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The Novelist as Performance Artist: On Chris Kraus, the Art World’s Favorite Fiction Writer

chriskraus by nic amato The Novelist as Performance Artist: On Chris Kraus, the Art Worlds Favorite Fiction Writer

Chris Kraus. (Photo by Nic Amato)

The writer Chris Kraus’s move from New York to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s coincided with the birth of a particular art scene there, one that emerged from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where Mike Kelley was on the faculty and where Ms. Kraus co-taught a class called “Fictocriticism” with science fiction author Mark von Schlegell. Fictocriticism, Ms. Kraus explained over the phone from Los Angeles last week, has to do with “writing about art and ideas with the same intensity and cadence as your own problems or the party you went to last night.” She was writing frequently for Artext magazine. Her friend Giovanni Intra had co-founded a gallery called China Art Objects, kick-starting L.A.’s Chinatown gallery district. She appeared in a film made by Mr. von Schlegell and another Chinatown gallerist, simulating a sex act on a tree in a state park outside the city.

Ms. Kraus’s fourth and most recent novel, Summer of Hate, was born out of those early years in Los Angeles. Giovanni Intra appears under his own name, and Ms. Kraus’s cameo in Mr. von Schlegell’s film is alluded to, with the narrator, Catt Dunlop, a cultural critic, expressing some serious doubt about the role. The book opens with Catt fleeing L.A. to escape a dreary BDSM relationship with a man who claims to have invented a cure for aging (Catt refers to him consistently as her “killer”). She moves to the Southwest to invest in real estate and begins a relationship with Paul Garcia, recently sober and freed from incarceration for using a company credit card—he drove a truck for Halliburton—to fuel a crack and alcohol bender. The book is a romance.

Ms. Kraus is not a popular writer of fiction. Her novels, all of them published by Semiotext(e), where she’s worked as an editor for 20 years, are gaining more of an audience, but for a long time she was not read much outside of the art world. That may be because she is so difficult to classify. A theoretical novelist and critic, she writes authoritatively about contemporary art, money, television, cinema, Artaud and herself, and manages to make all of it into a polemic about the sad, flawed world around her.

Ms. Kraus’s parents emigrated from the U.S. to New Zealand at the end of the 1960s. Her father had been a warehouse manager for Cambridge University Press, and the family was given assisted passage. She studied literature and political science at Victoria University in Wellington. When she was still a teenager, she received a journalism fellowship that won her a full-time job at a daily newspaper by the time she was 18. She was the TV critic, but she was apprehensive. She moved to New York when she was 21, on a whim, to become an actress.

She lived first in a shared office space on John Street, where the bathroom was out in the hallway, before moving to the East Village and spending her time with the poets at the St. Marks Poetry Project. During this time, she worked as a messenger for Louise Bourgeois and began staging performances that combined erotica with theory. The poet Eileen Myles, Ms. Kraus’s friend and the director of the Poetry Project in the ’80s, remembers watching her stage a “quasi-strip-theory performance with another woman,” Liza Martin, a hyper-sexualized friend who haunts the pages of Ms. Kraus’s first novel, 1997’s I Love Dick. (“Liza Martin took her clothes off to an enthusiastic prime-time crowd; they put Chris on at 2 a.m. to read to 20 drunken hecklers.”) In another piece, called The Cycles of Heaven, Ms. Kraus and her then-boyfriend, the poet Steve Levine, placed their bicycles in front of an audience while they stood offstage, reciting a scripted dialogue about their crumbling relationship into microphones. It was a precursor of the “constructed realities,” to borrow a phrase from Ms. Kraus, of I Love Dick.

In 1981, Ms. Kraus began work on her first film, In Order to Pass, “a philosophical investigation into loneliness and nostalgia and sentiment and perceptions,” as she describes it, which took two years and a lot of money to complete. These days, Ms. Kraus would rather not talk about her film career.

“I was never a filmmaker,” she said. “I was a performance person fooling around with a movie camera.”

In Order to Pass culminates with a trip to an abandoned hotel in the Catskills, where 12 of Ms. Kraus’s friends act out scenes from King Lear. She was working nights to pay for the film, and when it finally debuted, it was at a bar; the few attendees casually walked in front of the projection. Around this time, Ms. Kraus met her future ex-husband, SylvèreLotringer.

