Sitting on public transport is an occasionally exasperating experience if you have the temerity to attempt travelling while female. Sitting on the London Underground carrying a copy of Chris Kraus’s re-released experimental novel I Love Dick is an experiment in itself.
Those who notice the cover - with bold, unabashed white and pink text on a green background - cast either a scandalised glance, or worse, a leery, suggestive one. Women everywhere can expect to share in those glances now the cult American text is being published in the UK for the first time.
It’s hard to explain exactly what I Love Dick is: autofiction; an epistolary novel; fantasy; or, according to early critics, a gossipy invasion of a feted art critic’s privacy. But how it is categorised is less important than the reaction to the book.
Friends speak of Kraus’s work in the same breathless and conspiratorial way they discuss Elena Ferrante’s novels of female friendship set in Naples. The clandestine clubbishness that envelopes women who’ve read and immersed themselves in the texts shows how little female desire, anger and vulnerability is accurately and confidently explored in literature and culture. Finding other readers leads to a torrent of questions: which character are you? Did the final page destroy you? What happened with the shoes?
In the re-published work, Kraus’s heroine, also called Chris Kraus, recounts her infatuation and pursuit of the eponymous Dick. By piecing together unsent letters, faxes, telephone calls and reconstructed conversation, she describes how the infatuation alters her thoughts, euthanises her marriage and infects her whole mind. As a study in female abjection, it’s instructive, but the book reveals far deeper truths than standard and uncomplicated love plots tend to.
Letters and faxes are drafted and redrafted. The love story plays out predominantly in the mind of the heroine, and the story is far more about the capacity of imagination in the mind of someone infatuated than it is about an overwhelmingly absent man. In the space between the early seeds of attraction and its consummation, the mind runs riot: stories aren’t as simple as many would have us believe - seduction is as much about what happens inside your skull as what happens below your belt.
Kraus, like Ferrante, knows that love and lust are as much about subjugation and submitting yourself to the strictures and problems of the heterosexual couple form, without being able to escape it. For all women are depicted as obsessed with the idea of commitment, marriage and children, Kraus tells an unspoken truth: the gap between desire and consummation is filled with as much, if not more, disaster planning and fear, purely for protection’s sake.
People never know what to do with women who write, especially about lust, in a way that isn’t sanitised and held back. Kraus’s dreams are explicit, but show the seismic damage small and deliberate cruelties can inflict in intimate relationships. Ferrante understands that sex can be revenge and catharsis even when the person your fury is dictated at has no knowledge of your actions and intentions.
So what do we do with outspoken women, who admit lust is complex, unwieldy and an integral part of female psychic and physical life? Dismiss them and dumb them down, compare them to other male authors or deny they are women at all, as critics have done to Ferrante.
Ferrante, in a recent Vanity Fair interview said: “Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not want to tell, and if a book offers us a portrait of those things, we feel annoyed, or resentful, because… reading about them disturbs us.”
The same sense of being disturbed afflicts critics of Kraus’s book - many of whom refuse to read it at all, denying it is art and dismissing it as gossip.
Both writers instead have produced cult classics, that initially baffled critics while completely beguiling women readers. The recognition of the unspoken way in which your endorphins, mind and capacity for mischief combine in the early stages of relationships, and the sheer exhaustion of infatuation aren’t explored often in a world which still considers women predominantly passive.
Women can be as destructive, possessive and prone to rage as men, it turns out: but discovering that is what terrifies them, while exhilarating women.
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