Waits, Heart Attack and Vine) I used as a lit crit and Private E was saying things like, “Ignore this dame! She’s as flaky as a soil sample from the Mojave. Or maybe she slipped some Maui Wowie into that last fag you was smoking. She’s trying to undermine the source of your authority as classical dick/lit crit; where most people see chaos and mystery, you read the clues of realty/fiction and demonstrate that chaos is an ilusion, that order always can be restored via the process of rational analysis and empirical observation.”

Meanwhile, the postmodernist side of me was spewing forth a deirious babel that sounded like an outtake from Diamonda Galas’s Wild Women with Steak Knives, a shrieking verbal goo that seemed to say, “This broad with her nose up her pussy is reinforcing Nietzche’s dictum (at the conclusion of Ecce Home): ‘My genius is in my nostrils.’ The entropy and chaos coursing through your dick and her pussy are the underlying principles of the universe, not rationality. Reason is an outdated, phallocentric system of anal-compulsive delusion devised by men so they don’t have to contemplate how much they’ll stink after they’re dead. Besides, as Brian McHale notes in his influential study Postmodern Fiction, detective fiction is a modernist mode inappropriate in the age of quantum mechanics and chaos theory, Heisenberg, relativity, and Kurt Godel. She’s right, Mac—‘Give it up!’

In the end, well, the struggle was no contest. I cranked up the amps on the postmodern signal as high as Pete Townsend used to do before he started going deaf, thereby drowning out all traces of rationality, coherent narrative trajectory, and stable identity. Soon my cuffs were off and Kathy and I found ourselves gloriously freed from all those staid rules about who sat where, who had a dick and who had a cunt, who had the power and who had to kneel down, who thrusts, who heaves. Things started feeling a lot more comfortable right away. The first thing I did was shit-can my half-full bottle of cheap hootch and pull out a bottle of Remi Martin Louie XIII that I’ve been saving for just such a moment; then I reached up, turned off the overhead fan, and found myself able to say what I’d wanted to for so long: “It’s too goddam hot in here! I’m tired of these embarrassing sweat stains! Let’s turn on the air-conditioner!”

Kathy was in perfect sync with what was in the air as she reached down and announced, “And I finally get to slip off these uncomfortable motorcycle boots and put on my slippers!”

It didn’t take me long to get the hang of activities my two-dimensional role as a romantic-tough-guy-loner had never given me the opportunity to perform. While my left hand reached into my lap and began masturbating with slow, steady, and wondrously pleasurable strokes, my right hand reached for my lap-top and began typing up the opening lines to this introduction; meanwhile I was dictating an avant-poop pomo porn memo to my department secretary, who looked surprised only for the few moments it took for her to appreciate the situation and get into spirit of things by donning Kathy’s black leather jacket and vigorously plunging the strap-on she’d triumphantly released from its captivity behind my dusty copy of The Fairy Queen and thrusting it into whatever orifices were most readily available (and there were plenty of options). Neither she nor Kathy seemed particularly embarrassed by the profusion of poppycock—poopy pop-porn and purple-pickled pecker juice—pouring from my various orifices.

Did I feel a sense of remorse that the detective novel premise I had labored so mightily to ease off its launching pad was now veering crazily off its original course? Hell, NO! The truth is that the white light and white heat of those early Mercury rocket blowing apart a few seconds after blast-off had always seemed more interesting to me (and a lot more satisfying from a personal standpoint) than watching any of the later “successful” Apollo launchings. As far as I was concerned, those out-dated aspects of old-fashioned realism could just go fuck themselves!

But what about my obligations to help Kathy locate her loony literary relatives? After all, in a universe governed (if governed at all) only by Gnostic demi-urges and the second law of thermodynanics, didn’t a man have to keep his word once he’d agreed to enter into a game whose rules, even if they were arbitary, were the ony thing preventing a complete abandonment to the dark diceman? But nix on that! All bets were off if you discovered the game had been rigged in ways nobody’d tipped you off to when you put everything out there only lucky 7!!

Luckily, though, the sense that this existential dilemma had pushed me precariously close to the edge of an abyss which offered no option but to hurl onesself off in a defiant leap of faith was greatly diminished by the comforting sound of my Apple NTX2 Lazer Printer rhythmically printing out hard copy of all the relevant information contained in my File-Maker Prof “Avant-Pop” files. This meant that Kathy would soon not only have each family member’s home, business address, along with their fax and phone numbers and birthdays, but also, via a simple cross-reference system available on the new 5.2 software, their e-mail addresses, their MLA Directory Listings, condom sizes, and an alphatetical arranged listing of all the porn movies they’d rented during the previus 18 months at Blockbuster Video.

“Isn’t that finally avant-poop’s principle point?” I said to Kathy somewhere later as she and my department secretary were about to head out into the rain onto highway 61 on Kathy’s Yamaha 750? “You introduce the conventions so you can FUCK with them, show everybody there’s other options, you find openings in the system that will let the wind blow back your hair, cause the night’s bustin’ open and these two lanes can take you anywhere?” I could barely make myself heard over the engine noise.

“One last thing,” I shouted as they edged out onto Thunder Road, “what password should be use to refer to your family’s covert literary operation? ‘New Wave’?”

“Already anachronistic—and a cliché to boot.” They were already almost out of ear shot and the rain was making it difficult to see clearly.

“And people would associate you you guys the 60s,” chimed in my department secretary.

“How about ‘Next Wave, then?” I offered.

“Even worse,” said Kathy. “It’s already been used as the come-on for those awful Vintage or Viking contemporary series.”

I began to jog after them, pleased with my foresight of buying a pair of John-Lennon inspired Nike tennis shoes, but depressed at the way our story was ending. “I guess have to shit-can the whole ‘wave’ metaphor. Too bad. I liked that motif of a force jolted suddenly into existence by powerful subterranean forces indetectable to radar or satelite surveillance, then gathering strength from collective action, waiting unitl just the right moment before it zooms in from the horizon and BOOM!!! Soon nothing around but clean beaches and Deboarah Kerr makng out with Burt Lancaster as the foam swirls around them.” I was losing ground when Kathy turned towards me for the last time and spoke.

“Tsunami!” The word was almost lost in the roar. Then the blackness of the two night riders merged with the other blackness.

I stood there for a moment repeating Kathy’s mysterious term, mantralike, to see how it sounded: “Tsunami . . . tsunami . . . tsunami.” Yes, the force was with me. After a while, I started ambling back to my office, whistling “Singing in the Rain.”


Spineless Books.

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