Chris Kraus published I Love Dick in 1996, and until 2012, it sold only about a thousand copies per year. It was a difficult read that hit home with a few feminist academics who were impressed with Kraus’s experimental work in epistolary writing. Twenty years later, in August 2016, Jill Soloway, the director of Transparent, released a pilot TV show by the same name based on Kraus’s book. The television show is exciting and thoroughly accessible. But it’s not experimental in a meaningful way and it can’t reach the same heights as the book.
Amazon’s I Love Dick bit off more than it could chew in its attempt to create the same delicious tension that Kraus induces as both subject and object of her memoir. When you watch it, you cannot see Chris’s character separate from her body. A TV show simply does not have the means to portray a character’s thoughts as disembodied, and therefore is a very difficult medium to capture what makes the book I Love Dick special. In the first episode of the show, Chris (Kathryn Hahn) tries to smoke a bowl outside with a stove lighter, wearing neon Birkenstocks and pajamas, her hair mussed just so. You can’t unsee her. She can’t flit around as Chris does in the book moving from abstraction to particularity, from subject writing to object being gazed upon, from dominating to dominated, and then back again.
There are already many TV shows that point out the futility of a modern woman’s struggle to flourish in the “feminist” trap that she has laid for herself. Just think about all of the passionless and unsatisfying sex the characters in Girls submit to in the name of third-wave feminism. In the beginning of I Love Dick, we watch Chris flounder at a fancy arts event for the circle-jerking “post-idea” modernists. We all know these people. They seem like characters from Reductress’s “Six Devil’s Advocates You’ll Date in Your 20s” or that guy you sat next to in college who thought you’d never understand his obsession with Wilco and yet shared it nonetheless. The show is transgressive insofar as it places the politics of gender in the foreground, but proves ill-equipped to show how one might do more than acknowledge complex gendered dynamics.
In a more complex, and much denser mode, the book uses the form of the letter to examine theories of love and femininity; “Every Letter is a Love Letter” titles the second half of the book. In this section, Kraus argues against the classic model of love as put forth by the character Aristophanes in Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium. There, Aristophanes explains that when humans were first created, each was congenitally joined to a partner. Zeus separated humans from their “lovers” on account of his fear that together they were too powerful. Aristophanes’s account of the separation of soul mates mythologizes human desire: humans long for another to complete them so that they might return to their perfect wholes, which Zeus rendered impossible. Thus, humans tragically wander the earth, looking for someone who can fill their voids.
Kraus disagrees and says, “I think desire isn’t [a] lack, it’s surplus energy—a claustrophobia inside your skin.” For both Plato’s Aristophanes and Kraus, desire is a dance between accepting another and being accepted by that other in turn. But Kraus is not looking for another to complete her. Kraus wants to be seen by Dick, and in the book she also uses the idea of him to see herself as whole, even without his physical affirmation. In a twist on conventional epistolary writing, Chris does not allow the success of her letters to be defined by Dick’s response or lack thereof. For her, there are many audiences: Dick, her husband, the reader, and herself. She writes, “Dear Dick, I guess in a sense I’ve killed you. You’ve become Dear Diary.” Through the form of letter writing, Kraus simultaneously asserts herself in first person while asking for Dick to respond to her, admitting implicitly that her words garner meaning when they are received and given responses. And yet, even unsent the letters have meaning and intention. The epistolary format is not present in a meaningful way in the show: it is used to give the director style points but not to give the conflict more depth.
In the show, the letters and Chris’s relationship to them are dramatically simplified. Dick’s character (played by Kevin Bacon) is still tied to Chris’s lust and love for him, but his existence is never threatened; rather, his visual presence is crucial. In the book, Chris could annihilate his character by simply choosing to write letters to someone else. In the show, Dick is present in a way that Chris cannot control. We see him for the first time in a run-down town in Texas, looking mythically indifferent while riding a horse. In the final scene, Chris prepares to send him a letter as he prepares for the day. As Chris prints and folds, Dick smokes a cigarette and drinks coffee. His movements parallel hers. She is not alone; his story matters, too. How can we ignore Kevin Bacon? In the book, Chris’s interpretation of events is all that we get. She isn’t unreliable; she is candid and thorough. The pilot boasts of capitalizing on “Rashomon-style shifts of POV,” meaning that we get to see certain scenes twice. Unfortunately, because we see the same scene once with an “objective” lens and then again through Chris, filtered through her uncontrolled lust, we don’t trust her, whereas in the book we don’t question her.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to convey the arc of a series of letters in a TV show. Words flash on the screen at regular intervals in bright Helvetica. Right before Chris and Dick meet for the first time, the screen goes red and white letters spoken by Chris blast on: “DEAR DICK / THIS IS ABOUT OBSESSION / HOW DID WE NOT KNOW EACH OTHER BEFORE NOW.” Chris sees Dick from across an artsy meet-and-greet and the music stops. Kevin Bacon/Dick rolls a cigarette and he is the only person in the world. She stutters at him in real time: “Love, love that you just go by Dick. Because usually, you know, when someone is born a Richard, you know when one is born a Richard, they you know, Rich, Rick, Richie, Ricky, so many—.” Dick cuts her off, and the audience feels the tension between this interaction and what was happening in Chris’s head. In the book, the significance of Dick’s interactions with Chris become meaningful only through her interpretations of the events and how those events fit into her world. In the television show, the scenes between Dick and Chris are themselves the sites of power struggles and sexual tension. Chris’s narration in the show is not much more than confirmation that what she believes to be happening is her own fiction. But in the book, Chris’s interpretation of the events and her refusal to include Dick’s point of view instead grant her the authority to uniquely own and author her experience.
The book is heady and hard, and didn’t really sell, while the TV show is fun. But the parts of the book that alienate the mainstream are the same parts that challenge the reader to imagine a world that is different from the one they are in. In the show, we see Chris in love, Chris subjected to mansplaining, Chris witness to fragile masculinity, Chris still in love but aware that such love is unhealthy. In the book, Chris falls in love and then immediately asks, how can I take ownership of my feelings? Am I bound to my archetype? Can I change my story?
I Love Dick—both the show and the book—explores the ways in which our desires are formed without our consent or encouragement. Sometimes we fall for the wrong guy, even knowing he is wrong. The asymmetric and gendered power dynamic between Chris and Dick foster her love and lust for him. Both show and book are about sex and about power, asking us to consider why these two things go together. How will Chris navigate her love for Dick if the very reasons she loves him are the very reasons she shouldn’t? But the structure of TV displays each character through the seemingly unbiased imaginary viewer. In the book, there is no such thing. We see through Chris’s eyes, and when she discovers the male gaze, we both stare right back.