Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick is a great book to give as a gift to somebody you are hoping to sleep with. Explicit but subtle, its title contains two meanings, the first of which, despite appearances, is not aggressively sexual but in fact gentle and literary. And unlike flowers, which will die in a matter of days, I Love Dick can sit on a bookshelf for years, beguiling and suggestive.
The book is possessed of the kind of accidental greatness one associates not with practice and training and years of accumulated wisdom but with sudden and unpredictable bursts of inspiration, to be either ignored or obeyed. Kraus obeyed. Although technically a novel—“This is a work of fiction,” begins the familiar disclaimer—I Love Dick is in fact an almost historical record, meticulously assembled from primary sources, of Kraus’s romantic obsession with Dick Hebdige, the British structuralist critic, pursued at a time when both he and Kraus were in their fifties and living and working—Dick at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Kraus at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena—in Southern California.
The bulk of I Love Dick consists of the long, rambling letters an obsessed Kraus wrote and sent to Dick over the course of a year in the early 1990s, in which she describes to him, in extravagant detail, not only the suffering his indifference has caused her, but also the full run of her hopes and dreams, fears and regrets, beliefs, theories, ideas. For poor Dick—who remains silent until a single brief reply that ends the book—those mad letters must have come as an unwelcome intrusion into his structuralist life. But for the reader they are unbearably, morbidly fascinating, and none more so than the letter entitled “Add It Up,” in which Kraus describes what would turn out to be their only sexual encounter. After months of relentless pursuit, Dick finally gives in to Kraus’s desire to see him. It is hard to say, since Dick himself does not weigh in on the matter, just why he relented. After dinner, Kraus follows Dick back to his house in the Antelope Valley, an hour or more from Los Angeles, where they drink wine and smoke an opium joint one of Kraus’s friends has specially prepared for the occasion. Drunk and stoned, Kraus finally summons the courage to ask whether he wants to have sex with her. Drunk and stoned, Dick coolly replies: “I’m not uncomfortable with that idea.”
It’s not much of an answer, but after so many months, and so much desire, it is more than enough for Kraus. “This is how I understood the rules,” she writes, looking back on her bold inquiry, and Dick’s cool reply, and everything that happened afterward. “If you want something very badly, it’s okay to keep pursuing it until the other person tells you no. You said: I won’t say no.”
The next morning, Kraus and Dick have sex for a second time, but then, before she leaves, she asks if he wants to see her again before she goes back to New York. Kraus recounts Dick’s reply: “Well, actually I have a Friend (you somehow feminized the word) arriving for the weekend.”
Kraus is crushed. She describes “the drive to Lake Casitas, the motel room, the Percocet, the scotch,” and a weekend of bitter tears. Perhaps more to the point, she feels betrayed. “If I’d known,” she tells Dick before she leaves, “I wouldn’t‘ve stayed,” as though in sending Kraus away and hosting another, more important, woman for the weekend, Dick is somehow violating the terms of an unspoken contract, or ripping Kraus off. “I wouldn’t‘ve stayed,” she tells him, the way a person might say that if she’d known the car would break down before she even got it home, she wouldn’t have bought it in the first place.
But whereas the dealer who sells a lemon is bound to refund the customer’s money, Dick does not, as he is quick to point out, owe Kraus anything, either legally or ethically. The reason—and by the time Kraus writes “Add It Up,” one suspects that she has figured this out on her own—lies precisely in the difference, or the distance, between saying yes and, as Kraus writes, not saying no.
To say yes is to be bound to the consequences implied by one’s actions, or to the terms set forth by the one who has made the request; to simply not say no is to act freely, without compromise. Because Dick simply did not say no, he was not bound to see Kraus again that weekend, although he had just had sex with her twice, nor was he bound not to have another, and perhaps more important, Friend coming to visit that afternoon, nor was he bound, given that such a Friend was coming to visit, to inform Kraus of this in advance. There was, for Dick, no implicit contract, but only the sex itself, which came and went—“The sex was nice,” Dick admits—leaving nothing in its wake.