Reading: “I love Dick” by Chris Kraus

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“To see yourself as who you were ten years ago can be very strange indeed.”

I didn’t know anything about this book, only saw it a few times on Bookstagram (and actually thought it’s a comedy because it sounded funny…) and that was it. So when I read the Guardian’s remark about this being “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”, I had quite some expectations. Long story short: they were not fulfilled. After all, I haven’t read that many books about men and women from “last century”, and I still believe there’s more out there, somewhere, maybe less hyped and famous, but more interesting. Also, this was probably too much of a praise for one author and her book to live up to.

The point of departure for this literary tour de force is an evening Chris Kraus — a 39-year-old, unsuccessful artist who is successful as being a savvy and (self) educated wife of an European academic and intellectual — and Sylvère Lotringer — said French intellectual and academic, her husband — spend with an acquaintance of Sylvère, Dick (who was identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige some time after the initial publication of this book in 1997). Dick seems to be flirting with Chris throughout the evening, and after initially being irritated she feels excited and empowered, enough so to eventually fall in love with him — or is it love? Desire? Obsession? Whatever it is, it initiates a foray into Chris’ past and the his(her)story of male and female artists, thinkers, authors and philosophers in regard to modern feminism and the (art) world.
The people mentioned here – Chris, Sylvère, and Dick – are all real, they exist and are not mere characters in a novel. In what sense these ‘real’ people correlate with the characters in this book is unclear and – to me at least – irrelevant.
Chris Kraus’ I love Dick is not a conventional novel, as you may have guessed by now, but rather something Joan Hawkins in the afterword of the 2016 edition calls ‘theoretical fiction’, which sums it up rather nicely. Chris jumps from the early 80s to the mid 90s to 1992 to 1995 and back; she leaves her husband, only to be with him again in the next passage and then she is with someone else – all this due to the leaps in time throughout the book. And she regularly interweaves theoretical, philosophical, historical and gender perspectives with her own story, the people she knew, read, watched, or heard of. While this at times interrupts the “story”, it was also the thing I liked most about this book. It is full of information about artists, thinkers, philosophers, and authors, male and female, their lives, works, and passions. Still, this constant switching between a sort of actual narration and her theoretical explanations regarding certain topics, often with a feminist background, was at times too much for me to keep up with. Now and then it just took me some time to actually recognize another switch when there was one and I felt confused and lost for the moment; that’s not necessarily bad but it CAN be unnerving…

Most of all, I enjoyed Kraus’ discussion of feminist issues. Doing so, she keeps it open-minded and down-to-earth, elaborating on various problems a lot of female artists and thinkers faced and still face (even today). Quoting the American poet Alice Notley she declares:

“Because we rejected a certain kind of critical language, people just assumed that we were dumb.”

And even in 2018, I can still relate to this quote, in an academic as well as a professional context. Exploring how being a woman and deciding to live independently – be it in a professional, personal, or artistic understanding – can influence our whole existence in all its various facets was interesting and by far the best about this book, at least in my opinion.

But there were also times I simply didn’t ‘get’ her (this was actually quite often…) — I’m rather the down-to-earth and practical kind of person, so some of her explorations into the world of art and theory were simply to abstract for me. Again, this is just me and may be perfectly fine for a lot of other people out there. And since this is a sort of theoretical fiction with a lot of essayistic sections, there is actually the possibility to disagree with the author – see here for yourself (and disagree with me, for that matter):

“The philosopher Luce Irigaray thinks there is no female “I” in existing (patriarchal) language. She proved it once by bursting into tears while lecturing in a conference on Saussure at Columbia University.”

Let me tell you: I too was close to tears last December when I gave a lecture at Columbia University, though not because my female “I” felt misunderstood and lonely within this system of patriarchal language, but rather because of stress, anxiety, and being close to a panic attack. Still, I can understand that one cries while giving a lecture about Saussure (who is very interesting, but also very male, especially in regard to Irigaray’s line of thought) at Columbia; but this “proves” nothing, especially not something the philosopher is/was “thinking”. “Proved” is the wrong term for this, she may have “underlined” or “emphasized” her thoughts about patriarchal linguistics by crying, but it is no “proof”. I’ve read some of Irigaray’s work and she’s much too theoretical and high-strung for me; as long as women still face male (and societal) aggression in a lot of ways every day and everywhere as well as a huge gender pay gap, I personally don’t give a shit about the female “I” in our patriarchal language (though of course I know that this is an important issue too – it’s just a question of priorities, and mine differ from those of Irigaray and like-minded feminists). Though this is just a small paragraph at the end of the book, I found it highly irritating, probably because it is a very narrow-minded conclusion for someone as open as Kraus seems to be throughout the rest of her book.

I love Dick was interesting, confusing, multilayered and at times fascinating. The ‘love story’ of Chris and Dick offers a sort of base on which much more important things are discussed, especially regarding Chris’ self-discovery and her relationship to the world around her. There’s hardly an interaction between the two and the main male voice we hear is Sylvére’s.
Because of the different styles of narration — third person narration, first person narration, emails, letters, diary entries — I had my difficulties getting ‘into’ the story. I read three pages, then I suddenly remembered I had to water the plants, look for the cat, clean some dishes, read/write an email, shave my legs, eat something, drink something, use the bathroom, check on the cat again…you get the picture. I love Dick wasn’t much of an intriguing or captivating reading experience BUT it was really interesting, I learned a lot and I really liked it.

