37. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

17 Oct


So, this is a ’90s feminist classic that’s half confessional and half art-and-gender theory. The book is told in a series of letters and journal entries in which Chris Kraus, a not-very-successful maker of experimental art films, falls in unrequited love/obsession with “Dick,” a celebrity lecturer/ media theorist. Chris is married to Sylvere Lotringer, another academic celebrity. (Both of these people are real. Sylvere is, among other things, a founder of Semiotext(e), and Dick, according to Wikipedia, is Dick Hebdige, writer of academic punk-rock books such as Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Cut N Mix.)

The affair may or may not have been real too, but either way it’s mostly in Chris’s head. She tags along for drinks with Sylvere and Dick, who are colleagues, and is struck with lust/obsession for Dick. She and Sylvere start writing him unsent letters together and in just a few days have over 50 pages of material. When they tell Dick about this, he is freaked out. Eventually Chris and Sylvere do show Dick the letters, but it’s not clear if he reads them. Chris and Sylvere split up. Chris and Dick have sex. It doesn’t go well, but that doesn’t end Chris’s obsession.

The engine of the book is the parallel between Chris’s self-diagnosed weakness and humiliation when it comes to Dick—she’s fully aware of how pathetic the endless unrequited letters are—and her position as a woman in the art/intellectual world.

As an artist/intellectual, Chris is a less successful than either Dick or Sylvere.There’s a great passage where she shows up at some hot art party at the same time as another woman, and both are on the list not by name but as a man’s “plus one.” It’s an embarrassing, telling moment. Chris thinks her secondary position is not because she’s less skilled than Sylvere and Dick, but because as a woman she’s…left out. I Love Dick echoes this exclusion in the “relationship” with Dick, which is one of ongoing stonewalling and rejection.

Here’s a representative passage, in which Chris writes to “Dick”:

“Right now Sylvere is in Los Angeles at your school making $2500 for talking about James Clifford. Later on tonight you’ll have a drink and he’ll drive you to the plane, because you’re about to speak in Europe. Did anybody ask me my ideas about Kitaj? Does it matter what they are? It’s not like I’ve been invited, paid, to speak. There isn’t much that I take seriously and since I’m frivolous and female most people think I’m pretty dumb. … WHO GETS TO SPEAK AND WHY? I wrote last week, IS THE ONLY QUESTION.”

Chris thinks that it’s her gender that’s keeping her out of the bad-boy art/intellectual circles. And perhaps she’s right. This is one way that the title has nice resonance. I Love Dick can mean that Chris loves Dick, the person. It can mean that Chris loves a guy who’s a dick. And it can stretch to mean that Chris loves dick itself, a ‘dick’ that stands-in for the entire male-dominated art and academic world. Chris loves this generalized Dick and wants to be a part of it, but dick does not love her back.

As a woman in the art world, what Chris is expected to do—how she is allowed to participate—is by making women’s art. In a long section about the conceptual artist Hannah Wilke, who did things like make vaginas out of dryer-lint balls (! I always knew there must be a use for dryer lint!), Kraus writes:

“At a certain point, perhaps the early 70s, her work began addressing the following question: If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal,’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?

Kraus’s combination of theory and memoir does just that. And its feminist joy is that the ploy works. Though Dick isn’t listening Chris continues to speak and since she publishes the letters she is eventually heard. Even her unwanted thoughts about Kitaj make a cameo. Moreover, on the eve of 2017, I Love Dick has been optioned by Jill Soloway as an Amazon series. Kraus may soon be better known and more loved than either of the two men she felt inferior to.

I liked the book, though I think there’s a serious flaw that undermines the argument: Chris doesn’t love Dick. She has seized Dick, against his stated wishes and mostly at random, for the purposes of her art. At no point is there a personal connection between these two people, or an emotional connection, or even much of a sexual connection. So does the metaphor hold? How true can the book be if that part’s not?

