In my supremely dorky universe, one of the best forms of joy is encountering a deliciously addictive book right after having dragged around a real literary ball-n-chain for a while. I’m happy to report that, after having conquered Mating midway through the holiday weekend, I jumped directly into Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick– and barely put it down until wrapping it up last night.
I waited a good long while to be in the right mood for what I thought I would encounter with Dick; months ago, a review had me thinking I’d be delving deeply into the inane intricacies of romance, and even though its approach sounded alluring, I didn’t feel as if I could deal with all that tension that somehow never gets beyond adolescence.
Admittedly, the narrator’s (Chris’) infatuation with a person she barely knows takes her down some weird paths. But as we go along with her, something amazing emerges, something I’m still not at all sure how to describe or even approach investigatively. Because this book turns into an exploration of what it means to be and be viewed as a woman (or maybe even just a female human body), particularly in the worlds of art and/or academia up through 1990s America. Yes, it was published twenty years ago, and no, my naive college self did not inhabit the often-risqué and -risky environments in which the narrator found herself. But in spite of the differences in concrete situations, some sort of shared, connection-inducing Thing (experience? emotion?) resulted in my feeling as if Kraus had my back, and I, retroactively, hers– that this disembodied volume of words on paper was an offering of support and understanding across a the space of a couple of decades.
Part of that affinity may lie in the fact that Dick is a (mostly) epistolary novel; fan as I am of letter-writing, the genre alone meant we were probably off to a good start. So much of this account is purely about expressing oneself to and before a beloved other– a phenomenon I’ve touched on before, especially in relation to Kafka. Some of Chris’ hints (or declarations) about why she continues this seemingly delusional exercise hit exactly at my own desires just to be heard and known by another person: “But I wanted to tell you how exhilarating it felt to step out of the truck and feel the cold dark air around Stony Creek’s four corners…”(1) Just to be able to share the littlest spark in an uneventful day, to share your wonder with someone– it’s a desire the writer acknowledged in her previous letter on the part of her husband, who, she says, “was eager to share something, so he shared her enthusiasm for the Adirondacks and two days later they bought a ten room farmhouse…”(2)
But even as she offers up her impressions to (or forces them upon) the object of her affection, unlike Kafka, Chris openly admits the sort of futility, or at least disconnect, in what she’s doing: “I’m torn between maintaining you as an entity to write to and talking with you as a person. Perhaps I’ll let it go.”(3) As she continues writing, though, and even as one bubble after another is (sometimes heartlessly) burst, Chris realizes that the image of the reader she’s (mostly) created has provided her a sort of sounding board, maybe even a source of permission, to understand herself, her history, the histories and situations of so many others in her own place/s and time/s. It’s a sort of self-knowledge and -determination that can even confront and overcome, though not without pain, the book’s brilliant ending, which scraped out my insides with its perfect cruelty.(4)
I’ve got a couple of pages’ worth of notes tucked into the book– and plan on going back to them and really trying to ferret out how Kraus did what she did, and what exactly it is that makes me feel so strongly about this novel, or extended letter, or whatever it is. It’s OK if I never solve that mystery– but chasing it around is bound to be heartening.(5)
(1) Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), 93.
(2) Ibid., 92.
(3) Ibid., 130. It’s not clear whether “it” refers to a potential phone conversation, (the pursuit of) Dick himself, and/or the entire letter-writing project altogether.
(4) Not since the original Twin Peaks series have I witnessed a more unfair, yet beautifully apt, ending.
(5) I also haven’t seen the new series based upon Kraus’ book, and only recently found out it was in the works. My guess is it’ll be a while before I check it out; I want to let the appreciation of the original linger for a while, before I compare it to anyone else’s interpretation of it.
As I’ve been wading, over the past few days, through non-reader-populated trains and work scenarios that would have made stellar sitcom episodes, I’ve also managed to finish a collection of Kafka’s epistles to one of his mostly-virtual sweethearts, Letters to Milena.
The woman in question was his Czech translator, living in not-so-far-away Vienna while young(-ish) Franz holed up in Prague, doing such a great job on his stories (and maybe for other more predictable reasons, such as appearance and whatnot) that he was soon surrounding and sucking her in with the sorts of amazing, heart-on-their-sleeve letters most girls dream of receiving from poets and writers.
This outpouring followed on the heels of his lengthy and disastrous engagements (two of them!) to Felice Bauer, which had also been carried out mostly via the mail, and in the midst of another engagement to Julie Wohryzková, which was broken off while this particular correspondence was going on. Much like the exchanges I’ve read between Franz and Felice, the letters we have in this volume (only Kafka’s, none of Milena’s) provide a nice example of someone desperate for human connection and understanding, but simultaneously undercutting the possibility of achieving that goal, holding his recipient at bay from his safe haven in another city, while knowing someone else is at least carrying his thoughts and fears and emotional burdens along with him. It’s unclear from this collection how much of a barrier the married Milena was placing in the path of the two of them being in the same physical space, but it’s also evident that her distant paramour frequently resisted making that scenario possible, even while professing his devotion to her. On his end, it seems to be the same old thing with Felice all over again, carrying out a disembodied, intense, time-consuming intimacy only to have it fall flat and strange once the correspondents come face to face.
It was a beautifully frustrating collection to read, made all the more maddening by the author’s ever-more-frequent bursts of pessimism and self-insult. But here’s the maybe-positive outcome for this reader: having craved, and never found, such correspondence for most of my life, exposure to all this fraught scribbling confirmed my waning enthusiasm for such affairs that began with reading, and reading about, Kafka’s correspondence with Felice– and finally doing away completely, I think, with the last bit of regret or futile yearning for such interaction in my own life.
Pained as I am by the present’s immersion in virtual reality and relationships, Kafka’s letters, and the way he would use them, have brought to light the fact that The Virtual has been around much longer than I’d thought, and in previously unexpected fashions. Contrivances designed to bring people closer– media as simple as a written letter or as dependent on sophisticated engineering as an electronic spluttering of data– so often provide an illusion of intimacy that, in its deception, may even act as a barrier to real, full, embodied relationships (romantic or non-) ever becoming a reality. I’ve heard that dating sites give users the advice to meet as soon as possible, and not carry on a lengthy e-correspondence, so as not to build up a false image of the person sitting behind a faraway screen. In reading these letters, I’ll allege that even evidence from a pre-cyber-bound world stands in support of that suggestion.
Kafka did have relationships with women in his actual vicinity; he even lived with the last in his line of ladies, Dora Diamant. In the end, then, he proved himself capable of at least crossing a big, scary line into reality. Maybe it took those hundreds of letters, and hours spent writing them, to get there– but I still wonder what would have happened, how his life, his writing, his fears, might have been different, if he’d taken that step sooner.