Dear Chris: An epistolary review of I love Dick

Auckland New Zealand

25 September 2017

Dear Chris,

I finally got around to reading your book I love Dick. I say ‘finally’ because a guest speaker recommended it to me four years ago when I was on the MFA programme, and I’ve only latterly picked it up, long after graduating, when it came across my desk at the art school library where I work part time (although I guess ‘finally’ could also refer to the fact its about 20 years old now). When it was recommended to me, I’d every intention of reading it. I faithfully jotted down the title and your name in my notebook and promptly lost it amidst all the other words. I’ve a habit of losing words.

To be honest I’m not sure that your book would have helped all that much. At the time I was sort of exploring ideas around the personal (although my focus became something other than that later on), but my approach was very different to yours… I never wanted to put those things into words. Images are more enigmatic. I’ve struggled with I love Dick a bit because its so cringingly voyeuristic and I really want to close my eyes and stop reading and give you a bit of privacy. I suppose it’s because I’m a very private person myself. Maybe I’m also struggling with it because I’m not certain I really ‘get it’ I’m not as clever as I’m given credit for; I feel like the more I learn, the more I read, the less I really know.

Weirdly I think I would have confidently understood it in the 90s when you wrote it. I was a teenager then and more fully cognisant of one-sided love stories. Perhaps its more difficult for me now since I’ve been well steeped in the kinds of romantic tropes that tolerate men doing the chasing (its not stalking, its romantic) and because I’ve been taught to see desperation in a woman pursuing. I realise the irony of this is that I don’t truly believe those tropes, (I’ve not even followed them myself) but it still disconcerts me to read things that so overtly buck that trend.

The book is a product of its time, too; so viewing it retrospectively does rely on knowing a world in which letters were still a legitimate form of communication. I was a good letter-writer in those pre-cell phone and internet days; and though I suppose there is nothing stopping me writing them now, I shy away from the commitment of it, because there is an intensity to writing letters that just doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. I wonder what your new readers (unaccustomed to letter writing) make of this text: There’s a whole generation of adults now that grew up with email, text messaging and social media. I have to think that reading I Love Dick in the late nineties would be a completely different experience to reading it in 2017 when stalking is en vogue again and almost completely socially acceptable via social media. I can’t help but wonder how your letters could be distilled to 140 characters.

I’m a slow reader (I like to savour the words), and I’ve been reluctant with Dick but I’m determined to see it through. Not for the long-gone guest speaker who recommended it to me, nor for its relevance to my work (which I’m still not sure about), but I guess I want to read it simply so I haven’t left it unread. Is that enough?

I just wrote this letter to you to let you know that I’m about halfway through. I got to the part where Dick says, “But you don’t even know me.”

Justine.

 

 

27 September 2017

Dear Chris,

In your letters to Dick you invoke the voices of literary and philosophical figures as though they were your personal friends and acquaintances. These ghosts give the text a sense of weightiness as an antidote to the buoyancy of your own voice, which I sometimes feel might fly away like a kite.

Today I stopped reading when I got to the chapter titled “Kike Art”. 1). To look up the word “Kike” because your use of it was bothering me and I wanted to be certain I knew what it meant. 2). Because you had name -dropped so many people in the proceeding pages that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed (I’ve never liked books with too many characters).

You must be an extrovert because I sense how all these people energise you, whereas even hearing about them en masse like that wears me down. It’s the feeling I get in any crowded room, but particularly at exhibition openings (which I generally detest, but occasionally attend – the Artworld, paradoxically, is not made for introverts). I’ll admit I read the first lines of that chapter and then made my customary Irish goodbye; which is legitimate because I’m half Irish. The other half of me is English, and then somehow I’m 100% New Zealander. I’ve never understood the maths in that, but I know I’m a genuine New Zealander because every time I read the words ‘New Zealand’ in your book I get a little thrill.

Well Chris, I was thinking that we are poles apart and then I read this little snippet:

“She hardly slept or ate, she forgot to comb her hair. The more she studied, the harder it became to speak or know anything with certainty. People were afraid of her; she forgot how to teach her classes. She became that word that people use to render difficult and driven women weightless: Gabi Teisch was “quirky.” (p. 183 – 184).

