‘But you don’t know me! We’ve had two or three evenings! Talked on the phone once or twice! And you project this shit over me, you kidnap me, you stalk me, invade me with your games, and I don’t want it! I never asked for it! I think you’re evil and psychotic!’
‘But what about my letter? [...] No matter what I do you think it’s just a game but I was trying to be honest.’
In December 1994 Chris Kraus and her husband Sylvère Lotringer have dinner at a restaurant with Dick, an English cultural critic now living in Los Angeles. They enjoy their evening so much that Dick invites them back to his home to stay the night. The next morning, Chris and Sylvère wake to find that Dick has vanished; feeling rather disappointed, they leave. Chris starts writing a story. Dick phones to apologise: he’d gone out to buy bacon and eggs for breakfast and had been surprised to return and find them gone. Chris and Sylvère discuss the evening and Dick’s behaviour. They each write him a letter. Then another. They write dozens of pages, none of which they send, and contemplate turning them into an artwork. Sylvère leaves for France; Chris drives across the US to New York, and continues writing to Dick, now in diary form, and later into something closer to a series of essays.
Chris is obsessed with Dick, and with what Dick represents for her. At first she explores her feelings in the letters and regards the whole exercise very much as a game; her focus widens to her earlier life and Sylvère’s, their relationship, her struggles as an artist whose most recent film has been rejected and who’s known only as Sylvère’s wife, her other sexual relationships, her shame and self-loathing; then wider still to the brutal war in Guatemala, art, language, power. It’s peppered with literary and artistic references.
(R.B. Kitaj, The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin), 1972/73, oil; found here)
The book consists of the couple’s letters, interspersed with commentary and narrative with Chris and Sylvère being described in the third person; faxes; transcripts of conversations; ‘exhibits’. This gives us a sense of fluctuating perspectives, of contradictions – both sides of which are true even as they seem to cancel each other out – and strains against categorisation. Chris describes it to another character, Rachel, as ‘an epistolary novel , really’, struggling to pin it down; Rachel dismisses this as ‘bourgeois’ and eighteenth century, but in fact it’s also very post-modern in its use of ‘real’ documents (and far from eighteenth century in its frank discussion of sex, power and identity). It also teases us with the distinction between fact and fiction, memoir and novel. Chris Kraus is an artist who made films, just like the character in the book; she’s married to the academic Sylvère Lotringer and some at least of the people who walk through her pages are ‘real’. Dick’s surname is never given (although Wikipedia helpfully identifies him), perhaps to reinforce his status as ‘a portable saint’, a ‘vehicle of escape’; perhaps for legal reasons. The collection of documents seems spontaneous and arbitrary and messy, and may well be, but at the same time it’s also structured, edited, self-aware. And funny.
At one point Chris writes:
Ann said: ‘Maybe Dick was right.’ This seemed so radically profound. Could I accept your cruelty as a gift of truth? Could I even learn to thank you for it? (Though when I showed Ann the outline of this story, she said she never said that. Not even close.)
Here Kraus is suggesting both that this book is ‘fact’ and that at the same time it’s made up; she’s ‘fact-checking’ but then either privileging her memory over Ann’s or leaving in the ‘error’ because it suits her or reflects a truth that the remark Ann thinks she made does not have. Like her use of the third person in her narrative sections, which pulls us back, and the first person in her letters, which pulls us in, so that we are both back and in at the same time, Kraus is somehow managing to make her story both fact and fiction at the same time. And she’s inside, writing the letters and experiencing, and at the same time outside, editing and observing.
My personal goal here – apart from anything else that may happen – is to express myself as clearly and honestly as I can. So in a sense love is just like writing: living in such a heightened state that accuracy and awareness are vital. And of course this can extend to everything. The risk is that these feelings’ll be ridiculed or rejected, & I think I’m understanding risk for the first time: being fully prepared to lose and accept the consequences if you gamble.
Chris’s feelings for Dick become a sort of catalyst for her to interrogate her life and through that, male privilege and power. A fairly common literary trope, the protagonist falling in love and experiencing some sort of awakening to life, is made fresh through the form in which it’s done but also because everything is deconstructed or pushed further. Unrequited love becomes slightly stalkerish; the protagonist is female, not male, and old enough to know better. We all know that artists and writers use ‘real’ people and situations as material for their work but Kraus pushes this so far that it becomes really uncomfortable – and then includes a letter from Dick, giving him a voice too.
I can’t stop writing even for a day – I’m doing it to save my life. These letters’re the first time I’ve ever tried to talk about ideas because I need to, not just to amuse or entertain.
(Hannah Wilke, black-and-white photograph from S.O S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication (1974–75); found here)
This felt closer to art, visual art, than most fiction does. In part this is because Chris herself refers to it as a ‘project’ at the beginning; she and Sylvère consider pasting the pages of the early letters around Dick’s house and filming it. In part it’s because Chris reminisces quite a lot about the ‘art scene’ in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and writes about the work of visual artists, including R.B. Kitaj and Hannah Wilke. There’s something very conceptual about the book, which doesn’t concern itself with the texture of language or the need to develop character or plot or in fact anything a traditional novel does. It’s more interested in ideas and form. It reminded me a lot of the work of Tracey Emin, specifically Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With, 1963–1995 and My Bed, who also examines the female body and sexuality in a very physical way.
Chris Kraus and I Love Dick have become quite famous in the US and have influenced writers such as Maggie Nelson, Anne Boyer, Sheila Heti, Kate Zambreno, Olivia Laing, but although it was first published in 1997 it’s only this year that it’s finally been published in the UK. It’s a rich but not difficult read and I’ll definitely be rereading it because there is just so much there. I think it’s also probably essential if you’re interested in modern American fiction. Yes the title. I am a middle-aged prude and reading this book on the bus involved some tricky juggling so that nobody could see the title; however, it is a perfect title for a provocative, playful book about sex, art and power.
(Photograph of Chris Kraus from here)