This novel has had enough attention in the UK for anyone who knows the slightest bit about books (which, obvs, isn’t that many people #ignorantnation) to know that it is far less embarrassing to be seen reading I Love Dick on public transport than most of the trash the empty-headed thriller-fans charge their eReaders with. However, Chris Kraus’ 1997 Semiotext(e) smash, I Love Dick has not had the sufficient exposure in Barcelona for its title composed solely of three well-known English words to not cause more than a few raised eyebrows as I pootled about over the past few days.
There’s a press blurb on this recent Serpent’s Tail reprint that says “Read this on the bus if you dare”, because of that deliberately confrontational title, meaning to both the ignorant and the wise, I adore male cock”. This isn’t, of course, what the title of the book refers to directly, but this gentle pun (is it a pun? no, not really) is no coincidence, as “Dick” is the name of a man within the novel, as well as a popular (and very American) slang term for the male wanger. (Ooh – my phone just autocorrected “wanger” to “danger”, which says a lot, doesn’t it?)
I Love Dick is a novel about obsession, about desire, about entering into middle age and the various ways in which people try (and fail) to confront their mortality. Wait, I’m baulking at my own words, because this makes I Love Dick sound like some kind of late ’90s Gen X Updike text, which is an unfair comparison. Though Kraus, like Updike, writes about infidelity and tries to be funny, the humour that Kraus seeks here is much less cruel, much more self-effacing (rather than self-aggrandising) and Kraus’ knowledge and wisdom when writing about human relationships is far more nuanced, intelligent and – to be blunt – less fucking sexist than one can find, for example, in Rabbit, Run.
Kraus’ novel is split into two halves, the first, ‘Scenes From A Marriage’, is constructed as (what initially seems like) a rather traditional epistolary novel, alternating between letters from Chris Kraus (the character) and said character’s husband. They both write, separately and together, to the eponymous Dick. Dick is an English academic living the Cali dream, an acquaintance of character-Chris-Kraus’ husband. However, after one boozy mid-Winter night where nothing really happens, the character-Kraus decides she is in love with Dick.
From this point, the first half properly kicks off, as the married couple forge a collaborative harmony through their letter writing to Dick, which causes the return of their long-waned marital passion. Well, briefly and unsatisfyingly causes the return of their long-waned marital passion.
The first half ends with character-Kraus leaving her husband, certain that she has to fuck Dick. The specific Dick, not any dick.
The second half is then much more fractured (tbf the first half includes lots of digressions on art and culture and philosophy, as well as formal digressions in the use of extracts from phone conversations and other recorded dialogues) and consists of distinct pieces, each with a more significant thematic focus. A chapter on schizophrenia is particularly engaging (well, was for me), and I also found lots of detail about recent politics in Guatemala very engaging. These texts within the novel function as very readable but thoughtful essays: they are enervating, intelligent, genuinely explorative pieces, though there is a firm engagement with critical theory and contemporary (for the 1990s) art that left me, at times, a little confused. But I can handle that.
Kraus’ voice and the topics she discusses are important and human and eternal, but, yes, in terms of its narrative and the topics and lifestyles I Love Dick predominantly engages with, it is an incredibly middle class novel. However, this is the kind of intelligent middle class novel about intelligent successful people being a bit fucked-up that reminds a cynical reader like myself exactly what it is that all the shit ones are trying to do. Does that make sense? It does to me and I can’t be arsed to edit this further.
Anyway, whether I Love Dick is read as a novel, an essay collection or a memoir, it doesn’t fucking matter. Chris Kraus wrote an excellent, important book with a cracking title. It made me laugh, it made me think, and if it had made more of an effort, I bet it would have made me cry. Also, it has a great ending, which is an unexpected pleasure in any experimental, discursive, literary novel, as so many books of this type just… kinda… stop…
I Love Dick is deliberate, smart and well worth a read.
Though, let’s be honest, you’ve probably already read it…
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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I have a strange spooky relationship to this book. I bought it off Amazon and when it arrived I put it somewhere temporarily until I could put it on my bookshelves out in the shed. But it disappeared before I could rehouse it and I have never found it. I now have it bookmarked to read online, as I’m too mean to buy it again, but I do hate reading on a computer screen. So as yet it still remains unread. One day, one day…
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