Normalizing The Obscene: Kathy Acker’s Transgression.

When we read any kind of fiction, we are meant to suspend our disbelief and enter the world that the author has created. For a time we allow the author to alter the way we think even as our own notions make intermittent appearances. For the most part, authors tend to align themselves with the morals and beliefs of the society they inhabit, making it easier for the reader to enter the world the author has created. In some cases, however, the author creates a completely new world both in representation and in morality. In Lolita, for example, the reader is stuck in the narrator’s head, forcing the reader to look at the fictional world from his moral view (albeit frequently disagreeing or questioning his views).  In Kathy Acker’s “Rape By The Father” we are put in a situation where the author does not attempt to take us out of our own world, but instead infuses the obscene with the mundane; this act normalizes the obscene forcing the reader to reconsider ideas about the appropriate, the beautiful, and the normal.

            One of the first instances of this is on the first page of the story. The narrator introduces her grandmother by beginning with the extremely mundane and working towards the jarring or obscene. The description beginning with the phrase: “she’s my father’s mother” ends with the statement that “she wasn’t going to prostitute her whole life.” The narrator flippantly presents the information as if every grandmother makes that decision at some point in her life. Acker shakes the reader out of the mundane. The reader no longer knows whose world they are occupying. Is Kathy Acker creating a new moral world where having a prostitute for a grandmother is completely normal? Or is Acker helping us morally recalibrate our world. It also has to be noted that once the narrator mentions this, she does not take time to qualify the statement or explain. The grandmother is a prostitute and the reader has to accept it and move on. This occurs again as the narrator moves into a description of a young boy named Alexander. The narrator describes Alexander: “This boy, almost as beautiful as a strand of my grandmother’s cunt hair…” The sentence occupies a weird space because it is at once jarring but in a moment that you could miss if you didn’t read carefully; in fact, the reader might be in such disbelief that they didn’t believe in what they saw. In this description Acker forces the reader to consider the obscene as beautiful. Acker does not allow the reader to question whether the grandmother’s pubic hair is beautiful. We have to accept it or remain separate from the world of the novel, a world where perhaps pubic hair is beautiful. The entire premise of the excerpt ascribes to this method of transgression. The excerpt is titled “The Rape By the Father.” The title is disturbing, and instantly jars the reader out of their world. The reader is primed for a transgressive text, but when it begins the narrator launches into a description of her grandmother (a highly maternal, benign figure). The obscene and the normal are not contrasted but flowing into one another.

These moments are transgressive because the narrator puts them alongside the overall normalcy of the story. The reader cannot separate the obscene from the normal. This normalizes the obscene, an act which in and of itself is transgressive. The reader has to consider the closeness of the mundane and the obscene as well as the beautiful and the obscene. By the end of the excerpt, I’m not nearly as struck by the obscene in the novel. I look at it as a normal part of the story. Acker succeeds in forcing me to reconsider and recalibrate.  


-Queen MAB


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