Fear and Loathing on Melrose Place
The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker by Jack Skelley. Semiotext(e), 136 pages. 2023.
I’m at Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick when I notice that Jack Skelley has followed me on Instagram. I’m sitting at a booth with Julia and Wex and Maria and Noel near the cucumber-infused water station, which is somehow also the part of the club that smells like vomit. We’re talking about “scene politics,” about cliques, about snubbing, about “cool-guying,” about getting dubbed. I’m telling them about this review I’ve been trying to write about Jack Skelley’s novel The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker, which is only just being released in its full form now, even though Skelley has been publishing excerpts of it since 1984. Yes, I’m telling them about Fear of Kathy Acker and how it swallows Skelley’s scene whole, panning around Los Angeles from Torrance to Venice to Chinatown to Hollywood and then back to Venice, cutting from parties to hangovers to smoke sessions to punk shows. Early in the novel, Jack—Skelley’s nearly autobiographical narrator—attends a party in the hills and stands by himself in the corner, looking over at some “Hollywood hair punks” who are “guffawing their colored spiky heads off in the next room.” Later on, at Club Lingerie in Hollywood, Jack gets turned away by “J. Jerkfuck . . . that English guy at the door with cap and glasses,” but finds a way to sneak in with the band. Constantly “lost in wild bummers,” fumbling his way through his late twenties, Jack is like some manic tour guide beamed from the alternate universe that is 1980s underground Los Angeles. With appearances from bands such as Sonic Youth, Fishbone, and Half Japanese, as well as Skelley’s own band, Lawndale, Fear of Kathy Acker often reads like the novelized version of a club guest list.
But what else is it? A sceney novel, sure, but it’s also a performance piece, a map, a chaotic screech, a collage, an archive, a daydream, a wet dream, a poem, and a blockbuster Hollywood feature studded with cameos. It’s Fear and Loathing on Melrose Place, it’s a “Life-Size Video Game Dream Cave” (to quote one of Skelley’s chapter titles). It’s also an homage of sorts. Though Kathy Acker only appears in the novel briefly, drifting “through London rain in scruffy black cowboy boots,” she is more important as an “inciter” or “permission-giver,” as Amy Gerstler aptly puts it in her introductory essay. Acker herself was famous for plundering other texts, for squatting inside them, for slicing them up with scissors and gluing them back together with blood and cum and a dash of subjectivity. In Gerstler’s introduction, Skelley calls Acker’s oeuvre “a roiling stream of genre recombinations,” one that inspired him to make his own amalgamation, his own devious adventure ride. (It makes perfect sense that Skelley’s recently released poetry collection is entitled Interstellar Theme Park).
Other ingredients and influences include: Erica Jong, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and TV shows such as Bewitched. Like Acker, who often inserted personal heroes such as Jean Genet into her fiction, Skelley includes cameos from Lydia Lunch, Billy Idol, and Gertrude Stein, as well as a particularly NSFW episode featuring William Shatner and Marie Osmond. At one point, a Godzilla-sized Amber Lynn strides over the San Gabriel Mountains to fornicate with a skyscraper. Alternate titles I developed for Fear of Kathy Acker while writing this paragraph include: William Blake at Space Mountain, SexxxyStardust Sinnerama, and F— Me Behind the Del Amo Mall.
The next day I wake up early to fly to Los Angeles where I will visit my uncles, avoid my problems, and decide whether or not to DM Skelley on Instagram. On the plane I find myself sitting behind a large Hasidic family and between two men roughly my age. Refusing to pay for the $8 Wi-Fi, I curl myself into a middle-seat-sized ball and read Fear of Kathy Acker while trying not to look at the screens surrounding me: my lefthand seatmate spends the entire flight swiping on Hinge, and my righthand seatmate watches Men in Black 2, Men in Black 3, and Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. I’m in the middle feeling jaundiced, holding Skelley’s novel like it’s contraband. I’m about halfway through the book, turned to the page with an unprintably horny sentence emblazoned in size thirty-six bold font. Jack is horny for everything, you see: for the “cuties of the universe,” for the great big strip mall that is Los Angeles, for weed, for booze, for music, for sensation itself. “Perceptions stream in at all angles,” he notes mid-bender. More often than not these perceptions have to do with what Skelley calls “a perverse celebration of pop iconography” in his introduction to Interstellar Theme Park. “I’m crying as I watch the commercials” is how Jack puts it.
