Lustery Reviews: Jill Soloway's I Love Dick
Chris Kraus's "I Love Dick" is a cult book revered by Art History students, smart girls, slutty girls, lost girls and emotional girls everywhere for freeing them to be their most 'difficult' selves. Upon release, the novel was slated by critics for its confessional and unruly, "not so much written as secreted" style. Recently adapted into a TV show by Jill Soloway, how does this tale of insatiable desire secrete itself onto our screens?
In the show, the story takes place at an artist's retreat in Marfa, Texas ran by the ubiquitous and irresistibly disinterested, Dick, a sculptor of phallus-like objects, who boasts about being post-idea. Chris Kraus accompanies her husband Sylvère Lotringer, the Holocaust scholar, to the retreat. Having recently received news of her film's failure, and with no proper occupation besides that of 'the holocaust wife', she whittles away her time searching for weed and fumbling around in Dick's seminars.
That is until she starts writing love letters to Dick, which are captioned in bold on our TV screens to include some of Kraus's most brazen confessions, like, "I've been horny since I was six". Kraus shares the letters with Sylvère, igniting a sexual reawakening between them. The TV show had the potential to explore the fairly unwritten territory of female desire and a couple's desire for another person here, however, this doesn't get much screen time. Before long, Chris delivers the letters to Dick himself and the fantasy dissolves into a real-life problem.
But Chris isn't just writing love letters, at least not to Dick. In the book, her address to him slowly disappears, "I guess in a sense I've killed you. You've become Dear Diary..." Rising from the fog of artistic failure, she confronts the self-erasure that's taken place over years in the shadow of Sylvere and men like Dick, who get to have a voice just, because. The book tracks the process of Kraus's self-discovery through precisely this female experience and emotional exhibitionism, informed by thinkers and artists like Simone Weil and Hannah Wilke.
Divesting Chris's character in the show of her capacity for criticism (Maya Deren bores her, academics are just parodies), rids her of the means to reverse her self-erasure. The show captures her desire to 'not behave' without the self-scrutiny, or political and artistic motivation behind it. So she fades away, leaving Dick and Sylvere to move into focus as victims. Dick is even allowed to experience that distinctly masculine privilege of anger at Chris's objectification of him whilst maintaining sexual dominion (the men take it upon themselves to decide that Chris needs to be fucked by Dick).
Departing from the book, Solloway includes a young group of art students that serve as projections of Chris herself, which could have offered a fuller view of Chris's character. Soloway explains in an interview that the decision was because "women want to experience an intersectional feminism". Whilst there are some interesting diverse characters included, sadly, the effect of universalizing Chris gives off the impression that all women, no matter race or class, are the same.
Nevertheless as irredeemable as Chris seems in the show that is in many ways, precisely the point in the book too:
"I think the sheer fact of women talking, being paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world"
It is easy to criticise unlikeable characters, women especially, if they are even awarded such roles in the first place. Soloway's adaptation highlights the space available for male characters to speak, create and be revered, despite the fact they have very little to say. Chris responds by acting in self-interest, interrupting seminars with a loud phone and conversations with weak interjections. In short, she at least manages to achieve the same thing by empowering emotion. What the show is missing though, is her ability to transcend this and use it to sculpt her own voice.