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.
I rarely give up on a book, even if it’s exasperated or offended me from the beginning. (For example, the mere fact that I made it all the way through the violent celebration of misogyny and colonialism otherwise known as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Mafarka the Futurist should give an indication of just how difficult it is for me to set aside a text without finishing it.) But that quirk presents a problem when I’d like nothing better than to be done with a volume that seems to be adding on an extra page for every one I read. Such is the case with Norman Rush’s Mating, an award-winning piece of fiction it feels as if I’ve been dragging around now for months.
It’s not that the novel is boring, or badly written; it’s neither. At first, I was surprised not to be outright digging the author’s deployment of decades’ worth of GRE vocabulary lists; after all, I love new words, and new occasions for using old ones. Maybe, though, Rush’s insertion of Latinisms and wittily-wielded academicisms is part of what’s getting to me. This whole story, or the package in which it’s delivered, is so heavy; my reading is slowed down by the weight of what seems to be the narrator coping with her insecurities via highly articulate and jaunty self-deprecation. Less an analysis of academic culture (though it is present), Mating seems sort of like Oscar Wilde went to grad school and continually had to joke about his awe and love of the whole thing by pretending to play it cool and to be less serious/intelligent/whatever than he (or in this case she) really was– while also using big words to belie the act.
I’ll admit: my irritation may be due to the fact that it’s hitting home– that I’m being faced with myself in grad school, among so very many serious people around whom I always felt like a child. Like any number of comics using their ability to get laughs as a defense mechanism, my own sarcastic dumbing-down was the only way I knew to deal with institutional egotism and senseless power games. Given, it was the wrong strategy– and that may be why I’m so frustrated with this character, crafted in the hands of a male author.
Because in spite of this nameless narrator’s pretty good overall construction as a character, Rush also tends to put gender-based generalizations into her mouth that irk me, one representative example being, “I always remember titles and authors, unlike women in general.”* This sort of thing could be a device that fits her jokey pooh-poohing of self, but it gets old incredibly quickly.
At any rate, I’ve reached the point of speeding up my reading rate, finding myself back as a high school sophomore trying to complete that week’s assignment of being X words farther along in the book I’d chosen than I’d been the week before. I’m pretty sure I have such a bad specific memory of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (See? Title and author firmly implanted in my female brain), in spite of having loved it, because that was one of the books devoured in the hall over lunch, just to be able honestly to report I’d fulfilled my word quota for the week. We did have to give a plot update as well– but had I been allowed to savor the thing, I’m confident I’d currently be able to give at least a few details about why I found it worthy of praise.**
Hence, I know I’m not exactly practicing the most responsible method of completing this book. But in addition to being sick of it, I’ll be traveling soon, and I really, really do not want to haul its literal or figurative weight onto a transatlantic flight; slow-going as getting through it is in regular life, I can only imagine it would make the fourteen hours or so of my journey feel like a week spent in a hell of canned air and cranky humanity. Fingers crossed, then, readers: I’m hell-bent on using my holiday weekend to get through this chunk of literary molasses.
* Normal Rush, Mating (New York: Vintage International, 1991): 91.
** I also (now) fondly recall having misread a syllabus, and after plowing through 258 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology in one evening (again: name and title solidly in place), having an infinitesimally fleeting blast of total cosmic comprehension shortly before midnight. Sort of like the world’s shortest and soberest trip, with follow-up visions of fat translucent spheres engaging each other in battles to the death for positions of mastery and servanthood.