The front cover of the last book I loved bears neither gold seals nor laurels to rest on. If you’re looking for flashy art direction, keep moving. Here, there’s just a shadowy still life photo (inventory: one open notebook, one glass ashtray, one bowl, two pens, many loose leaves of paper) set against a plain white background. And yet, if ever there was a book that should be judged by its cover, it’s this one. Open it and you’ll learn that the cover photo is not stock but Treilles, 1996 by French theorist Jean Baudrillard. That’s your first clue. I Love Dick doesn’t look like any other book on the shelf, and it doesn’t read like any other book I’ve read either.
The first novel from art critic and experimental filmmaker Chris Kraus, I Love Dick was originally published in 1997 by Semiotext(e), an independent press which also happens to be co-edited by…Chris Kraus. Probably no other publisher would have touched it, and thank God (or Chris Kraus?) for that.
Let me give you some idea why. In the novel, a fictional version of the author spends one sexless night with the titular Dick, a well-known theorist, and becomes exponentially, embarrassingly, obsessed with him. She calls this nuit chez Dick a “conceptual fuck,” and one assumes it registers pretty high on the Conceptual Fuck Richter Scale because she goes on to write a terrific series of confessional letters to him in collaboration with another man: her husband. A husband she’s no longer sleeping with. The letters are ostensibly a game, until they’re not at all. And all of this coincides with a strange and, at times, emotionally exhausting ride across America from the California desert to the New York avant-garde art scene. It is a trip.
Salacious plot points aside, the chief thrill of reading I Love Dick comes from how inventively it rewrites representations of the dreaded female inner life. Books by women are sometimes condescendingly described as intimate, inconsequential, or limited to domestic subjects—like the rest of women’s work—making them the literary equivalent of a patchwork quilt. In I Love Dick, Kraus takes a seam ripper to those criticisms. “How much information about one subject can you juggle in two hands?” she asks. Importantly, her book isn’t an answer. It’s hypothesis—the fun part.
Fiction and autobiography, theory and scandal, humor and pathos, the diaristic and the dialectical—Kraus reaches for them all to test how much insight they can offer. No matter how “small” or “limited” the picture seems, “the trick is to discover Everything within the frame.” There are whole worlds in there.
If you think that great writing should be about more than intellectual gymnastics, you can exhale now. I Love Dick delivers practical life lessons too. Here’s one: in order to learn you have to fail, right? So I mean it in the best way when I say that Kraus has fashioned an ode to personal and professional failure, bolding and underlining the key notion that, in the eyes of history, if you’re a woman you are all but destined to be forgotten.
Take her description of an installation by artist Eleanor Antin:
Through the far-left window a middle-aged woman was painting on a large canvas.…It was an ordinary scene (though its very ordinariness made it subversively utopian: how many pictures from the 50s do we have of nameless women painting late into the night and living lives?).…I felt a rush of empathetic curiosity about the lives of the unfamous, the unrecorded desires and ambitions of artists who had been here too. What’s the ratio of working artists to the sum total of art stars? A hundred or a thousand?
Kraus counts herself a member of that unremembered constellation—always the plus one at art parties, never the guest of honor. In one of her letters to Dick, she writes, “I tried my best but [my film] still failed.” And then: “Is there any greater freedom than not caring anymore what certain people in New York think of me?”
I read the better part of I Love Dick during many long Toronto subway rides to and from my desk job. (I read faithfully, like a penitent, when I can’t or won’t make time to write.) It was just a book but with that title you might as well be hoisting a billboard. I received a few stares and practiced not caring. Mostly, I pretended to be Rihanna.
On one commute the woman across from me fingered her rosary and I imagined (hoped) that she was praying for my soul. Not because I needed to be saved but because I felt so strongly that there was nothing left worth saving.
Which is why, when I think back on it, it seems likeliest the woman wasn’t staring at all but looking right through me. Because if that’s true, what else is there to console myself with except the promise of freedom by invisibility? As Kraus puts it, “Once you’ve accepted total obscurity you may as well do what you want.” After that I started seeing last hurrahs everywhere.
One night while the fictional Chris Kraus was feverishly writing to Dick in an Oklahoma motel, I was watching two women named Thelma & Louise take another vital road trip across my TV. I was only going to watch the first half hour or so, just until Louise shoots Thelma’s rapist dead. (Later, a giddily deranged Thelma will spit one of the film’s most satisfying lines: “You should have shot him in the dick!”) Inevitably, I watched the whole thing.
When it seems like the two friends have exhausted every mile of open road, Thelma tells Louise that she can never go back to the banal indignity of her old life. “Something’s crossed over in me,” she says. “I can’t go back. I mean, I just couldn’t live.”
Well, she didn’t go back. She didn’t live either.
But she tried.
I Love Dick detonated something in me, but it’s been a slow demolition. With each quiet, contained blast I grow more sure that by recognizing our own billboards of desire and failure, and perhaps even finding some dignity there, we are also moving the culture towards the “subversive utopia” that so many women, artists or not, hoped and hope for. When I quit that desk job in November, with no real plans to speak of, I remembered I Love Dick. That Kraus, who considered herself a failure, could write this book at all gives me a shot of courage, and makes me less willing to wait my turn to really live.