I read Interstellar Theme Park before Fear of Kathy Acker, partially because it arrived in the mail first. It didn’t take me very long to get a sense of Skelley’s verve, of his linguistic and formal malleability. I imagine some contemporary readers may have a certain predisposed wariness: the fetishization of 1980s underground culture is now a cottage industry, as well as something of an arms race. Every month, some “downtown artist” of yore gets treated to a nostalgia parade; every week, someone younger attempts to take up their mantle. I have this game I’ve been playing with myself lately: every time a fellow “emerging writer” or “multidisciplinary artist” refers to their own work as “transgressive,” I make a sincere attempt to suppress suicidal ideation. As far as I’m concerned, you either have the sauce, or you don’t. You can either unhinge your jaw in snake-like fashion to devour the language of the universe, or you cannot. Skelley unhinges his jaw with the best of them, devouring slang like it’s prey. Here’s how he opens Interstellar Theme Park’s titular poem:
I want whore-ships
And I want these whore-ships to dock in orbital flesh
I want ruby-throated ornithopters sipping the nectar of dwarf stars
I want Emperor Dali on a toilet throne of dolphins
I want drones that say Yes Daddy
I want H.R. Geiger mausoleums for the 27 Club
I want quasi-suspended animation (genital arousal optional)
I want a planet of toys
I want a jihad of joys
And a gulag of Karens
Reading Jack Skelley is like driving in a Corvette up the 101 through Hollywood on fairy dust while a steady stream of lingual ephemera smacks you repeatedly in the face. Throughout Fear, Jack acts as a conduit or force field that phrases, tropes, and fantasies can pass through; despite his readily apparent alienation, he cannot help but revel in the hideousness of consumer culture. On nearly every page of Fear, America’s raunchiness comes out in spurts, as if unable to be suppressed (think of a piece of duct tape placed over a gushing geyser). As Sabrina Tarasoff puts it in her brilliant afterword, “FOKA is a cosmic system, a ride script, an entertainment architecture.” Not unlike Ulysses, it is a novel that often seems to write itself, to possess a mind of its own, despite ultimately taking place within the mind of a character.
Oftentimes, its city-wide scope gives it the feel of some grandiose theatrical production: “All over the city in phone-sales offices, sales managers are telling salesmen, ‘Sleaze It Up! . . . Sleaze it Up! . . . Sleaze it Up!” Skelley writes. Feeling dejected one evening, Jack considers going to a movie but then thinks otherwise. “The producers had figured on my six dollars before the picture was shot,” he recounts bitterly. “I saw the little red-and-white ‘Ghostbusters’ logo plastered like graffiti on all the bus benches and freeway pillars and I said to myself, ‘Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters.’” Propelled by paradox—let’s call it insatiable revulsion—Jack’s manic monologue predates and predicts the addled internet speak of our time, gesturing toward our own bewildered, meme-and-money-conscious lingua franca. Reading Fear, you often feel as if you have stumbled upon some cross between a living document and an archival one.
In Los Angeles I am much ado about everything; I am blown off course, not tapped in, unable to search for anything but phantoms. During the Lyft ride from LAX, my driver and I discuss Coachella and the current superbloom, which has been spurred on by an unprecedented series of winter storms. A full-time wildlife firefighter when the conditions call for it, he tells me that “last year was already a bad year.” “Bad,” meaning not enough fires. That night, my uncles and I dine at a trendy bistro housed inside an old fire station and joke that the iron gate looks more than a bit like the one at Auschwitz. “We have to take you to Erewhon,” they say before handing me a Maui Wowie pre-roll. But I’m going nowhere fast as I sit on their porch and exhale a cloud of buttery smoke that carries downwind toward Sunset Boulevard.
