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I Love Dick is an assault on power - especially the oblivious kind

At the core of Chris Kraus' I Love Dick is the question: what does it mean to be an intelligent and ambitious woman in a world of men?

Dick is such a dick. He won’t reply to Chris’s letters, even though she has written dozens, maybe even hundreds – a cache of words she describes as “a time bomb, a cesspool or a manuscript”. To be fair, at this point he has met her only once, on 3 December 1994. She and her husband, the cultural critic Sylvère Lotringer, had dinner with him at a sushi bar in Pasadena, and then spent a tipsy night at his place in Antelope Valley, out in the Californian desert (Dick has cowboy pretensions). Chris was sure he was giving her smouldering glances but in the morning he had vanished, a rejection that somehow triggered a ferocious, life-engulfing crush.

Sex has long been absent from her marriage, but now she and Sylvère find a tentative new intimacy by collaborating on a seduction campaign, bombarding Dick with letters, voicemails and faxes (it is the 1990s, after all). Aware they are morphing into stalkers, they couch their epistolary assault as art, inviting Dick to collaborate with them on a video project about romantic obsession and signing themselves Charles and Emma Bovary.

“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert famously remarked, but why go to the trouble of inventing a character when you can make economical use of the juicy fruits of your own life? I Love Dick is a novel in memoir’s clothing, populated by real people in real situations, which are conveyed by way of (perhaps real, perhaps not) letters, diary entries and sections of exegesis in which the performers are considered in a dignified third person. It was first published in America in 1997, to an initially frosty reception (who was this harpy, turning the tables on Serious Men?). In the intervening years it has gained cult status, especially among women, developing a passionate readership thrilled by the way Kraus converts abjection into power. Amazingly, this is its first pub­lication in the UK.

If you don’t dally in the precincts of the avant-garde, you could be forgiven for not having encountered Kraus, who at the time of writing was a thoroughly obscure film-maker (she has since published several books, among them Torpor, Aliens and Anorexia and Summer of Hate). Sylvère Lotringer, her then husband, is a French intellectual and founder of the publishing house Semiotext(e). (Kraus ran its Native Agents wing, which brought such counterculture luminaries as Cookie Mueller and Eileen Myles into print.) As for Dick, an English critic who works on subculture and style, his identity can be discovered rapidly by way of Google.

Chris loves Dick. Dick does not love Chris. Chris writes to Dick, at length and in a multitude of moods and tones, from lust-struck to bitter, melancholy to enraged. But although the minute-by-minute account of infatuation is gripping, it slowly becomes clear that the Dick Thing is only bait, a smokescreen for something much more subversive and sophisticated.

You think you’re reading about love and lust (“My hand was wet from holding the telephone so tightly”) and then, sentence by deceptively casual sentence, you find you’re deep into an essay on political prisoners in Nicaragua, or a disquisition on the nature of evil, or an analysis of the career and reception of the late feminist artist Hannah Wilke, who repeatedly photographed herself naked, skin studded with tiny vaginas made of chewing gum. “Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves,” Kraus asks of both her own and Wilke’s work, “when we expose the conditions of our own debasement?”

This is the radiant core of her inquiry. What does it mean to be an intelligent and ambitious woman in a world of men (“the host culture”) – particularly a woman who wishes both to have her work taken ­seriously and to be regarded as an object of desire? What does it mean to be ugly or unwanted, or to make work that no one sees? What does it mean to be without power, and furthermore to find that by drawing attention to this state of affairs one makes oneself sexually undesirable, even repulsive? “You keep looking for rejection,” Sylvère shouts at Chris, who counters drily: “But I believe this problem’s bigger, and more cultural.”

Though grounded in what are apparently not just real but devastatingly painful events, I Love Dick is not so much a roman-à-clef as a formidable novel of ideas: a novel that pretends not to be a novel, that keeps breaking apart or shifting into other forms, in part because it is built explicitly to grapple with the question of how inherited forms warp and limit women’s lives. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, Audre Lorde wrote, and in Kraus’s hands the classical form of the novel continually destroys itself, enacting structurally the same refusal of constriction that Chris begins to insist upon in her own life.

A novel that breaks the novel; a memoir that refuses to accept its duty is to provide a purely personal narrative: it’s hardly any wonder I Love Dick has proved so wildly influential. Among its recent heirs are Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, all of which are deeply engaged in fusing memoir and fiction for more or less political purposes. It is less easy to think of precedents to Kraus’s self-described “Lonely Girl Phenomenology”, though Virginia Woolf, Alice Notley, William Burroughs, Doris Lessing and Jane Bowles all spring to mind.

Like Woolf, Kraus is bent on discovering an encompassing and porous form. Chris often sounds purely telephonic, looping chattily between descriptions of home repairs in upstate towns and reminiscences of old boyfriends in New Zealand or bad dinners with disliked neighbours. But the signature move of the speaking voice is the non sequitur, the jump-cut, and it is by deploying these leaps that Kraus builds her argument, steadily making legible the hidden relationship between the personal and political.

The effects are frequently sublime. Take this dreamy passage:

It was April, the season of blood oranges, emotion running like the stream behind my house upstate, turbulent and thawing. I thought about how fragile people get when they withdraw from anything, how they become bloody yolks protected only by the thinnest shell.

In one of her many digressions, Kraus tells the story of the 19th-century French writer Louise Colet, a mistress of Flaubert’s. When he broke her heart, Colet wrote a poem about it, and in return Flaubert replied: “You have made Art an outlet for the passions, a kind of chamberpot to catch the overflow of I don’t know what. It doesn’t smell good! It smells of hate!”

Similar things have been said of I Love Dick – that it is insincere, ironic, cruel, a knowing, narcissistic, postmodern game. Wrong. It is an assault on power, especially the dick-swinging, oblivious, obliterating kind, but even more importantly it is a defence of vulnerability, which is after all the necessary condition of love. The chamberpot offers the compost for something else, something new. “If we want reality to change then why not change it?” Kraus asks. “Oh Dick, deep down I feel you’re ­utopian too.”

Olivia Laing’s new book, “The Lonely City”, will be published in March by Canongate

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus is published by Tuskar Rock Press (£12.99, 261pp)

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit