“Ahead of its time” – I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

ildckOriginally published in the US in 1994, Chris Kraus’ playfully-titled I Love Dick has been published in the UK for the first time by Tuskar Press. An exploration of female desire and subjectivity, I Love Dick blends the epistolary novel with essay and memoir, creating a thoughtful, vivid account of an ‘abstract romance’.

 The book begins with experimental filmmaker, Kraus (39) and her college professor husband Sylvere Lotringer (56) meeting the British academic Dick (Hebdige, author of Subcultures), over dinner in a sushi bar. Describing herself as ‘no intellectual’, she is silent as the men discuss ‘recent trends in postmodern critical theory’. However, she senses some ‘vast intelligence straining beyond the po-mo rhetoric… some essential loneliness that only she and he can share’. After the meeting, Chris begins to fantasise about an affair with Dick.  

Rather than acting on her impulse, Chris and Sylvere develop an academic game, in which they take turns to write letters to Dick, investigating her feelings from their own perspectives. Kraus calls this Abstract Romance, a ‘mutually self-conscious… dialectical resolution of a crisis that never was’. Dick becomes a canvas onto which Chris’s desire is projected; Sylvere, meanwhile, becomes an ironical observer of his wife’s erotic longings. By participating in these games, Sylvere and Chris display the twin aspects of longing: hoping Dick will call, and simultaneously hoping that he won’t, so the feeling of expectation can be prolonged. His inaccessibility fuels the attraction. As the one-sided correspondence develops, Chris and Sylvere begin referring to themselves as Charles and Emma Bovary, self-consciously placing themselves within the literary tradition of the bored housewife whose only agency comes through pursuing affairs, and the dull but respectable husband. 

However, I Love Dick performs a reversal of traditional narratives of desire; here, the male is silent, and fantasies are projected onto him, with the woman as active agent of desire. Chris becomes the observer, rather than the subject, taking control of her narrative. ‘I want to own everything that happens to me now,’ she states. She is deeply conscious of the power of fantasy and the (normally male) gaze, and of its limits: ‘When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. Therefore, you’re both omnipotent and powerless’. As she commits to her project of writing to Dick, Chris goes through a process of casting off. Her career and film are abandoned, and she separates from her husband.

Throughout I Love Dick, Kraus highlights the economics of her relationship with Sylvere. Initially, she had been supported by his salary, which she in turn invested in property, bringing in extra income, making her less reliant and also establishing her as a member of the bourgeoisie, alongside her husband. This desire for independence through property finds an echo in her idealised vision of Dick, the cowboy type with his ranch-like property in Guatemala.  

Beyond questions of desire and subjectivity, though, what I Love Dick made me think of was the way we talk about literature today. The internet is supposed to be a great enabler of discussion, but so much literary writing still consists of one person addressing an unseen audience (as this does, to its discredit). In forums designed to encourage discussion, we are hampered by character limits – nuance, and consideration, are victims of a rush for relevancy. By approaching her subject as a dialogue between herself and her husband, Kraus creates something far richer and more powerful than a simple account of her fantasy love affair could have been.  

At one point, Chris says that what women do together is the most interesting subject in art, as it is the least explored. This is still true; too much of literature, and art in general, looks at women only through their relationship to men. The dialogue is one-sided. By minimising the perspectives of women, as well as BAME voices, queer voices and more, we are reducing the potential of literature as a whole. I Love Dick made me want to write in a more collaborative way, and to engage in dialogue rather than issuing statements ex cathedra.  

Ahead of its time, I Love Dick explores intersections of gender, class, sexuality and race; Kraus is a forerunner of authors like Zoe Pilger, Joanna Walsh and Miranda July, but still feels fresh and relevant alongside them. I’ve spoken to more than one person who has said they will finish it, and then immediately go back to re-read. This indicates the intellectual depth of the book, and also Kraus’s success in creating a totally absorbing account of desire.  

Any Cop?: I Love Dick will turn some readers off, with its self-consciously academic style; but it has the power to change the way you think about reading, and being.

 

Thom Cuell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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