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8 January 2016

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?

By Olivia Laing

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.

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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)

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue