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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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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution