For years before I read it, I kept hearing about Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick.” I mainly heard about it from smart women who liked to talk about their feelings. I heard about it once on a bus in Philadelphia; I still remember the gray city rolling by. I didn’t understand exactly what it was, but it had an allure, like whispers about a dance club that only opened under the full moon, or an underground bar you needed a password to get into. It was a book that carried the sense of being in the know. And it was apparently about loving dick.
Then I read it. I was nearly two decades late to the party—“I Love Dick” came out in 1997—but I loved the party anyway. I was finally part of it, and it made me feel even more part of it—part of something—to have men making asinine comments on the 4 train, pointing at the cover: Good to know what you like! I knew I was holding white-hot text in my hands, written by a woman who had theorized what these guys were doing—with me, with their dick jokes—even before they’d done it.
In her novel “Summer of Hate,” Kraus offers a coyly ironic evocation of her own fan base: “Asperger’s boys, girls who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, assistant professors who would not be receiving their tenure, lap dancers, cutters, and whores.” The message: people with wounds and frustrated dreams. The other message: Kraus has a sense of humor. At this point, reading Kraus feels like joining the ranks of those who have already come to love or hate her—those who worship her, idealize her, argue with her; those who wish she would stop talking so much about her sex life.
“I Love Dick” is a “novel” about a woman named Chris Kraus and her unrequited, increasingly obsessive love for a cultural critic named Dick. (What I could have told those men on the subway: See? Dick is actually a cultural critic!) Kraus keeps writing to Dick, keeps calling Dick, even makes her husband a collaborator in her pursuit of Dick, and all the while keeps getting rebuffed by him. She brings us deep into the folds of her relentless pursuit—“marching boldly into self-abasement,” in the words of her friend, the poet Eileen Myles. She gives us female desire without shame or passivity, and follows abjection “into something bright and exalted, like presence.”
I followed “Dick” into the rest of Kraus’s work, which is nothing if not a bright map of presence. Her books all traverse similar narrative terrain from different angles—a female artist’s frustrated career arc, her childless and nomadic marriage. In some of these books, the artist is named Chris Kraus (“I Love Dick,” “Aliens & Anorexia”); other times, she is named Sylvie (“Torpor”) or Catt (“Summer of Hate”). Sometimes, her story is narrated in the first-person; other times, in the third. Sometimes, her husband is named Sylvere Lotringer (the theorist to whom Kraus was once married, and with whom she co-runs Semiotext(e), the press that releases all her books); other times, the husband is named Jerome or Michele. Their little dachshund is always Lily.
Key plot points recur: an artist who considers herself a failed experimental filmmaker is married to an older cultural theorist, a professor at Columbia; they move between country houses that they rent out for extra money (“It was a profitable scheme, but consequently, the pair are homeless”); the husband has a daughter from his first marriage, but the couple never has children together (they have abortions instead); at a certain point, the female character leaves, moves across the country to Los Angeles, gets involved in the art scene, gets obsessed with Dick, gets involved in S & M, has a lot of anonymous sex: “Giving blowjobs in the parking lot behind the House of Pies, finger-fucking on a stranger’s couch, she is amazed by how completely sex annihilates the need for context.”
Kraus’s entire body of work betrays an abiding obsession with context; one can easily imagine the desire to escape it. Her books return to the same dynamics over and over—romantic abjection, ambiguous and often frustrating intimacies, artistic devotion and ambition, social communion and alienation—in order to explore them in multiple and overlapping contexts: artistic, spiritual, domestic, private, public, historical, political, economic. They are versions of one central drama: a female consciousness struggling to live a meaningful life.