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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

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.