[Under the rubric “things to ignore”: The back cover mentions several ‘fans’ of this book, amongst them the unbearable Lena Dunham, the epitome of ignorant (rich) entitlement. Miss Dunham being “a fan” is definitely NOT something to put on the cover of a book or a good reason to start reading that book (rather to throw it away or burn it) but I got an excellent shit filter and learned to ignore Dunham’s name long ago, at least most of the time. After all, it is not Chris Kraus’ fault that someone in the marketing department felt the urgent need to name-drop a bit too much…]

Reading: “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

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I’ve seen Han Kang and her work all over bookstagram in the recent months and I always thought “Ok, well, this sounds interesting” but without actually thinking about getting one of her books because my tbr pile is still huge. A few days ago Wonderguy brought me a surprise gift, two books: I love Dick by Chris Kraus and The Vegetarian by Han Kang – this is my guy, who knows what I love: good books! 🙂
I leafed through The Vegetarian and wasn’t even sure which one I should start with, but the moment I read the first few lines of Han Kang’s book I was hooked, so Dick had (has) to wait …
The Vegetarian is divided into three parts with three different narrators. The main protagonist, the vegetarian herself, never tells us her story in her own words. We hear certain things ABOUT her, but never from her.

The first time we meet our main protagonist, Yeong-hye, it is through the gaze of her husband, who complains about his growing irritations with her and her lifestyle changes. He is a charming little piece of shit, which gets pretty obvious in “his” – the first – part of the book. Let me use a quote to demonstrate what I could possibly mean by describing him in the best way possible:

“The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra. When I was a young man barely out of adolescence, and my wife and I were dating, I happened to put my hand on her back only to find that I couldn’t feel a bra strap under her sweater, and when I realized what this meant I became quite aroused. […] The outcome of my studies was that she wasn’t, in fact, trying to send any kind of signal. So if not, was it laziness, or just a sheer lack of concern? I couldn’t get my head around it. It wasn’t even as though she had shapely breasts which might suit the ‘no-bra look’. I would have preferred her to go around wearing one that was thickly padded, so that I could save face in front of my acquaintances.”

Let me tell you: bras are hell. Next to corsets and shoes that are three sizes too small bras feel like shit and I’m positive that some nasty male designer prick created them out of a deep-seated hatred for all womankind. For any male readers: wearing no bra means feeling as light and free as you feel all the time – like, normal. Now of course, some women love bras, some (think they) need them, and some don’t care much about it, wearing a bra when they want/feel the need to and not wearing one when they don’t want to. As I’m part of the last group I definitely prefer my no bra days, and I do understand someone who doesn’t want to wear one because they prefer to be comfortable rather than to abide to society’s idea of a female standard wardrobe. Whatever floats your boat is fine with me, what I wanted to illustrate here is the fact that Mr. Husband is a narcissist piece of shit – I hope I’ve managed to do just that. But let us move on from this “Ode to the braless life”, because this book is about much more than underwear…

Let’s get back to Mr. Husband (isn’t he a delight to be with?): Seeing the world only in relation to how certain things and actions could reflect on him, his main concern is the behavior and appearance of his wife in public, especially when he is invited to join his boss and other managers at a fancy restaurant for the first time. His wife being the braless, introvert vegetarian she is makes him nervous, and sure enough over the course of the evening he feels embarrassed by her refusal to eat meat or talk to the other wives sitting next to her. Feeling like he can’t take this anymore, he calls her older sister In-hye (after having called her mother before to talk some sense into her daughter, to no avail), the efficient one, the successful one, the one who always does what she is supposed to do. Together they stage a family invention, ending in Yeong-hye’s hospitalization for attempted suicide. We’re leaving Mr. Husband right here, because we already spent way too much time on him and his part of the book is about to come to an end anyway.

In the second part of the book, Mongolian Mark, we start to see Yeong-hye through the eyes of her brother-in-law, which seems like an odd choice but over the course of the story it does make sense … I guess. This part of the book is set two years after Yeong-hye’s hospitalization, as she is now reccovering from those past events. Contrary to Mr. Husband, Mr. BIL remains nameless throughout the book, which is a feature I always appreciate, as it somehow opens up the character a bit, at least in my opinion. So, Mr. BIL is am artist, though not one who lives off his art – he lives off his wife. After discovering that Yeong-hye has a mongolian mark above her buttocks back when he carried her to the ER, he developes a deep infatuation for her, fantasizing about including her in a semi-pornographic work of art. Trapped between his growing fascination with his sister-in-law and his ordinary life with his wife and son, Yeong-hye once more serves as a sort of sheet on which his male ideas about her are sketched. She has no voice of her own and the male gaze once again is the only perspective we have. Though it becomes clear that she is adamant about her eating habits and is fragile in a lot of aspects, especially regarding her mental state, apart from that her story is the story of her brother-in-law (though thankfully, this time it’s not a first person narrator …). And since settings like these rarely end well, let me tell you that it does not end well – ‘I’d like you to model for me’ is nothing one should say lightly …

The third and final part is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Four years older than her sister, she was always the responsible and reliable one, and she is the only one taking care of Yeong-hye when her mind and body deteriorate further once she refuses to eat at all. And only now we finally hear about a childhood lived under the constant threat of a violent father, which in the light of the events told in this books seems to connect some dots:

Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-Ho so much, a boy who went out doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always had taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temperor put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.

So, one thing is clear: this novel has way too many layers for me to comprehend and I will not pretend that I have. While the fact that Yeong-hye suffered physical abuse and beatings at the hand of her father may explain her increasing withdrawal into her own little world and her growing irritation regarding her physical needs and wants, this is only the peak of the iceberg, to put it mildly. I hardly know anything about the Korean society and culture to understand certain symbols and images. I’ve read repeatedly that vegetarianism is not that much of a thing in (South) Korea, still I don’t understand why it becomes SUCH an issue (yeah, I know, artistic freedom and such, but still that HUGE?). I missed out on a lot of things in this book and I hope to discover new layers and insights every time I come back to it. Some books fascinate us even though we know it’s way out of our league. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is one of those for me.