Chris Kraus: ‘The more seriously you take something, the funnier it is’
The US writer’s seminal novel about a curious love triangle is a touchstone for feminists. But don’t expect its author to take herself too seriously
Chris Kraus: “Satire is a sensibility that’s under-represented in the culture.” Photograph: Reynaldo Rivera
Chris Kraus is refilling her coffee, hard of hearing and fantastically good humoured over Skype. Sometimes a book perfectly captures the zeitgeist. Here, as one critic put it, it’s the zeitgeist that has been catching up with her best-known book.
I Love Dick went from cult read to must-read, and Kraus’s seminal novel has become a touchstone for feminists and female artists, its complexity of esoteric and emotionally charged prose blurring the lines between what is real and what is parody to dizzying effect.
Since its publication, in 1997, Kraus, who is also a film-maker, has published Aliens and Anorexia, a book of essays (Video Green), Torpor, and more recently Summer of Hate. All are published by Semiotext(e), an independent press whose cutting-edge catalogue also includes Penny Arcade, Michel Foucault, Eileen Myles, Sergio González Rodríguez – “The Journalist” in Roberto Bolano’s 2666 – Jean Beaudrillard, Michelle Tea, William S Burroughs and Kathy Acker.
“The one book we’ve never published is a kind of middle-class heterosexual-male narrative about people like him, which I think is about 80 per cent of literature,” Kraus says. “We’re interested in something else.”
I Love Dick constructs a curious love triangle featuring a character named Chris Kraus; her husband, Sylvère Lotringer – in real life Kraus’s ex-husband – and “Dick”, a sociologist. As Chris and Sylvère’s sex life stagnates they develop an obsession with Dick, writing increasingly fantastical and personal letters to him – and eventually communicating with one another through letters.
Chris’s infatuation with Dick is both empowering and crippling. She channels her energy and desires through her letter writing as an art project, but she is childishly obsessed with Dick’s every move – or non-move.
When I first read I Love Dick it felt like a slap, an exhilarating work that widens your eyes and affirms so many unsaid things: the inequalities that reside in heterosexuality, the almost doomed desires to pursue crushes, the longing for intellectual affirmation, and the second fiddle that women are often forced to play.
“Even now that the book is well received,” she says. “Most people praise it for positively depicting female abjection, and I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as a comedy. The more seriously you take something, always, the funnier it is. Because ultimately, really, what’s that important? You can keep telescoping back and telescoping back, and everything appears just ridiculous.”
Kraus says that her eponymous character was a parody. “She’s about to turn 40 and she’s acting like she’s 14. But that’s the heterosexual script. Usually you try and hide it better as you become more theoretically adult.
“So then part of the comedy is, if she could bring these dynamics that persist lifelong out on to the table, she could maybe do something with it. There’s something so absurd when those behaviours that usually become less talked about are repeated by a middle-aged person.
“I think the culture encourages people, because we have such high and exacting standards for what constitutes a satisfactory relationship, to continue those dating-assessing behaviours into their 60s. It’s completely ridiculous, always searching, searching, searching for the perfect one.”
I Love Dick went from cult to mainstream in 2006, when it was republished. “It started to be received by younger women in a more underground way, through blogs and online,” Kraus says.
“It was read by younger women as if it had just come out. It kind of crept into the mainstream, so by two years ago people were reviewing it in airline magazines. And, um, it’s not always read . . . Even though it may be read positively it’s not always read the way I intended it to be read. But, you know, I accept that.
“Satire is a sensibility that’s under-represented in the culture right now. I love it! It’s the most appropriate response.”
Why is satire under-represented? “I don’t know. Is it because people are dumber?” Kraus cracks up.
“I guess I’m talking about what people call ‘internet feminism’, where people become so extremely sensitive to what constitutes an insult.”
Gloria Steinem says that women’s confidence diminishes when they don’t see themselves represented in culture. Women’s self-esteem diminishes as they study women’s absence from history.
“It’s not entirely true, is it? We can think of a lot of good examples in the last 20 years of women who have continued to make incredibly radical and challenging and visible work all the way into the end of their lives.”
Kraus mentions the artist Louise Bourgeois and the writer Alice Munro, and she agrees that, although it might not be high art, feminist television is a growing and important field, from Jill Soloway to Lena Dunham. (And Orange Is the New Black is hilarious, she says.)
Soloway, who created the groundbreaking, Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning Amazon hit Transparent, wrote for Six Feet Under and was the showrunner on United States of Tara and How to Make It in America, will direct the television adaptation of I Love Dick, also for Amazon. “I trust Jill Soloway will do something interesting with it,” Kraus says. “I think she’s a fantastic director.”
Kraus is now working on a book about Acker, the American feminist novelist and punk poet who died in 1997, at the age of 50. Kraus lived in Acker’s stomping ground of 1970s and 1980s New York, but she is now based in California. Does she miss New York?
“Not at all. They’re all coming to LA now. It’s like the whole of what used to be Brooklyn has relocated to northeast LA.
“So New York becomes a place, I think like London is, for meetings. It’s not a place people live any more, so you don’t have that kind of urban-living experience where you run into the same people in the street day every day, and see them at the same openings and parties and bars.”
“Another reason I wanted to write it is to dispel the myth that the ’70s and ’80s in New York were such a marvellous time and so incredibly different from the present.
“I can’t stand the way that era has been mythologised. I wasn’t a participant at that time. I had nothing to say. The last thing in the world I would do is write a memoir of my life in New York in the ’80s.
“I didn’t do anything then, but I was there. I have a sense of how false many of these memoirs are from people who became famous and active during that period. And by tracking Kathy Acker’s life, she just becomes a marker you can use to move back through history.
“So reading all of these diaries and letters, and talking to people who were still alive and active now, and lived during that time, trying to actually reconstruct friendships and the dissolutions of friendships – that becomes a way of constructing history that’s so much more than about one person.”
Although I Love Dick is sometimes categorised as a memoir, Kraus repeatedly says that’s not what she writes. “I certainly don’t see what I do as writing memoir. I’m writing fiction. But I’m certainly writing fiction through my observation, through my experiences, somewhat through my presence in the world.”
A key line in the book lands with a thud: “Who gets to speak, and why, is the only question.” Kraus says it’s “all about struggling to find the position to write from. The character in I Love Dick, Chris, she couldn’t write for all those years because she had no position. She felt she had been completely erased. And through the book she fights for a position she can speak from. And she attains it.
“But you can’t stay there. You know, life is constant flux, and writing follows life. I have to find the right place to write from for that moment of my life. So, in that sense, every book I have written has been different, because every book has entailed trying to find that spot.”