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Chris Kraus' unrequited love

Chris Kraus.

As her cult hit novel becomes a television series, Chris Kraus returns to New Zealand, where she embarked on a writing career that has fused feminism, intellectualism, sex and culture.

It was a crush that became an obsession that became a book. When experimental film-maker Chris Kraus and her husband, cultural theorist Sylvère Lotringer, had dinner with Lotringer’s colleague, Kraus was captivated, smitten, fixated. Over the following weeks, she and Lotringer wrote dozens of letters, all unsent, to their unwitting subject, the anonymous Dick _____.

Kraus: “Being in love with you, being ready to take this ride, made me feel 16, hunched up in a leather jacket in a corner with my friends.”

Lotringer: “While you flounder in your daily life, we have built you up as a truly powerful icon of erotic integrity.”

Kraus again: “Sylvère thinks it’s nothing more than a perverse longing for rejection, the love I feel for you. But I disagree: at bottom, I’m a very romantic girl.”

When Dick learns about this salvo of billets-doux, he is puzzled, confused, affronted. Would he like to participate in a conceptual art video in which, perhaps, he could be filmed finding the letters strewn across his front yard? No, he would not.

The result is I Love Dick, a published version of Kraus and Lotringer’s letters, faxes (this was the 1990s) and conversation transcripts, beginning with ardent pronouncements of love and desire and extending to lengthy meditations on life, art, Guatemala, schizophrenia and Katherine Mansfield, “Queen of the Biscuit Box School of Writing”.

To protect Dick’s identity, Kraus left out his surname and changed the titles of his publications, but he was later outed by New York magazine as cultural critic Dick Hebdige. The book has now been turned into a television series by Transparent creator Jill Soloway, who cast Kathryn Hahn as Kraus, Griffin Dunne as Lotringer and Kevin Bacon as Dick.

Kathryn Hahn as Kraus and Kevin Bacon as Dick in I Love Dick.

On the phone from her home in Los Angeles, Kraus describes her own fiction writing. “As soon as you write something down, you are fictionalising it. There is no such thing as a whole wrap-around truth: how we remember things is selective; how the story differs depends on who we are telling it to. As soon as you decide to bracket something in time, whatever happens within those brackets is really selective and composed.

“I went back and edited the letters and added a third-person narrative, which throws them into a certain light. I am inviting the reader to see this as funny, as a kind of high prank. To me comedy is very important.”

I Love Dick is funny but it is also unflinchingly honest – about life, love, Kraus’ own apparent failings – and radical in its use of personal material as the base for her story.

The critics in 1997 were bemused. Was it an erotic memoir? A gossipy tell-all (on hearing of the book’s imminent publication, Dick sent Kraus a cease-and-desist letter)? A feminist manifesto? A new literary form?

“Some people really liked it and other people found it really offensive. I think the reason they found it offensive was more to do with its being two things at once. I was dealing with cultural, political, theoretical and philosophical issues and material, while at the same time dealing with a kind of low, abject teenage crush – that is what people found disturbing.”

Since then, however, the book has been acclaimed as a cult feminist classic, and its author hailed a “female antihero”.

A guest at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival, Kraus is returning to her teenage roots. Born in the Bronx in 1955, she came to Wellington at 14, when her parents were accepted on a skilled-migrant programme. It was, she says, the best thing that could have happened.It seemed like a cosmopolitan and magical space compared with where we were coming from – a little redneck, blue-collar factory town in Connecticut, where I was beat up and made fun of at school.”

Wellington in I Love Dick is not so attractive. Winters are “gargantuan and mythic”, anyone who “feels too much or radiates extremity gets very lonely”. Now, she recalls the city as “monoscopic”, intimate and familiar, “like a 19th-century novel where events unfold before everyone’s eyes in a very connected world”.

After a stint as a journalist on the Evening Post, Kraus left New Zealand to study acting, eventually settling in New York where she immersed herself in feminist art and experimental poetry. She took up film-making, returning to New Zealand in the mid-1990s to make Gravity and Grace. Her disappointment at its poor reception was, she says, the kickstart for I Love Dick: “I knew I had to look somewhere else, do something else.”

As co-editor of the Semiotext(e) publishing house, set up by Lotringer as an independent outlet for new critical theory and avant-garde fiction, she established the Native Agents imprint for new American fiction.

“I knew all these people in the East Village and around St Mark’s Church Poetry Project, mostly women, who were writing work that seemed to be exactly what we were talking about, using personal material within a high-art context. With I Love Dick, I wanted to champion that as an editor.”

But I Love Dick required a back story, an explanation for why her two “postmodern nomads” embarked on such a project. Two books followed: Aliens and Anorexia (2000) and Torpor (2006).

“It is not normal for a married couple to engage in an affair with a third person, right? So what led them to that point? I Love Dick was not the place to get into the whole chain of cause and effect, but in those two books, I explicitly deal with the situation of a couple and it has everything to do with history.”

Torpor has the same characters (but with different names) in the same heady intellectual milieu: failed film-maker Sylvie and university professor Jerome try to revive a wilting marriage by going to Romania to adopt a baby. But just as the near-anonymous eponymous Dick fades into the background in her first novel, so the baby project is quietly abandoned.

Kraus and Lotringer have parted but remain friends: he lives around the corner with his partner and they both still work on Semiotext(e). Her latest book, Summer of Hate (2012), is set in the Iraq war. The main characters, neither intellectuals nor artists, are based on Kraus and her partner of 10 years Philip Valdez.

Also out this year is a biography of US experimental writer and film-maker Kathy Acker. Why Acker? There is a delay in her reply as the captioned phone transcribes the questions – Kraus has been hearing-impaired since a car accident in 1997.

“I thought she was a fascinating figure covering so many different aesthetic milieus, and it was a way of writing about the late 20th century without putting myself into it.”

Chris Kraus is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 16-21.

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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