Sure, it's an Amazon series. But forget that. Read this book.
Short sell: It's hilarious, ballsy, and devastating. Kraus' writing style and craft is fascinating, and I'm already writing a bit different as a result.
Long sell: I go deeper in an essay focused on the novel's craft, with liberal use of the best c word.
Reading time = approx 5 minutes
“Who gets to speak and why?”
Beyond having the most cunning and clever title I’ve come across, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus is a fascinating experimental work. It’s the story of filmmaker Chris Kraus and her husband, the critic and theorist Sylvere Lotringer. These are real people, and were a real couple at the time (when did they break up?), but they are also the characters in the novel. On a night in December, 1994, they meet Dick, a prominent cultural critic and academic, in California, and spend a pleasant evening eating and drinking together. The next day, Chris decides that she is in love with Dick.
What follows is a daily log of how this new one-sided romance progresses, from an increasingly less-objective third-person narrator, and a series of letters to Dick from Chris (and Sylvere). Chris proclaims her love, while also acknowledging the absurdity of the idea after such a brief interaction. Sylvere proclaims his amusement over his wife’s infatuation to Dick, and also describes his own budding obsession. Chris and Sylvere write letters that grow increasingly strange and “perverse,” as Sylvere gleefully calls them (41). They write letters to each other through Dick. They come together as a couple through the project, reigniting a sexual desire that had been stagnant for years.
Then it gets even weirder. They try to involve Dick by labeling the letters as a creative project, and recording and transcribing the resulting phone conversations with Dick. They write more letters, faxing them or burning them or showing them to each other to provoke a response. Finally, Chris finds herself unable to resume normal life when they return to New York, so she separates from Sylvere, has multiple disastrous encounters with Dick, and her letters transform into extensive explorations of her sexual self, her artistic self, and what her future holds.
The book is terrifically hard to pin down by a descriptor. It’s a novel, it’s a memoir, it’s epistolary, it’s a collection of personal essays. It fuses reality with fantasy, so much so that you question the difference between the two. It jumps from a third person narrator, who labels notes and transcripts as exhibits, to first person, with deeply personal letters and journal entries. The fearless way that Kraus moves between genres and modes of writing is revelatory.
But experimentation for it’s own sake doesn’t always create the compelling, cohesive story that Kraus gives us. Here, the structure serves the story.
One of the elements Kraus explores is the difference in transgression for men and women. Kraus is surrounded by verbose, intellectual men known for their stinging critiques and incisive theories. These men move in and out of avant-garde circles in New York and California defined almost exclusively by men. When these men discuss literature and art, it is with full agency over their opinions; Slyvere and his colleagues give speeches and write books and their statements are lauded as truth. They are also sexual beings, allowed to pursue and seduce any woman, and held up as paragons of virile masculine sexuality.
Kraus, a creator and intellectual in her own right, is a plus one in this circle. She’s in the “dumb cunt” role, around to look pretty and keep quiet (27). She recognizes that when she speaks and writes, her authority is not automatically accepted as truth. Especially when it comes to passion and sexuality, she’s considered an amateur, a bitch, a libeler (72). Her reality is questioned.
What better way to refute that idea than this novel’s use of exhibits, letters, and transcripts? Kraus enters each item into the narrative with designations and official-sounding terms, just as you would in a legal case, as proof and evidence of reality. Then she goes further. In the latter half of the book, her letters to Dick morph, and she inserts the type of writing Sylvere and Dick use to bolster their own careers: in-depth cultural analyses and critiques, reporting, and personal treatises. She uses the language of men to demonstrate her own validity and reality, and combines them with the lust-filled thoughts and desires about Dick. She acknowledges she’s the “crazy and cerebral girl, the kind of girl you and your entire generation vilified,” but insists that her experience and thinking is also valid and true (155).
“Who gets to speak and why…is the only question,” Kraus says (191). To further this story and answer this question, she uses a structure that deconstructs typical plot and novel trappings. The story is aware of itself as a text. Throughout, the characters of Chris and Sylvere discuss the text as its being built, referring to the letters as a project, a collaboration, a creative work. Readers are watching the novel be created as they read, with authors that show the workings behind the curtain and keep little hidden. Plus, Kraus admits that Dick is a metaphor, an abstract concept, while at the same time an actual person and object of desire. This breaking of traditional narrative rules subverts our expectations as readers. We are unmoored, and perhaps more likely to receive and believe what Chris (the primary voice) says. We are watching reality be constructed.
The reception of Kraus’ book is perhaps as important as the content. Reviewers and those in the know feverishly tried to identify what was real about the story, including identifying the character of Dick as critic Dick Hebdige. In my edition’s afterword, Joan Hawkins notes that in this quest to find the reality behind the story, reviewers often ignored the heady theoretical discussions in the book, as well as the craft of the book. According to Hawkins, the book was dismissed as a “Dumb Cunt Tale,” and attention focused more on the real Dick than Kraus’ powerful, innovative work itself (264, 270). Eileen Myles agrees; in her forward to my edition, she notes that Kraus’ life is the actual subject of the “entirely ghastly, cunty exegesis,” and her writing, which works as art criticism, historical document, diary, and screenplay, is the ultimate in experimental performance art (15).
The structure of Kraus’ story then exposes the theme: the reality of female desire and the inherent fragmentation of being female. As Kraus says in one of her letters to Dick:
“Whenever I tried writing in the 1st person it sounded like some other person…Now I can’t stop writing in the 1st person...Sylvere keeps socializing what I’m going through with you. Labeling it through other people’s eyes—Adultery in Academe…Faculty Wife Throws Herself at Husband’s Colleague. This presumes that there’s something inherently grotesque, unspeakable, about femaleness, desire. But what I’m going through with you is real and happening for the first time” (138).
Kraus, Chris. I Love Dick. Semiotext(e), 1998.