How many people have written about Chris Kraus’ book I Love Dick (1997, Semiotext(e))? Probably hundreds/thousands if you include all the research papers and syllabi that have probably added it to their reading lists. It took me a while to read this book/want to read this book since it has felt like some sort of ozone that hovers in the art world/feminist lexicon. It’s the type of book that insists on being read and even though I was reluctant, I’m happy and relieved that I did.
So essentially the book centers on Chris’ infatuation with ‘Dick.’ It is about obsession, fantasy, survival, and catharsis. It is all too real; Chris is Chris, Dick is supposedly Dick Hebdige and sprinkled throughout are tellings of real people and real interactions including Sylvère Lotringer, Kraus’ husband. This book reads as a diary, manifesto, an open wound, but it is a ‘novel’ and it is unlike any that you have encountered before.
Various parts build it up. The beginning is the game of unsent letters that both Chris and Sylvère write to Dick. This was at first a bit annoying for me as the book I just finished reading, Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, has a similar formula of diary-esque entries of time, place, structuring and I was a bit overdosed on it. In another way Kraus’ writing initially rubbed me the wrong way because she is not what one would consider a ‘good writer.’ Her use of words, sentence structure, objective of content is scattered, clutching and at times overwrought. But as you keep reading this becomes less hampering because of what she is writing about and the brutal force in which she does it.
Kraus, at the time this is set, is a 39 year old women who is a basically failed artist who is in the art/intellectual world by her own right but is also appendaged into it by her marriage to Lotringer. Kraus divulges into the awareness of that positioning in stark truths and being likewise a women in the arts and possibly a failure in many ways, those truths are all too familiar. The way that Kraus unravels and exposes herself, her mind, feelings, and body, is unrelenting and every time she did this it made me think, ‘Oh my god that is me.’
How many times have I convinced myself that I was in love with someone just because they didn’t love me back? How many times have I made irrational choices to just hurtle myself to point zero? How many times have I forced or willed myself into a story that never asked me to be in it? How many times have I felt at the edges of sanity risking self, body and mind to have a moment of truth or beauty? All the time, too many times. This is the thing about this book. Kraus is you/every women and the universality of that makes you think, ‘the world must be fucked and crazy not me.’
This book is more about the condition of being a women then it is about ‘Dick.’ Being someone’s ‘wife’, ‘mother’, ‘lover’, ‘one night stand’, is constructed onto us and the weight of that and the conditioning of that makes us all crazy. Kraus talks directly about ‘crazy’ in relationship to schizophrenia. This beloved focus of theoretical thinking is a bit cliché for me but I couldn’t help feeling that I knew what she meant when she was talking about how things are relational and linked. That connections and synchronicity is the schizophrenic’s constant pastiche and I had reoccurring moments of this while reading this.
First it was the Bolaño link, then she writes about Jane Eyre – I just watched the version with Fassbender that same night. Then her and Sylvère refer to themselves as Emma and Charles from Madame Bovery – I just watched that movie as well. This link with the romantic genre and the connections with being insane and being a woman felt all too strung-up together. We are clichés incarnated but does that reflect the female condition or is it the constructor?
As the book progresses Dick is no longer the purpose. He was the ignition switch for Kraus to allow herself to let it all go and give herself permission to be Chris. This is formally a bit weird to read. She is at first a diarist, then a confessionist, then an art critique, then a cultural critique, and throughout she is a self-taught philosopher inserting quotes and references but this is all done without pagination. There is a battle going on by Kraus against herself. She is trying to usurp the formulas of writing but she also seems to use these very things as a crutch. She’s being punk about it all but also wants to make sure that you know that she knows what all of that means, which is frankly very unpunk.
Though there were flaws, this is a book that literally kept me up at night. It made me at times want to slash and burn my constructed self and drive cross country, have sex with whomever I wanted, hop on a plane to someplace I have never been and not tell anyone. Her talking of herself was like having a conversation with your closest friends. The vault of secrets and confessions that only lose their control over you once you say them aloud. I think this is the book’s purpose. To get you to see Chris and in turn yourself. It is harsh, embarrassing and at moments queasy but afterwards you feel different, liberated, less insane.
The book ends with Dick sending Chris final letters to her and Sylvère. The letter addressed to Sylvère she reads first and it talks of general things and then of the situation of Chris’s infatuation with him. The letter addressed to her is just a copy of the letter that he sent to Sylvère. The ruthlessness of that gesture, the erasure of the female self but the acknowledgement of the male is a slap to the face but one whose sting is oh so familiar.
If you are over 25 and female you must read this book. It can be a handbook on how to cope with being in a world where you have no choice but to be crazy so you might as well do whatever you want, however you want. That's the bravest thing about this book, Kraus' accolades opens up permission to a new form of writing and also makes it okay to acknowledge that love is the only thing we have to save ourselves.