And I read it again, because it so beautifully echoed that sentiment from my last letter: that I feel like I know less the more I read. But also because I’ve had conversations about the word ‘quirky’ which is still levelled at art made by women. I have to tell you, Chris, that I used to like the word when I thought it just meant ‘weird’ but now I understand it as disparaging: a weapon used by smug people to belittle. Which is a shame.

Justine.

 

28 September 2017

Chris,

I can’t stop thinking about your sleight of hand, your misdirection. Dick is a red herring, a McGuffin, a cypher. It’s never been about Dick at all.

 

 

2 October 2017

My bookmark is moving through the pages of your book: It’s a metal one that slides between the pages. On my last trip to Wellington, airport security asked me if it was a knife. Every time I close the book I think about how I am slicing through it, cut, cut, cut.

I’ve noticed in your writing how you skip from topic to topic (and often back again). The stream of consciousness style is very evocative of letter writing; I’m feeling sort of nostalgic about that. The energy of your topic-switching has made me put the book down mid chapter on many occasions, making for a longer read, but I like it, I think.

On the blurb of your book it says: “In her breathless pursuit of the eponymous “Dick,” which takes her from upstate New York to Guatemala, Kraus forged a manifesto for a new kind of feminism that isn’t afraid to burn through itself to embrace the whole world.” It’s a quote that’s more hyperbolic than meaningful, but it started me thinking a bit about feminism, and how it means such different things to different people. Sometimes I’m surprised we can have conversations about it at all.

I was tutoring a student, several years ago, from India; one of the big themes in her work was feminism. It was only after spending all year with her that I realised I’d done her a great disservice. I’d helped her to alter the tone of her essays, but it was only belatedly I realised we had a fundamentally different understanding of feminism. We had agreed it was about freedom, but it was only after a conversation with her about her eagerness to get married (and what that entailed in her culture) that I found out she was excited to relinquish her decision making. To me feminism incorporates a freedom to think; to her, it was a freedom from having to think!

I learned from it. Last year I had a conversation with another student, and I told her: “Look, the rise of feminism happened before I was born, there is no use in me telling you what I think I know about that feminism, or the feminism of my generation, you need to tell me what it means to you personally, today, here and now.” I hope that was a better approach.

Feminism as an ideology is both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless because we’ve all adopted it to mean what we want it to, even the detractors. So when we talk about it we’re all at odds with each other. It’s almost as if it needs to be defined at the outset of any conversation, and sometimes I think it’s easier defined by what it is not.

Justine

 

3 October 2017

Dear Chris,

You say:

“There’s a lot of madness in New Zealand because it’s a mean and isolated little country. Anyone who feels too much or radiates extremity gets very lonely” (p. 227).

Do I agree with this? I can’t decide.

As a weirdo with lots of feelings, I can tell you I’m rarely lonely. But perhaps I’m not emotional enough or extreme enough to fit your demographic (is that comment only meant to be read in the context of mental illness?) I don’t know if you’re talking about me, but even if you are talking about me, you’re not talking about me.

New Zealanders are islanders, we don’t understand borders or walls or countries rubbing up against each other. Water is a great divider. But we do understand distance, and isolation is a state of mind.

Do you fancy yourself an insider or an outsider when it comes to New Zealand? I flinch every time you mention “Maoris”. But I enjoy the references to Wellington locales, and locals, although I had to look up New Zealand actor ‘Ian Martinson’ – an alias!

I also checked on the meaning of “Aro” after you said: “Around 3a.m. we staggered up the road to my place for a fuck. “Aro” Street means “love” in Maori” (p. 229). I think you meant “Aroha.” The Māori dictionary (maoridictionary.co.nz) says Aro means: to face, to take heed, to be inclined towards, to be comprehended and understood; which is almost better for your ironic wordplay.

I hope you don’t mind my critiques, if you do, just remember: Critics only ever review themselves.

I sympathise a bit with your oscillations between insider and outsider.

Justine

 

3 October 2017

Dear Chris,

I understand Dick’s desire for privacy, which should align me with him against you, but having decided to engage with you it irritates me that he strings you along: telling you to call at a particular time, and then not picking up the phone. Why on earth would you say to someone that maybe you can meet on the weekend, but phone tomorrow to arrange it? What game is he playing? I’m glad you said no. You may be a stalker but that doesn’t excuse his behaviour.

You know, I really don’t like Dick and I don’t know what you see in him.

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