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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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I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game