Moreover in the logic of the book Chris is the excluded and rejected party but I think there’s a more compelling sense in which she’s an aggressor. She violates Dick’s privacy, harasses him, publicly humiliates him. Repeatedly, he is quoted telling both Chris and Sylvere that he is uncomfortable with the attention. And though he does have sex with Chris (somewhat inexplicably), the next morning he’s quoted saying:

“But you don’t know me! We’ve had two or three evenings! Talked on the phone once or twice! And you project this shit all over me, you kidnap me, you stalk me, you invade me with your games, and I don’t want it! I never asked for it! I think you’re evil and psychotic.”

It’s an uncomfortable point that the book does not resolve.



36. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, by Orlando Figes

12 Oct

Orlando Figes A People's Tragedy

Since Russia is in the news, I thought I’d re-read A People’s Tragedy, a door-stop history book on the Russian Revolution by the English historian Orlando Figes. The book was published in 1997 and took advantage of the sudden ’90s-era political freedom in Russia to unearth previously unavailable archival material.  It’s one of those wonderful history books that goes both macro- and micro-, outlining the wide sweep of the politics and using the stories of ordinary people swept up in extraordinary events to make the material come alive.

Figes starts in 1891 with the tercentenary celebration of the Romanov empire. He argues that Russian society was rapidly modernizing and democratic forces were growing, but unfortunately the last Tsar’s response to these trends was to double down on a 17th-century vision of his own holy, Godlike rule. The more pressure there was for democratic reform, the more autocratic Nicholas became. The whole extremely bizarre Rasputin episode, in which the tsarina became best friends (and allegedly, but probably-not-really lovers) with a peasant holy-man, made sense in this view, as an exemplar of the tsar’s self-imagined close relationship with the common Russian people. Never has there been a more disastrous effect from a person drinking his own Kool-Aid.

Romanov Family

The story of the Revolution, from the popular uprisings against the Tsar, through the establishment of provisional democracy, into civil war and finally the Bolshevik dictatorship has to be one of history’s most terrifying. Again and again reading this book I had cause to reflect on how fragile the social order is, and how terrible the results can be when it breaks down. If we’re ever inclined to think “let’s just destroy the system and see what happens next,” let’s please think twice, or read this book first.

Figes’ title A People’s Tragedy reveals his take on the events: He believes that both the Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power were, in broad strokes, the will of the Russian people. By his account, the peasantry, the soldiers, and the urban working classes participated en masse, if not in organized political parties, then in the marches, strikes, insubordination, riots and land seizures that tore down the old order and opened the doors for the Bolsheviks. In its second half, the book details what followed Bolshevik seizure of control: famine, pogroms, looting, vandalism, bestial tortures by all sides, police-state brutality and millions dead. The book’s photo-plate sections gave me actual nightmares. Figes concludes that the uprising backfired massively on the very peasants and workers who supported it.

(I am told that there is much to contest in this version of events; Figes book is just one historian’s conclusions. And as an Englishman writing in the ’90s he has a preachy “Russians have a lot to learn about democracy” tone. He also really likes to mock the female revolutionaries and soldiers; a story about a women’s battalion that had seen active duty on the Eastern Front becoming “hysterical” during the relatively non-eventful siege of the Winter Palace seems hard to credit.)

To bring this back to the modern era—writing from the midst of another Russia-blamed hacking scandal— I’m married to a Russian and have long-standing ties to Moscow, a city I love. I’ve been watching with horror as our foreign policy creates ever greater division between the U.S. and Russia, and as our election-cycle politics manufacture a Russian bogeyman to drum up support for our establishment political candidate. Spin on Syria, spin on the Ukraine, spin on computer-hacking… it might be useful now to defeat the opposition, but where will it get us?

It’s not quite a parallel, but, for example, the Figes book makes it clear that short-sighted and narrowly self-interested German and Allied policies towards Russia during WWI played a major role in the Bolshevik seizure of power. (Whoops, Cold War. Whoops, East Berlin.) Putin isn’t going anywhere—we’re making Putin more popular, in fact—but it’s still dangerous and careless to use another country like this, especially when that country is Russia.



35. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

30 Aug

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I have a soft spot for Michelle Tea, because of her debut novel/memoir The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, which I somehow read when it came out in 1998. Tea is around my age and also from the Boston area, and we hung out in a some of the same places. In the late ’90s and as a young person it was a new thing for me to see a memoir set in a milieu I was familiar with; I don’t remember the details much more than that, but I remember loving the book and finding it relevant to my experience.

Since then Tea has become a major alt-culture figure in the queer literary scene. The latest edition of Passionate Mistakes has an afterword by uber-cool lesbian poet Eileen Myles, for example. Tea has written many things in many genres, and Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is her attempt at a teen novel, though of the quirky, intellectual type that gets published in hardcover by McSweeney’s.

I found it sort of readable and sort of desperately boring. It’s about a 13-year-old girl who discovers she has magical powers. In fact, she’s the girl all the local legends have been about, and it’s her job to do something really big that will save everyone!  If there is a more hackneyed plot device at this point, I don’t know what it is. I would like to personally round up all these ordinary teens with magical powers, starting with Harry Potter and ending with Tea’s heroine Sophie Swankowski, and subject them to various George Saunders torture-worlds. That would be entertaining.

Tea’s personal spin on the premise is also kind of predictably Social Justice and annoying. Her heroine Sophie learns about indigenous peoples (the vocab has to be explained to her by another character, which at least is realistic) and their various histories of magical tradition. Sophie is Polish, so her main magic comes from that Old Country, but a Mexican-American character named Angel contributes her lore as well. There’s lots of special candles and reaching within to create emotional shields and making sure to respect everyone’s cultural traditions.

There were things I liked about the book. The decayed urban landscape of Chelsea, Massachusetts made a great setting. Some action took place in the town dump, which was interesting. There were talking pigeons who quoted poetry. Angel is a girl whom everyone thinks is a boy, and it seemed like Sophie might have a huge crush on her once she grows up a little. Sophie’s single mom worked at a free health clinic and was realistically angry, stressed and exhausted. Sophie was just getting old enough to feel sorry for her, which was also realistic and interesting.

Tea is a compelling writer, and there was so much that these people could have learned, gone through. I found casting spells and learning about hokey generations-old curses to be the least interesting direction to develop them in.

34. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

23 Aug

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This book has an almost laughably Scandi and depressing premise: A young writer in the mid 1800s in the Norwegian capital of Kristiania (now Oslo) has fallen on hard times, has pawned almost everything he owns, and increasingly, is starving. He gets a bit of work here and there, but not enough to keep the roof over his head and food in his stomach. Hamsun won a Nobel Prize prize in 1920, and Hunger is almost universally lauded as being one of the first modern “psychological” novels, since it takes place entirely in a first-person POV of a character who is increasingly losing his mind.

(Just a side note on that: I don’t see anything in Hamsun that I don’t see in Dostoevsky…??)

The first time I tried to read it, I was too tenderhearted. The character’s predicament is  vividly and horribly life-and-death. His hair is falling out; his veins are bulging; at one point he tries to eat his own finger. It’s so gruesome I couldn’t bear to read it. But then along came the #20BooksofSummer challenge and I had to pick it up again. This time I tried to approach it from a more distanced perspective and think of the character as less of a real person. Some of his points of biography are the same as Hamsun’s, but the purpose of the story, I knew, was not autobiographical or really intended to be about the horrors of hunger. Instead, Hamsun’s aim was to present a person as a whole, including the passions, appetites, delusions and irrationality. He was trying to show, through his hungry man, a different type of man than the one acknowledged by his time. In this reckoning, the character’s fits, his madnesses and grudges and even the extremely vivid and erotic encounters he has with a woman who catches his fancy, are more important than his hungry condition. With that in mind, I was able to read and even very much enjoy Hunger. Though it was still intense, surreal and a horrible adventure.

10 Books of Summer Challenge: Update

22 Aug

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Here’s an update on my progress on #20booksofsummer:


  1. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

2. Rethinking Normal, A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

3. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

4. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna J. Haraway

5. Animal Sanctuary, by Sarah Faulkner

6. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

7. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

8. The Crooning Wind, Three Greenlandic Poets

9. Woman Rebel, The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge

10. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

11. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

To recap, I took the first 11 books on my to-read shelf, from the organized part in the beginning (not the stacks of more-recent arrivals piled in front of the organized part), which, as fixtures on the to-read, are all books that I’ve been passing over or haven’t felt in the mood for in quite some time. Years, in some cases. I don’t think any one of these books had been on the shelf for less than a year, and one at least has been there for three-and-a-half.

What I have learned from this experiment is that books are great even when I don’t like them. At least, the kind of books that wind up on my to-read shelf are. Despite harboring doubts about every book on this list, I have loved reading through them. Even the ones I didn’t “like” were thought-provoking. My reading this summer has been richer and more interesting than when I have the freedom to choose what book I’m in the mood for.

It’s hard not to buy books (though I’ve done OK this summer; I think I’ve added only three to the shelf, which might be a personal record (usually I add many more)), but I plan to keep doing this. My new goal is to read entirely through the to-read shelf, emptying it out for good. When the summer is over I’ll take a new random-ten books. I’m really looking forward to it.

I guess the conclusion is up with challenge and down with personal preference. :)


33. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

20 Aug


The dateline at the end of Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin, reads “—Moscow, 1992” which is enough to make a person familiar with recent Russian history break out in full-body chills. Moscow, 1992. Russian society was fully in the throes of perestroika, chaos, collapse and regeneration. The story in the West has always been that this was a wonderful flowering of democracy, but for many Russians it was a period of lawlessness, hunger, total uncertainty, and the end of everything they’d been asked to believe. Pelevin is a cult figure, the most important Russian writer to emerge from the era. He was 30 years old at the time he wrote Omon Ra, living at a time and in a city of almost unimaginable upheaval. Chills.

The book—which is a masterpiece, I can’t believe I’d never read it—is about a Russian boy in the Soviet Union who dreams of being a cosmonaut, but in Pelevin’s hands it’s dreams themselves that will be under interrogation. Is there any reality to them? For main character Omon (a strange name, itself chosen because of a dream), things are determined not by the outer reality, but by the inner.

As a little boy, for example, Omon realizes that he can be a pilot because he sees some pilots on television and:

“…was struck with a sudden thought…that if I’d just been able to glance at the screen and see the world from the cabin where the two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting, then there was nothing to prevent me from getting into this or any other cabin without the help of the television, because flight is no more than a set of sensations, the most important of which I’d already learned to fake, sitting in the attic of the winged hut with the red stars, staring at the enlistment office wall that was where the sky should be, and making quiet droning noises with my mouth.”

He goes on:

“That means, I thought, I can look out from inside myself like looking out of a plane, it doesn’t really matter at all where you look out from, what matters is what you see…”

Of course, latent in the book is the era in which it was written: The channel, as it were, that Russians had been looking at, had just been changed. Are you staring at the enlistment office wall or at the sky? What skills might you need to survive when the two become interchangeable? Pelevin takes a fatalistic approach to the question. Omon reflects:

There’s obviously some strange correspondence between the general outline of a life and that stream of petty events which a person is constantly involved in and regards as insignificant. I can now see quite clearly that the course of my own life was already set, determined before I had even begun to think seriously about the way I wanted it to turn out. I was even given a glimpse of it in simplified form. Perhaps it was an echo of the future. Or perhaps those things which we take for echoes of the future are actually its seeds, falling into the soil of life at the very moment which in distant retrospect comes to seem like an echo out of the future.

He goes to flight school. Nothing is as it seems, in ways too brilliant for me to spoil in this review. Omon’s journey could be called a blistering indictment of the Soviet Union—or at least a profoundly disturbing one, since this is a world in which men’s legs are broken to fit the planes instead of the planes being built to fit the men. But there’s a strain of dry humor or meditative detachment throughout, that says that the author knows you can’t  blister something which was never really there.

I wish I could comment on the book’s end without giving away its punch. I’ll just say it is now officially my favorite closing strategy since Infinite Jest, and references another Russian classic, Moscow—Petushki.