Everyone’s talking about the looming writer’s strike, and so I decide to write my way into some hyper-stylized, color-saturated Men in Black-style assignment, even though I’m hardly getting paid to write this essay. I will not DM Jack Skelley, I think to myself, despite the fact that I’ve never been one for “journalistic ethics.” Instead, I revel in my own delusion, my mind floating over the city like a star-crossed helicopter. By the time a friend of mine picks me up to drive to the observatory I am fully ensconced in a Hollywood fantasia of my own making: while applying deodorant and buttoning my shirt I feel a bit like a prom queen in a John Hughes movie, waiting patiently for some mysterious hottie to drive me toward salvation, or better yet, the mall. “I’ve never been to Griffith Park at night,” I tell her, even though I once nibbled mushrooms beneath the observation deck in the mid-afternoon. The Pacific Ocean was like a dribble of mercury leaking out of a cracked thermometer that day: it was silver, it was teal, it was shining in all directions.
In Skelley’s Los Angeles, everything, even basic reality, is warped, glinting, cartoonish, or subject to question. Fear of Kathy Acker reads like one big panning shot that somehow scrapes the entire town: “We drive over the hills from Pasadena back to L.A., zoom through those narrow Pasadena Freeway curves, tumble down past Chinatown and swing around big old Dodger Stadium; then it’s through Silver Lake and into Hollywood, and in Hollywood my heart beats faster.” Of course, it’s some “Hollywood sleaze sweetheart” who gets Jack’s heart pumping, but still, you get the point. Nothing can contain Jack’s appetite for sensation and language; he is like James Dean with a tab of acid on his tongue, looking through the observatory telescope with dilated pupils to take in a vast carpet of stars. If the mind is a theme park, then words are a rollercoaster: “Language is the tool of the visionary, the anarchist, the child, the artist, the saint, the lover and Bob Flanagan,” as Skelley puts it. Flanagan, a performance artist and poet known for his use of BDSM tropes, was a fixture of the Beyond Baroque literary center, which Skelley and many other young writers frequented, and his macabre aesthetics set a tone for this budding scene.
More concerned with “mutual thrill-seeking” (in the words of Tarasoff) than academic or institutional recognition, the Beyond Baroque cohort—which also included writers and artists such as Amy Gerstler, Michelle T. Clinton, Dennis Cooper, and Sheree Rose—seems to have pushed Skelley off the proverbial diving board, goading him on as much as Kathy Acker did. In fact, one cannot imagine anyone writing such a high-flying book without the stimulation and support of trusted-yet-reckless friends. Relatively early in the novel, when the reader is still working overtime to get their bearings, Jack drives to Torrance to pick up his guitar from his bandmate and buddy, Rick Lawndale. Finding no one home, he angrily starts back towards his car before locking eyes with none other than William Blake. “I’ve become Rick Lawndale for the month of August,” the great Romantic poet announces. “You know, Jack, you really shouldn’t get so mad at Rick when he spaces out, because Rick is a true visionary and you should love him.”
I saw a meme the other day, one that said that the word permission should be banned from literary discourse, so I won’t say that Skelley gave me permission to write this review, and I won’t say that I felt this permissiveness coursing through my veins in much the same way that Skelley must have felt after first reading Kathy Acker. Instead, I will leave you with Jack driving up the freeway from Torrance back to Los Angeles, careening through the late-afternoon haze with a smile on his face: “The words of William Blake are reverberating in my head, filling me anew with noble inspiration: to write a new song, or be generous to friends, or make a new tape for my answering machine, or finish this book.” When I land in Newark, summarily ejected from the sun-faded Eden that is Los Angeles, I open my phone and discover a direct message from Jack Skelley. I cannot help but crack a smile.