I Love Dick. Available now on Amazon.com.
The popularity of Chris Kraus among feminists has always eluded me. For 20 years now, she has been writing novels in which thinly disguised—and often not disguised at all—versions of herself endure serial humiliations as they pursue somewhat unpleasant and utterly uninterested men, frequently with her husband Sylvère Lotringer acting as a sort of cheerleader.
There's considerable doubt about how much of this is true—Kraus labels her works novels, rejects the description of them as "confessional," and adds, without clarification that "life is not personal." But the title character of I Love Dick, the 1997 novel that started everything, a UC-Santa Barbara cultural critic named Dick Hebdige, found it close enough to reality that he sued.
What's not in doubt is that Kraus' character is so heedless of degradation in her sexual charges of the Light Brigade that literary critics almost inevitably invoke the term "female abnegation" in describing her. I myself prefer the term "marching boldly into self-abasement" used in the introduction to I Love Dick.
Whatever synonym for auto-ignominy you choose, Amazon's production of I Love Dick has it in spades. Executive producer Jill Soloway (creator and writer of the Amazon.com series Transparent, in which a suburban family is rocked by the disclosure that its partriarch would rather be a matriarch) has tinkered with the novel at the edges, particularly in changing the story's locale from Los Angeles to an art colony in the tumbleweed West Texas town of Marfa and turning Dick from a sociologist to a cowboy intellectual. But the story remains its horny self.
Kraus (played by Kathryn Hahn, another Transparent alum) and Lotringer (Griffin Dunne, Dallas Buyers Club) leave their New York apartment and head to Marfa, where he's been awarded a fellowship at an art institute. Kraus plans to stay only a few days before heading to Italy, where she's had a film accepted by an international festival.
But when her film is booted from the festival over a copyright dispute, Kraus decides to stay on in Marfa, especially after getting a look at Dick Jarrett (Kevin Bacon), the laconic, too-sexy-for-his-shirt head of the art institute.
Her crush is so instant and so total that Kraus rushes home from the opening reception to begin composing a letter of epic erotic fantasies to Dick, which soon escalates to stalking and even sniffing his used deodorant stick. Her sexual heat, rather than wounding her husband, ignites him, and their long-limpid love life revivifies.
But despite Kraus' attempt to put emotional ribbons and bows on her obsession, it's wholly carnal. Dick's intellect has withered—"I haven't read a book in 10 years," he parries an attempt to engage him in a discussion of critical theory, "I'm post-idea"—and his art institute is largely an inside joke. When a brick he has long extolled as the ultimate artistic exposition for its reduction of reality to a series of straight lines gets smashed, Dick simply piles the jagged shards back onto their museum pedestal and changes the sign underneath from Untitled 2015 to Untitled 2017.
What's more, Kraus' sexual fixation on Dick is unreturned. "I don't find you interesting," he bluntly responds to her invitation to have an affair. "Not now, not ever." Yet she continues her pursuit, heedless of propriety, professional consequence or human dignity. No need to feel guilty over any involuntary titter you failed to suppress upon seeing the title I Love Dick; the sophomoric reading is the correct one.
From executive producer Soloway's perspective, I Love Dick may be an extension of her 2013 film Afternoon Delight, in which Hahn plays a jittery housewife who takes boho-chic a couple of steps too far when she installs a homeless stripper in the spare bedroom of the house she shares with her husband, with predictably disastrous results. Afternoon Delight took a mincing step or two of a walk on the wild side before bolting back to bourgeois safety; I Love Dick doesn't have a safe bone in its body, salacious allusion definitely intended.
Rampaging through a target-rich environment, I Love Dick has moments, many of them, of gleeful mockery. From feminist fascination with retrograde cowpokes as fashion accessories to the horror of Greenwich Village espresso-sippers waking up in flyover country to the incomprehensible gibberish of the lit-crit world, it's full of laugh-out-loud burlesque of the very cosmopolitan dorks who seek deeper meaning in it. My favorite moment came when a mystified Dick, told that Lotringer is studying the Holocaust in search of the aesthetic of trauma, squints at him and asks: "Why would trauma need an aesthetic?" But it also gave me the sneaking suspicion that Chris Kraus has been setting up a punchline for two decades, and we're it.