Michael DuPlessis: The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker

Chapter Three: O in CO

“Last night again, I dreamed that I was dead,” O thinks, “or am I dead and dreaming now? I dreamt that I was Kathy Acker, the dead woman writer. It was a dream of insufferable, insupportable sadness,” O realizes, “this dream in which I’m not a character, but an author, a dead one, one who imagines herself to be a doll.”

The end of O’s story gives us two possibilities: first, she chooses death because Sir Stephen is about to leave her; second, she goes back to Roissy, where Sir Stephen abandons her. But O never seems to have much of a choice. From the get-go, she seems ready to be ditched. What if she ends up abandoned, left, forgotten even, by both Sir Stephen and René, O’s first lover, the one who got her into all of this? O went back to Roissy all right, which beneath its gothic paraphernalia and sex shop décor turned out to be as humdrum as an American suburb. In fact, Roissy is an American suburb. More accurately, it’s a small town—albeit with a big suburban feel—in America. It’s in Boulder, Colorado that O ends up, seduced, abandoned, and, most cruelly of all (ah, nothing smarts like the pain of unintended cruelty), forgotten.

Those famous decadent chrysanthemums the color of sulfur faded quickly from the blank screen of O’s mind as dusty juniper bushes sprang up in their place, bristling like briar roses in a fairytale, with only yards of bark and gravel for variation. But the air, thin at this altitude, so unbreathable that she could only wheeze unbecomingly, always serves to remind O that she is not in a fairytale. She feels trapped, prey to the pangs of claustrophobia, which is altogether different from the imprisonment and bondage she’s welcomed before. Forgotten by both René and Sir Stephen, O turns into a ghost trapped in an eternal summer sublease.

Growing older, O herself forgets why she’s in Boulder, Colorado. She notices the O at the end of the state name. Here, in the embrace of the full circle itself embraced by its semi-circle, two moons, one full and one half, two absences, one a whole emptiness, the other incomplete, O feels herself uncomfortable. Why is she in Boulder, CO? O can’t but notice that her letter appears in the names of both the town and the state. Is there some mystical significance in this conjunction, this insistence of letters? A fate determined by the alphabet? If there is, she can’t decipher it.

Mostly, O’s thoughts circle around—she is O, remember—all the way back through Sir Stephen, the daddy, the killer, to René, the daddy’s boy, the true abandoner, whom sometimes in her furious blankness, in the airless atmosphere, O thinks of (with bitterness, with regret) as Little Lord Fauntleroy. Here is what O thinks, as she stares out of her window in a sublease in Boulder, Colorado, to see a vista of storage spaces like rows of outhouses, a tarred courtyard, trucks and SUV’s and 4×4’s all with the same meaningless bumper stickers, a meandering of grass slantwise through summertime cracks in the tar, the tilted and battered grills on which her new neighbors, hippies who work 9 to 5 in the software industry, grill veggie burgers and tofu dogs in a haze of lighter fluid that makes O’s eyes smart and burn, as they used to, so long ago, before she was ditched and then erased, here in Boulder, Colorado, when René and then Sir Stephen whipped her and then said they loved her, when she was in Roissy before Roissy became Boulder. Once, O noticed that the hippie couple keep cages in their living room above her apartment. She was excited and nostalgic before she realized that the hippie couple keep large birds and the totemic Boulder Siberian husky-Labrador-coyote-Chow-German shepherd in those cages. She’s never spoken to the neighbors since.

O thinks incessantly about René:

Absence is the motif in all my writing and all my thinking about you. “You,” second-person singular, source of lyricism, invention, and lust, perhaps because of your absence. Absences of all sorts—who would have thought absence to be so malleable, so protean? Physical distance, time not spent together, apartness, aloofness, sleep, out-of-it-ness, drunkenness, gone-ness, preoccupation, the absence of the always premature departure. How male. My father, absent always, already dearly departed, dead two years before his death, dead a long time before the disease was done with eating his body.

O thinks circularly about René:

I’m bored. I’m anxious. I feel like I’m constantly taking a series of emotional GRE’s, and I’m never told what my score is.

I’m afraid we’re inventing something that isn’t there.

Why is sex with you another blank?

Waiting, as you consider it, is fine but there comes a moment when the conditions you impose outweigh any present emotions. “I can’t be with you until…” translates into “I can’t be with you until caution becomes indifference.” Yes, as you say over and over again, you’ve made me feel again; truly, I do feel again, enough to be able to tell that I’m only telling myself that I feel with you.

You, always absent, never wholly there.

I read your writing in your absence and it’s clear and limpid, but I also see how absent you are from this writing.

Absence isn’t impersonality. Impersonality is a chosen quality; absence—redundancy! double O!—is a lack.

You do almost anything except be with me. Anyone who can prefer to look at the Boulder Creek rather than be with a lover is not a lover. One cannot possibly know anything about nature or beauty or truth when the Boulder Creek appears worth contemplating.

If O seems galled, that is because the last is a particularly nettling recollection.

O thinks about René because René is not, has never been, there:

“Be true to thyself,” you say, lost in a truism, absent in the commonplace, an absence bestowed by glibness. It’s a long time together; it’s no time at all. Absence produces my sense of the test, perhaps because I have to project to fill this void. Better to be tested invisibly all the time than for all our time together to add up to nothing at all. You say you are fiercely independent. Deeply private. Ferociously private. I wake up at two a.m. with the utter clarity that I’ve invented something, and that I’ve played games with you, with myself, to dissimulate that. Absence of stories, rituals, reassurances. Absence of accumulation. You say you don’t say you’re in love, you act in love, but that’s an alibi for doing neither. I face the stunning double negative of your absence.