32. Sarah Falkner, Animal Sanctuary

19 Aug

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I bought this book off the Starcherone table at my very first AWP, three years ago, on the recommendation of the publisher, and it has been sitting on the to-read shelf ever since. I should give Cathy at 746Books a huge shout-out for forcing me (I mean, inspiring me) to deal with problems like this.

Animal Sanctuary is the fictional story of Kitty Dawson, a failing and somewhat desperate 1950s female movie-star who opens an shelter for big cats after having acted in many movies featuring animal disasters. Kitty’s story is mirrored by the story of lesbian university student who became her body double while on location during her last film in Africa. The student is seeking a missing girlfriend, with a complicated disaster story of her own.

Despite those improbable events, this book is not plot-driven (which goes a long way towards explaining why it sat on my shelf for so long). The pleasure is much more complex, lying in the tensions and meditations on gender, narrative and otherness that Faulkner sets up with the above characters. The first doubling, of the female ’50s screen star and the big tawny cat in captivity is great. It’s not something I would ever have thought of, but both share a combination of beauty, power and imprisonment. Both are majestic and victimized, sexy and sad. The second doubling, of the lesbian university student, herself doubled in her lover, adds a layer of intrigue: the two girls are looking for meaning, looking for a way to participate actively in their world that feels authentic to them.

The narrative progressed in a self-conscious way, with, for example, a chapter that alternates between sections in dialog between Kitty and her psychotherapist, on the one hand, and the film director and an interviewer, on the other. There are art-grant applications, summaries of scenes from movies, conversation snippets, a chapter of snippets of film theory . The changing texture of the reading experience kept things interesting. And I thought Falkner’s prose was quite good.

The second half of the book focused on the art career of movie-star Kitty Dawson’s son, Rory Dawson.

We meet Rory when he’s on vacation in Mexico with his lover David, an older, more successful, artist. The echo, here is about spectacle populations. The Mexicans are a double for the film-star/ woman/ other, while Rory and David are the doubles for the director/artist appropriating the other. I appreciated another sophisticated doubling, but the Rory perspective, with whom the reader was supposed to sympathize, made me want to tear my hair out.

Rory and David are interrupted in their Mexican vacation by some asshole rich-people collectors, the Whaleys. David explains to Rory that the price of success in the art world is sometimes hanging out with such people (this is true).  But Rory is pissy and horrified at the collectors’ culturally insensitive travel objectives. They want to see touristy things! They hire a car instead of taking the perfectly good bus! No one knows Spanish or cares about really understanding the culture! David colludes with them! He plans a new conceptual piece using a theory-concept (about gift economies) that he doesn’t really understand!

I just found this so irritating. Rory is the son of a movie star. By wanting to make it in the art world, he is setting out to make extremely high end luxury goods for the super-rich, and no amount of ideologically correct bus travel can change that. Moreover, his famous name means that he can insult the Whaleys and get away with it. And of course he does, and in later chapters is an art star himself. His mission (and later the mission of animal sanctuary employees) is to understand the other, see through their eyes, correctly use their shamanistic rituals in his art.

This is an elegant construction for Falkner’s book: She’s setting up oppositions and then trying to bridge them through understanding. I think in terms of what she was aiming for, it was successful. But I personally found the argument frustratingly useless and self-centered. Understanding doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t change any of the underlying facts of the power dynamics she’s trying to critique.

At one point, Rory lives in a dual-chambered cage with a lion for months, allowing the lion to see him, but he can’t see the lion. Whatever Rory’s intent, only one participant in the piece is there voluntarily, and it’s not the lion! I kept wondering if Falkner’s intent was to make Rory satirically ridiculous, but I don’t think it was.

In the end chapters he comes in for critique by a female art assistant, not for his ideologically correct approach to using indigenous rituals in his art, but for basically being a successful artist and employing her. She’s not making any art of her own—kept too busy at Rory’s—but wants to be an art star herself, and blames Rory and the corrupt art system for keeping her down. There’s a hard-to-pinpoint way that the whole book felt like this to me: Of someone wanting to have their critical cake, and eat it too. I enjoyed the medium, but not the message!