Blood and Guts in High School is a novel by Kathy Acker. It was written in the late 1970s and copyrighted in 1978. It traveled a complex and circuitous route to publication in 1984. It remains Acker's most popular and best-selling book. The novel is also considered a metafictional text, which is aware of its status as a fictional piece. The novel is interested in exploring politics, history, theories, and writing.
Blood and Guts in High School is the story of Janey Smith, a ten-year-old American girl living in Mérida, Mexico, who departs to the U.S.A. to live on her own. She has an incestuous sexual relationship with her father, whom she treats as “boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father." They live together in Mexico until another woman begins to interest Janey’s father. Janey realizes he hates her because she limits him and he wants to have his own life. Her father agrees to let her go and puts her into a school in New York City.
For a period of time her father sends her money, but later she begins to work at a bakery and is appalled by the customers. She has many sexual partners. She ends up pregnant twice and has two abortions. She seems to be addicted to sex and does not care whom she sleeps with. In New York City she joins a gang, the Scorpions. One day the gang crashes a car while running from the police and Janey is the only one who survives. Afterwards she begins to live in the New York slums. Two thieves break into her apartment, kidnap her, and sell her into prostitution.
She becomes the property of a Persian slave trader who keeps her locked up, trying to turn her out as a prostitute. We see Janey’s dreams and visions, and read her journal entries and poems. Shortly before the kidnapper is to release her to become a prostitute for him, she discovers she has cancer.
The slave trader lets her go and she illegally goes to Tangiers. There she meets Jean Genet, the talented, iconic French writer, and they develop a relationship. Janey and Genet travel through North Africa and stop in Alexandria. Genet treats Janey badly, but the worse he treats her the more she loves him. He decides to leave her. Janey gets arrested for stealing Genet’s property. Shortly afterwards he joins her in prison. A rebellion breaks out and they are both thrown out of Alexandria. They travel together for some time. Then Genet gives Janey some money and leaves. Soon after they part company, Janey dies.
In Blood and Guts in High School, Acker uses the technique of collage. She inserts letters, poems, drama scenes, dream visions and drawings. This creates a challenging text with a disturbed linearity. Acker freely admitted to using plagiarism in her work.
The novel is considered an anti-narrative work since it jumps in and out of narration and contains different narrators. At times, it’s hard to follow the narration of the story, since readers are interrupted with pornographic drawings, letters, and dream maps. “Acker’s novel incorporates at least three main threads of poststructuralist discourse into Janey’s narrative. The first is an exploration biopower; the second is a reading of the oedipal family as pathology; and the third is an analysis of the gender politics of language” (Muth 90).
“Acker’s work bounces from genre to genre, from location to location, from voice to voice, like a child who wants to experience and express everything” (Hughes 127).
...while writing it, I never considered that Blood and Guts in High School is especially anti-male, but people have been very upset about it on that ground. When I wrote it I think it was in my mind to do a traditional narrative. I thought it was kind of sweet at the time, but of course it's not.
Like her heroine, Janey, Acker also died of breast cancer, twenty years after writing Blood and Guts. Many of Acker's heroines have or fear getting cancer.
Out of all of Acker’s books, Blood and Guts in High School has received the widest criticisms and reviews. Many writers have tried analyzing Blood and Guts to understand exactly what Acker was trying to accomplish. Katie R. Muth in her article described Blood and Guts as a novel that draws arguments from gender studies, global capitalism, and theories of subject formation (89).
Susan E. Hawkins describes Blood and Guts as a text that contains plagiarism, parody, pastiche, and other antirealist techniques that mark her work as postmodern (Hawkins 637). According to Hawkins, Acker is motivated by two discourses: the oedipal and the imperial (642). Using the mechanism of sexual and economic oppression, Acker is able to actualize the taboo surrounding incest by associating it with capitalism to demystify the oedipal formation of desire in the Western culture (Hawkins 646).
Another critical review that Blood and Guts received is the narrative technique in the story. Not only is the narrating technique unstable and at times, unreliable, but the narrator herself, Janey, a 10-year-old girl, who lives until 14, experiences things that no little girl should. Kathy Hughes in her analysis takes a look at this approach by Acker and the overall effect of the novel when told from a 10-year-old perspective. Hughes argues that Acker attacks and flips the Freudian theory upside down through sarcasm and irony (Hughes 124). And a 10-year-old can accomplish what society is afraid of doing because of their simple matter of fact speaking, “Janey, as a child, does not have the socialization to throw the veil of intellectual language over the horrors of her daily life, thus Acker does not utilize poetics when describing her life” (Hughes 127).
Blood and Guts was banned as pornographic in West Germany and South Africa.
It is featured in Peter Boxall's book, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and The Little Black Book of Books.
Laura Parnes has created a "re-imagining" of this novel using video.