Empire of the Senseless
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2020 Reading List. Last time I began another journey with more contemporary female authors, starting with a multiple-award winner. Now I’m taking a step into a dystopian universe with a feminist author I had read about for years, but could not find this particular book until last year: Kathy Acker’s 1988 science fictional tour-de-force Empire of the Senseless.
To be honest this book was so wild, weird, offensive, stunning and amazing I almost don’t know how to review it. Acker’s deft use of language was of a type I had never encountered. On the face of the narrative exist two different characters ruminating and conversing about this post-apocalyptic world. One of them wants to be a pirate, the other is a Black woman who happens to also be part robot. But this work is so much more, and I was struck over and over again by the themes Acker uses that apply to our exact moment: police brutality, violence against women, familial sexual dynamics, economic ruin, colonialism, marginalization, etc, etc. This novel, more than almost any other I’ve read from the Eighties, shows what a horrible place the Reagan era was for so many people.
I will add that if you are offended by topics like incest and racism this book will make you unable to look away from them, and the language is also quite brutal at times. Again this is overshadowed by Acker’s towering use of language and word repetition, notably how she works in styles by authors like Burroughs, Twain, and Gibson. The prose borders on Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness, but the topics being spoken on are so varied and important that it is a joy to be along for the ride. Acker was truly one of the greatest feminist authors. I’m so glad I got to sit with this one, and would recommend this challenging read for those who wish to engage on these thorny issues. (If you’d like more insight from a better writer than me, check out Alexandra Kleeman’s 2018 essay in Paris Review.)
I am still getting through more contemporary female authors: up next will be Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia! Thanks as always for reading, and stay safe in our very real dystopia.
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John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.