I’ve been reminded of those early encounters with L.A. while reading Jack Skelley’s tribute to youth and art, The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker. The novel follows a twentysomething musician named Jack crisscrossing Los Angeles, hanging around malls and going to parties, bumping into artists, pop stars, and poets. It’s an often manic work, a philosophical acid trip about the nature of identity, literature, and love, as mesmerizing, charming, and maddening as the city that produced it. Skelley wrote the novel in the 1980s, when he was a twentysomething musician himself, and for two decades struggled to get it published. But as he notes in the book’s new preface, “nature and fate conspire against art.” Aside from a few excerpts in chapbooks, Skelley never managed to launch his novel into the world—until now.
Some say the nature of youth is to squander it. The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker’s surreal resurrection 40 years after it was first written suggests something more complex—that our youth, seemingly wasted bumming rollies and rides, can, with some luck, echo deep into our future.
SAMMY LOREN: You wrote The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker in the 1980s and it’s only now, in 2023, that it’s first been published in its entirety by Semiotext(e). Maybe it’s anecdotal, but I sense the novel resonating a lot with Gen Z readers, especially Gen Z women. What do you think is going on there?
JACK SKELLEY: One of the amazing things is that anybody is reacting to it at all, because I didn’t expect that. The first person to reach out to me was this young writer who interviewed me for Hobart. When we were speaking, she said, “I like to know how men think sexually.” Now, I don’t know if I’m an adequate representative of what hetero men think sexually … maybe I was in the ’80s.
There’s this exuberant sexuality throughout the novel, full of libido, fantasy, and feeling. What, for you, is the relationship between sex and art?
Those two concepts have never, ever been divided. I feel like eros, romance, and sex are the main themes of art. I can’t think of another theme that’s more important to art than sexuality.
Consumerism of the 1980s is a target of much scorn by the novel’s narrator. Yet there’s this irony in the fact that consumerism also fuels culture at the same time as destroying it.
I’m so into pop iconography and pop archetypes and, in addition to the book’s obsession with sex, there’s this overlapping obsession with consumer culture and how consumer culture is this evil, insidious mechanism that controls brains and behavior. The narrator makes that point over and over, but then at the same time tends to inflate stupid consumer culture. This carries over into everything from goofy TV references like Bewitched to pop icons like Billy Idol and Madonna. They’re these silly, ridiculous emblems of the ’80s. At the same time, I was really into Madonna, this Catholic who wore all her Catholic memorabilia and iconography all over her lingerie. There is this love-hate relationship with consumer culture and pop culture as it relates to the personas in the novel.
That dichotomy is also lamented within the novel’s subcultures, which, within the narrative, are important alternatives to the consumerist mainstream, even if they end up recreating all the same hierarchies.
People have responded to the section where the narrator goes to a Hollywood party and complains, “These punks and posers like to pretend they are some kind of subversives […] But actually their subculture is a smeared replication of upper echelon Hollywood decadence.” What are the subcultures and where do they fit within the dominant social hierarchy? And do they succumb to the horrible economic pressures in order to succeed as brands these days? It does seem to cause a lot of psychic and social damage, and then you layer on to that social media, which can be extremely evil too. And you got this crazy upheaval among different groups.
There are glimpses of Los Angeles’s counterculture all over Fear of Kathy Acker. You were part of it then and you’re still hanging around underground art, music, and literary circles. How has the scene changed over the years? Or has it changed?
In a lot of the ways, it’s the same. There’s still a hardcore group and I never know what to call them. You can’t call them “cool people” or “hipsters” because as soon as you name a group and give it a categorization, the label destroys it. But there’s still a counterculture, a sub-sub-sub-group of people that loves good music, good literature, and good art, and is always looking for the cool thing, but also the good thing. The alt lit community is such a tiny fraction of the literary community in general. So yes, it’s kind of the same. I’ve been to a couple of your Casual Encountersz events and I felt that vibe, a camaraderie among guests and performers—that is crucial because it’s such a tiny world. People need to support each other. It reminds me of Beyond Baroque in Venice back in the ’80s. One of the weird things about this book coming out 40 years later is that it feels like Han Solo breaking out of the carbon-freezing, sprung upon the world. Because when I wrote the book, I wasn’t intending to document that scene. I didn’t intend to name people that would later become famous. Kathy Acker blew up eventually. But other people too, such as my friend Bob Flanagan who was a key member of the Dennis Cooper gang. Another person was Ed Smith. Both Bob and Ed are no longer with us. I dedicate Fear of Kathy Acker to them and a couple other deceased friends.
Americans are famous for our historical amnesia, and so it’s interesting to see the Reagan era on the page. In the book, there’s a sense of alienation from mainstream politics, but also from the leftist protest culture.
I’m a lefty and I’m repulsed by fascism. At the same time, I feel an impotence in terms of being a part of any movement for change. An artist tends naturally to reject the categorization and the simplification of concepts that are necessary for political action. And so it’s tough because you want your art to be relevant, but you also don’t want to be isolated in some weird artistic ivory tower.
Fear of Kathy Acker is such a love letter to L.A. with the narrator visiting San Pedro, Dodger Stadium, Chinatown, Hollywood, Disneyland, and the Hills. How has the city changed for you since you wrote it?
L.A., like pop culture, has always been a thematic juice for me. Everyone has their own love-hate relationship with their own city because they didn’t choose to be born there, but they can either choose to embrace it, or fight against it, or kind of do both. But L.A. is a capital of producing images that become so powerful around the world. Everyone in the fucking world knows about L.A. I could divert into some sociological or economic digression about the housing crisis, but L.A. is basically the same still—this scattered metropolis with subgroups everywhere, and people trying to find each other.
Similar to this fragmented vision of Los Angeles, there’s this pastiche of different artists and politicians, everything from Madonna to The Munsters. I started thinking about Fear of Kathy Acker as a reflection of the dark American psyche, and all these personalities that come and go.
It goes back to the identity of the first-person narrator. Not unlike a Kathy Acker novel, the narrator is living his entire life through different texts and friends, finding his identity through consumer culture. In all of these themes of sex, love, romance, and politics, he’s fighting to find himself. But this fragmented culture creates a fragmented psyche, and the fragmentation of his identity is paralleled with these freaky scenes where he has an acid flashback or when, conversely, he’s able to flip his experience in a positive direction and find what he wants to be. I wasn’t aware of some of this stuff, honestly, until I started reading it again. The fragmentation of the culture inhabits the narrator’s brain.
Toward the end of the novel, the narrator is at the DMV, which is a hilarious scene because the DMV was exactly the same catastrophe then as it is now. The narrator says, “All writing is cut up,” and “All reality is cut up.” What are you trying to say about literature and reality?
It’s a William S. Burroughs reference. The novel’s approach is a little bit Burroughs, a little bit Kathy Acker, a little bit Henry Miller—writers who are destroying narrative by subverting the strictures and structures of the narrative novel. Those lines are another of the narrator’s rants about the nature of reality and how the written word reflects or detracts from trying to get close to a more real sense of reality.
You wrote Fear of Kathy Acker in your late twenties. How does it read to you now 40 years later?
There are parts that feel like I wrote yesterday and there are parts where I feel like, Wow, Jack, you never learn.
Jack Skelley’s books include The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker (Semiotext(e), 2023), Monsters (Little Caesar Press, 1982), Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press, 2021), and Interstellar Theme Park: New and Selected Writing (BlazeVOX, 2022). Jack’s psychedelic surf band Lawndale released a new album, Twango, with SST Records in 2022.
Sammy Loren’s work appears in Interview Magazine, Document Journal, and Autre. He curates the reading series Casual Encountersz.