Blood and Guts in High School

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Blood and Guts in High School
Blood and Guts in High School (Acker novel).jpg
AuthorKathy Acker
GenreExperimental fiction
PublisherGrove Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages165 pp (paperback)
ISBN0-8021-3193-X (Paperback edition)

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, before being officially released 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 explores but simultaneously deconstructs the American politics of the time it was written and intercontinental history tying into the novel's subject of human trafficking, while being interspersed with sections of sexually detailed drawings, dream maps, symbolism and non-linear writing.

Plot and narrative[edit]

Blood and Guts in High School, while having a frequently disrupted and heavily surreal narrative, is the story of Janey Smith, a ten-year-old American girl living in Mérida, Mexico, who departs to the US 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, leading Janey to realize he hates her because she limits him by dominating his life, 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 hippie bakery and is appalled by the customers, whose behavior gradually spirals out of control. She has many sexual partners. She ends up pregnant twice and has two abortions; she seems to be furiously addicted to sex and does not care whom she sleeps with. In New York City she joins a gang, the Scorpions. One day, while the gang is driving frantically in a stolen car from the police, they are involved in a car crash: 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 as the lines between reality and fiction begin to become blurred.

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 Tangier, Morocco. There she meets Jean Genet, the iconic French writer, and they develop a relationship while Janey vulgarly and intensely discusses but later becomes attracted to President Jimmy Carter. Janey and Genet travel through North Africa and stop in Alexandria. Genet treats Janey badly and thinks little of her, but the worse he treats her the more she loves him. He decides to leave her. Janey gets arrested for stealing Genet's property, and shortly afterwards, by her luck, he joins her in prison. A rebellion breaks out as the narrative continues to deteriorate while particular figures, collectively named the Capitalists, meet to discuss how their society is collapsing. As it peaks, Janey and Genet are both thrown out of Alexandria. After travelling together across North Africa for some time, Genet gives Janey some money and leaves. However, soon after they part company, Janey dies suddenly, leaving time to pass endlessly as the narrative breaks into a final set of dream maps; here, the novel concludes.

Storytelling technique[edit]

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. The narrative of the story is disrupted with pornographic drawings, letters, and dream maps to further disembody the plot but place the reader in the narrative itself. “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).

Blood and Guts in High School incorporates the text from one of Acker's previous works, "Hello, I'm Erica Jong", a chapbook written passive-aggressively and vulgarly towards novelist and feminist satirist Erica Jong.

...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.

— Kathy Acker[1]

Like the novel's 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.

Critical reception[edit]

Out of all of Acker's books, Blood and Guts in High School has received the most diverse 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).

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 created a "re-imagining" of the novel as a multi-screen video art piece in 2007.[2]


  1. ^ "A Conversation with Kathy Acker By Ellen G. Friedman". The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 9 (3). Fall 1989.
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-03-11. Retrieved 2006-10-06.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)