The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker
Michael Du Plessis
Les Figues Press, 2012
TrenchArt Surplus Series
Reviewed by Megan Milks
Because this book’s title so perfectly describes its contents, I’ll focus mainly on describing how fun it is. The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker by Michael du Plessis delivers total delight: the book is utterly, enchantingly frivolous and plush with provocative ideas; it’s as perkily pretend as a JonBenet portrait and as exhilarating and unpindownable as anything Acker has written.
These fabricated doll memoirs perform an interrogation of the real. “We’re in fiction,” JonBenet declares halfway through, “which is the best kind of reincarnation there is” (47). Here she returns as a fetching doll child whose adventures in artifice include, in discrete chapters, a love affair with Little Lord Fauntleroy, wherein she drinks candy cocktails and listens to Japanese pop music on his gold crushed velvet couch; a visit to the Denver Art Museum, where she communicates with the Synnot Children through the painting of the same name; a dream in which she turns Goth, goes to school, and encounters Alienated Jock Nerds with toy guns; and a flashback to her bedroom on the night of her death, where the evil Blue Fairy tries to persuade her to become real.
Then there’s Kathy Acker, who haunts the text as both the teller of JonBenet’s tales, periodically intruding to drop erudite references, and a character in her own right, a doll with four costume changes (Kathy as O, Kathy as Don Quixote, Kathy as Pip, Kathy as Pussy King of the Pirates) and one “single long earring [that] quivers with eloquence” (67). In one chapter she issues an invigorating lecture called “Why Stephen King Writes Such Bad Novels”; in another, she dreams she’s a teenager named Tiffany drowning in ecstasy at her Sweet Sixteen party. At one point she becomes H.P. Lovecraft: “My god,” she gasps, looking in the mirror post-transformation, “I look like William Burroughs!” (25).
Finally we come to the author himself, who, like Acker, occasionally interferes in the narration and also appears as a character, an unnamed philosophy professor who “has sat down to write the memoirs of a doll, in a style exquisitely suitable, without condescension or bathos, and in a spirit of evident enjoyment. Why?” (ask audience members at his lecture) (32).
Oh, and these are all kind of the same character, except not. The narrative voice is structured like a matryoshka doll: Kathy Acker’s the outermost layer, tattooed and pierced and miniaturized; nestled inside her is JonBenet the adorable, blithely sparkling through Kathy Acker’s wooden skin; stuffed inside her is the solid center, a version of the author himself, largely hidden but for the rare peep through the crack in JonBenet’s middle.
This is all set in Boulder, Colorado, the pitiable object of our triple-tongued narrator’s ridicule: as Peggy Kamuf writes in her introduction, “not since Baudelaire’s Poor Belgium, perhaps, has any place on earth been so vilified or humiliated” (xii). The first sentence of the book describes Boulder as “an ugly snowglobe that someone bought in a cheap airport gift store and stuck at the foot of the Rocky Mountains” (3); the insults only get more elaborate and audacious from there. “If only I could capture the unmitigated horror of life in Boulder,” says Kathy Acker, miserably relegated to a beige-carpeted apartment, “I might be able to ward off my panic attack” (21).
The source of this unmitigated horror seems to be Boulder’s pretense to reality. Much like literary realism, Boulder, at least according to Kathy Acker, “maintains steadfastly, arrogantly, unstoppably, that it is Real” (74). In stark contrast, the doll world gleams with explicit fakeness, rejecting reality on all fronts. When JonBenet tells the tale of her death, it is death by reality—“dying to be real”—the bad death that the Synnot children warn her about (65).