MR. LOTRINGER had a reputation downtown as l’enfant terrible of Columbia University. He founded Semiotext(e) with a group of semioticians there, “at a time when no one knew what semiotics was about,” he said on the phone from California. He was dating Kathy Acker, who would eventually be published by the press, though not until later, when Ms. Kraus started her own fiction imprint at Semiotext(e) called Native Agents.

“She got interested in what we were publishing,” Mr. Lotringer said, “and also why all the authors we were publishing were male and not female. That became an issue. I never thought about it.” Native Agents started publishing writers like Lynne Tillman and Eileen Myles, women who, despite their influence, still haven’t been embraced by the publishing world.

“There’s massive cowardice in mainstream publishing,” Ms. Myles said. “The lack of dirtiness, the lack of pro-sexuality, especially female sexuality. There’s such a blackout on female writing. It’s all good-girl stuff. Even the work that really gets celebrated—there’s something really safe about it. It’s about not making men uncomfortable. But no one thinks twice about making women uncomfortable.”

Despite having a loyal and at times wide readership, Semiotext(e) was always a humble affair. When they first started dating, Ms. Kraus remembers going to Mr. Lotringer’s loft and finding him at a typewriter, transcribing interviews he’d conducted with Jean Baudrillard. Mr. Lotringer’s English translation of Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra had been cut up and pasted all over the walls. They started making films together.

“He was teaching Death in Literature and Sexuality in Literature,” Ms. Kraus said. “He had made these interviews with dominatrixes that he played for his students in Sexuality in Literature, and he collected this police videography that he used for Death in Literature. Looking at all this footage, I had the idea that the pop S&M stuff and the crime scene stuff narrated each other really well. There was something so fatuous to me about the pop S&M, and then there was a crime scene, like a literalization of the violence the dominatrixes were talking about. And so we put them together. Sylvère and I worked on that film together for over a year.”

Naturally, it was banned, though not many people noticed. Ms. Kraus made one last attempt at filmmaking with the feature-length Gravity and Grace. She had a crew of some 70 people and couldn’t manage them all. It wound up costing close to $200,000. She was shooting in New Zealand because she’d received funding there, and Mr. Lotringer was, in his own words, “always on the move.” Their relationship became strained. Gravity and Grace never found distribution. In 1995, Ms. Kraus decided to move to Los Angeles.

“I was kind of desperate to get on with my life,” she said. “None of the work that I did was getting any traction in New York. By being Sylvère’s partner, I was going around with him socially and I was really overwhelmed by his aura. People would not even look at me when they talked to me. It was all ‘Would you tell Sylvère?’ ‘Will you ask Sylvère?’ It was incredible. So when a friend offered me to take over her teaching job at Art Center when she was going on sabbatical for a year, I just jumped at the chance to do something for myself.”

But before that happened, Mr. Lotringer had been offered the job of dean of critical studies at CalArts, which he turned down. One evening in December 1994, Ms. Kraus and Mr. Lotringer dined with the man who took the position. His name was Dick Hebdige.

I LOVE DICK BEGAN, Ms. Kraus will tell you, “exactly as it says in the book.” Chris Kraus—“Chris Kraus” in the book—and Sylvère Lotringer—“Sylvère Lotringer”—had dinner with Dick Hebdige (just “Dick”). Dick flirts with Chris and she begins to write letters addressed “Dear Dick,” though, at least initially, the letters are being written by Chris and Sylvère, as veiled correspondence to each other. On one level, it’s a bizarrely faithful Victorian novel. It takes the form of a series of letters, telephone transcripts and faxes and, as a result, dates itself as a document about a certain group of people communicating in a specific way at a given time, in this case the years just before the internet made getting in touch so much easier on a technical level and so much more difficult in every other way (15 years on, the fax machine in I Love Dick is as pleasurably retro as Dr. Seward’s phonograph diary in Dracula). There’s also the very literal triangulation of desire, in which Chris and Sylvère use a third party to say to one another what they can’t say directly.