O rereads what Kathy Acker has written about her, O. “When O was a young girl, alive then, above all, she wanted a man to take care of her. In her dream, the town was the repository of all dreams. A town that was always decaying. In the center of this town her father had hanged himself. In her dream, she searched for her father.”

Is she searching? Is she questing? Isn’t her quest always the circle, self-completion? Her sigil is the ouroboros, round like the metal name tag she still wears from the ring in her labia. O decides to write René a letter, but first she wants to look up the letter O in the dictionary. They’re playing my letter, O laughs.

What? You thought O had no sense of humor? How else could she have put up, not with the tortures (those were tolerable), but with those insufferably pompous men? She’s worn her name like a mask, her mask-like name, to have the last laugh at those asinine, humorless men. O can only laugh, helplessly. And now Kathy Acker joins the ranks of those who write on her. When will they hear my voice, wonders O, beyond the trellised bars, the confining devices, of free indirect speech? Discours indirect libre, another joke! Free and indirect, an oxymoron? She wonders.

And here are some of the words that O reads in the dictionary:

oaf, oafish, Oahuan, oak, oak apple, oak beauty, oak blight, oak bore, oak brown, oak chestnut, oaken, oakenshaw, oak family… oasis, oasitic, oast, oasthouse, oat… obeah, obeche, obedience, obediencer, obediency, obedient, obediential, obedientiary, obediently, obedient plant, obeisance, obeisant… Oberschule, obese, obesity, obex, obey, obeyable, obeyance, obeyer, obfirm, obfusc, obfuscable, obfuscate, obfuscatory… obituary, object, objectable, objectant, object ball, object color, objectee, object glass, objectifiable, objectification, objectify, objection, objectionability, objet d’art, objuration, objurgate… obligate, obligation… oblige, obliged… oblique, oblique angle, oblique case, oblique coordinate, oblique drawing, oblique fault… obliquity, obliterable, obliterate, obliteratingly, obliteration, obliterative, obliviate, oblivion, oblivionize, oblivious, obliviously, obliviousness, oblivescence, oblocutor, oblong, oblongate, obloquious, obloquy, obtumesce… obscene, obscure… obsess, obsession… obsolete, obsolescence, obverse… odd, oddball, odd-eyed, odd fish, oddish, oddity, odium, off, off and on, off-bar, off-beat, off-center, off-color, offhand… old school, old world, oleander, olfactory, om, omnium gatherum, omnivore, oneiric, oneirocritics, one-lung, one-man, oneself, onyx, opal, opaline, open, open-ended, operate, ophryon… ordeal, ordeal bean, ordeal tree, orient, oriental, oscillate… ostensible, ostensible partner, ouroboros, out, outscout, oval, ovarian, ovary, over, overlook, overly, overripe, oxymoron, oyster fork, ozone, ozostomia, ozotype.


What beads are missing from O’s rosary of O’s? The words tell O nothing. Sir Stephen was not a father complex but a daddy fix. And René, daddy’s boy, his mother’s son? She loved René. She has waited for him to call her, here, in Roissy, in Boulder, in Colorado. She told him not to call, the only time she has issued a command. “I hear and I obey,” O recalls bitterly, with a wry smile. O has a mordant wit. O has a soft heart. O has a liquid center. O is no blank slate, no blank stare.

“Dear René,” she writes. She crosses out the name, except for the initial. “Dear R,” it reads. She crosses out “Dear,” so that it reads, simply, “R.” The anonymity of the alphabet works best in epistolary fiction and all epistolary fiction is about absence, like all letters, alphabetical or no.

O’s letter:


It rained all day on the day that you never phoned. If you told me that you’d call and I told you not to call, and then you didn’t call, on the day you never phoned, does that mean that you actually didn’t call? Did you not call in the sense that you decided and chose not to call or were you just doing what I’d asked you? Did you make up your own mind not to call me or did you not call because I said I didn’t want you to call? It rained all day and when I walked down a hill, a bearded man with two Rottweilers straining like hellhounds at their leashes asked me where the nearest McDonald’s was. I suppose there must be a McDonald’s in Boulder, yes, even in Boulder, where anything can happen, but I don’t know where it is. I don’t know where anything is in Boulder. I still get lost trying to find the apartment that I’m subleasing. Everything looks like everything else to me in Boulder. There are no landmarks. I may as well be walking in place in a diorama that is spooling past, repeating itself every so often. It’s calming and unnerving.

You never phoned on the day it rained all day. This wasn’t the first time you didn’t phone when you said you would but this was the first time you didn’t phone when I’d asked you not to phone. Every time you hadn’t phoned before, I’d asked you, noncommittally, nonchalantly, pressingly, desperately, to call. The day it rained all day, the day you never phoned, was the first time that I’d asked you not to phone. So I don’t know if your never calling means that you did what I asked or that you decided on your own, against my unexpressed but so transparent wishes, not to phone, never to phone again. From now on there can just be this long angry silence between us. It’s the silence of your never phoning on the day it rained all day, the day you were meant to phone, the day I asked you not to phone. This silence started on the day you never phoned, the day it rained all day in the silence of your never phoning again. She rereads the letter.

She decides not to send it.

She signs it, nevertheless:




from The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker, by Michael du Plessis
Perhaps the first conceptualist novel for young adults. Jon Benet meets Kathy Acker in a rollicking coming-of-age tale set in the snowglobe of Boulder, Colorado. With guest appearances by Little Lord Fauntleroy, H. P. Lovecraft, the Blue Fairy, a wind-up Walter Benjamin, a soft-toy Cthulhu, O (from The Story of O), and many more. Neither tribute nor pastiche, Memoirs investigates the “self” of very-late-capitalism in a collage of all that is right, and terribly wrong, in America. –excerpted with permission from Les Figues

Michael du Plessis teaches Comparative Literature and English at the University of Southern California.

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