The book’s allegiance to artifice supports not only the roasting of late capitalist Boulder’s snowglobe prison, but also an exploration of the artifice of love. Repeatedly, through character after character, from O from Story of O, to Lovecraft and especially through JonBenet, whose anguish at being spurned by Little Lord Fauntleroy is particularly, hilariously sharp, Du Plessis explores the betrayal experienced when love appears to become fiction. “You never really loved me! It wasn’t real, none of it!” the book screams (I’m paraphrasing). “You aren’t real!” At one point, the Blue Fairy suggests that The Memoirs are “an overblown break-up novel about Boulder that uses [JonBenet] as a metaphor” (93). This seems at least one way of interpreting the book’s sneaky refraction of ‘real’ feeling through doll characters.
Perhaps the most “overblown”—and masterfully constructed—chapter is “How I Made a Monster Out of Love,” wherein a shifty, unattributed “I” (Kathy Acker? JonBenet? A version of Du Plessis himself?) flails around in lovesick misery, comfortably nested within a series of literary characters. “Once I loved you,” this chapter begins,
But you gave me so little that I had to make you up. Once I’d made you up, you no longer existed as such. You’d become my fiction, my invention, my doll, and of course I had to break up with you. (55)
This sentiment then travels around Boulder from lifted character to lifted character. It’s spoken by Victor Frankenstein to his monster, then by Dr. Moreau to his creatures (rendered as “eerie Beanie Babies with unresponsive eyes”). It is expressed by Cathy to Heathcliff near Pearl Street Mall; by Lovecraft to his soft-toy Cthulhu; then settles back into the unidentified “I”:
Once I loved you. When I loved you, I was trapped, for you knew that if I truly loved you, you could give me nothing at all. Fiction takes the place of nothing at all, so I made you up. Made up, all there was to do was break up. A voice in my head—whose? Kathy Acker’s? JonBenet’s? O’s?—murmurs with authority: “Thus it will be forever with making love and making monsters: we invent.” (58)
Like much in the book, this quite moving, potentially maudlin material is cloaked in artifice, its melodrama both deflected and intensified through the frames of other, ridiculous characters. The Memoirs makes love kitsch.
The spectacular violence of school shootings gets similar treatment. In a chapter that strikes a complicated, dissonant tone similar to that of Todd Haynes’ film Superstar, which using Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter’s death, JonBenet dreams she is experiencing the Columbine (or a Columbine-like) massacre (the doll version, starring Alienated Jock dolls and a wounded Teddy). The use of dolls in both projects simultaneously kitschifies and defamiliarizes sensationalized stories, providing a distance that is perhaps cold, perhaps relieving, and that is perversely, dangerously funny, an effect both high camp and high uncanny. Du Plessis is careful to remind us in this chapter that we are not just in the world of dolls, but in the world of dolls dreaming: “It doesn’t hurt if you’re shot when you’re a doll inside a doll dream,” JonBenet explains, “just like it doesn’t hurt to think that you’re going to die in a dream. It’s a false ending in a fiction” (91). This is a disclaimer, sure. But it also points to the ways in which events like Columbine have set into motion some kind of parallel reality, these stories repeating again and again, solidifying into one proliferating narrative. The American school shooting is already kitsch, this chapter suggests—tasteless, unoriginal, derivative. It’s already a dream, the dream of a doll. And so is JonBenet’s murder, here re-envisioned as a struggle against reality in which reality wins.
Amidst all of this artifice, then, there is some kind of allegiance, if bitter, to the real. Little Lord Fauntleroy is presented as cold and heartless when he explains to JonBenet, “I don’t tell anyone that I love him or her. I just act in love” (44). That’s not enough, that’s never enough! But, JonBenet reminds herself, “when dolls desire the real they see each other as dead and lacking; perhaps he loves me enough not to want me to be real” (48). To be real is to be inadequate and vulnerable. When JonBenet gets stabbed in the heart by the Blue Fairy’s wand, her cry of protest is “it’s disgusting; it’s real.” Exactly. But this is fiction, and JonBenet will rise again.
Megan Milks‘ most recent chapbook, Twins, is available through Birds of Lace Press. Her first collection of short fiction is forthcoming from Emergency Press.