It’s small details, though, that make the book, as Ms. Myles puts it, “paradigm-shifting.” Ms. Kraus calls it “stand-up comedy.” It is more of a performance than a typical book, which is perhaps why the art world so eagerly embraced it. Unlike in most epistolary novels, the idea of authenticity is broken down immediately, because we are in on Chris and Sylvère’s little game. Chris’s writing about a fantasy relationship constructed by the real Chris Kraus in her initial letters to Dick—which were eventually sent to him in real life—becomes the premise of the novel’s first half, which makes this a kind of meta-fiction about writing meta-fiction, in which fiction supersedes reality. At one point, Chris writes in her diary, “Dear Dick, I guess in a sense I’ve killed you. You’ve become Dear Diary …”

She pushes this idea further in Torpor, her third and, according to Ms. Kraus, “most personal novel.” There’s a remarkable scene in which the protagonists, Sylvie, “a punk-formalist film and videomaker” and Jerome, “a pariah in Columbia’s Department of French Literature and Philology,” are in the Paris loft of Felix Guattari during the Christmas holiday, watching the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu on television, the broadcast turning history into a prime-time event. Ms. Kraus reminds her readers that as history was falling apart on TV in Eastern Europe, the most popular show stateside was Thirtysomething.

The romantic fantasy in I Love Dick is made even messier by the fact that Dick is, well, kind of a dick. When he and Chris, who has at this point left Sylvère, finally sleep together, an account that is related by Chris, reminiscing in another letter to Dick after the fact, they “have sex ’til breathing feels like fucking.” In the morning, though, he kicks her out by telling her he has a “friend” coming for the weekend. “I guess you were right about disappointment,” Chris recalls telling him. “Probably if I’d known I wouldn’t’ve stayed.” He responds: “What? You think I’m cheating on you?” Later, in the book’s deferred climax, when Dick writes back for the first and only time, he addresses the letter to Sylvère, and spells Chris “Kris.”

Just before the book’s release, a publishing reporter for New York magazine caught on to the fact that Dick, an English cultural critic, “sounds an awful lot like Dick Hebdige, the ruggedly handsome British-born author of such books as Subculture: The Meaning of Style.”

“So they called him up,” Ms. Kraus said. “And he was so appalled by the book that, just to get the chance to call me a crazy witch in print, he was glad to be quoted as Dick Hebdige. Before he even knew this was happening, I changed every detail about him. I changed his appearance, I changed where he was from, I changed the title of his book. When I was citing a ‘book’ by Dick Hebdige, I was citing my own writing, writing that would be in my next book [Aliens & Anorexia]. Before the book came out, I said, ‘Dick, would you like to write the introduction? If you do that, everyone will think it’s a joke that we cooked up together.’ And he was like, ‘If you even think of doing such a thing, it proves you don’t know me.’ I felt like I had done everything I could to protect him, short of burying my own work, which I wasn’t going to do.”

In the end, it hardly matters who Dick is based on. In interviews, Ms. Kraus has referred to him as any Dick, “the Ur-Dick,” a way of “speaking to men and through men,” as the novelist Sheila Heti, one of Ms. Kraus’s admirers, put it in an interview. Even Mr. Lotringer saw him as something of a vessel for a project that was greater than him. “Dick was very dispensable at the time,” he said. “He just made life more exciting.”

Mr. Hebdige did not respond to an interview request.

THE SCENE MS. KRAUS FOUND herself in during her early days in Los Angeles fell apart. Giovanni Intra died of a heroin overdose, Mark von Schlegell left town, and Artext closed. In 2004, Ms. Kraus went to Albuquerque, invested in real estate and began living with an ex-con. She was burned out, she said, from the “entire intellectual, artistic, cultural world during the Bush years.”

The rest of Summer of Hate, the new novel, deals with Catt navigating a variety of systems—sexual, financial and, in the novel’s tragic turn, criminal, as her new lover Paul is arrested for a hit-and-run that happened nine years earlier, when he was coming down from a crack binge. The novel began as a series of long, journalistic reports that Ms. Kraus wrote to Mr. von Schlegell about her experiences dealing with lawyers’ fees, prison guards and the Arizona court system. Near the beginning of the book, as Catt is deciding whether or not to carry on the relationship with her “killer,” the delusional dominant, Ms. Kraus writes:

It would be a classical feminine death, like a marriage … She saw her descent: money rapidly spent and as it dwindled, her killer growing bored of her submission. She would end up on the floor, not as a corpse but on her hands and knees, hollowed out, begging and lost. What frightened her most was that even this realist death held a certain appeal.

 She escapes anyway.

mmiller@observer.com