The alt-intellectual icon shares five books that couldn’t not be written, from William S. Burroughs’s ‘Queer’ to ‘Great Expectations’ by Kathy Acker
Some ideas are inevitable: an invention birthed by necessity, a connection bound to occur, an observation that anyone might make. Others, sparked by a peculiar combination of individual and circumstance, are a product of something more ephemeral: chance, kismet, forces undetermined. Lately Chris Kraus has been thinking about the stories that had to be told—books she describes as “not just about purging, but actual purges themselves… Writing as exorcism. Books that can’t not have been written, books that are not merely brilliant literary excursions but that almost had to exist, books that the writer had to complete before going on.”
The unspoken subtext is that Kraus is perhaps best known for such a book: I Love Dick, the memoir she wrote about her deeply psychological, partially imagined affair with a man with whom she shares a few meaningful encounters. The book, ripe with pathos and theory in equal measure, came to be known as something of an alt-intellectual classic: a brand of radical confessional literature that Kraus herself has termed “lonely girl phenomenology.” Over the course of the novel, Kraus and her then-husband Sylvère Lotringer collaborate in writing letters to the eponymous Dick, a colleague of Lotringer who captures their shared imagination after one magnetic evening. I devoured the book: never had I read a story that brought fantasy and critical thinking into such close proximity, analyzing the unmoored quality of romantic infatuation while simultaneously indulging in its whims. It’s a novel that reminds you that perception is perspectival, that the impression other people make on you contains something of your own DNA; that, as Kraus puts it, “bad characters invite invention.” “The fact that you don’t return messages turns your answerphone into a blank screen onto which we project our fantasies,” writes Lotringer in his second letter to Dick. “These letters weren’t meant for you,” Kraus writes later. “To even consider sending them was crazy… They were a dialectical resolution of a crisis that never was.”
Through the act of continual revision—an attempt to capture something real—Kraus and Lotringer end up in a strange new land, exploring the erotic tensions of the unknown alongside the person they feel most known by. Their response to Dick is no doubt the product of a time and place, but it’s also a meditation on what it means to know someone: completely, to the detriment of eros (Kraus’s bond with Lotringer) or in brief, obsessive bursts, with full authorship of the space between (their ménage à trois with Dick.) In the years since, Kraus and Sylvère have both made significant contributions to the intellectual canon—but their storied documentation of this strange, anarchic experience of the heart remains a piece of unforgettable literature, and a boilerplate for many lonely girl classics to come.
Chris Kraus joins Document to share five memorable stories that had to be told.
Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame
“Published posthumously in 2009, Janet Frame’s novel describes a weekend she spent with a professional acquaintance, his wife, and their children at their home in the north English town of Relham. How excruciating to be a houseguest! Particularly when you’re a painfully shy, spinsterish New Zealand expat living in London. Frame famously spend 8 years of her youth in an acute-care psychiatric institution in New Zealand after being misdiagosed with schizophrenia… when in fact she was merely awkward, poor, and foolishly infatuated with the doctor who committed her. During the weekend, she confronts perennial houseguest problems like “what time to get up, go to bed, what to say, where to go, and when” and decides she’s a migratory bird. Frame wrote Toward Another Summer because the memory of that painful weekend was impeding her work on a novel, and then she put it away, believing the account of her hosts was too revealing to share. It wouldn’t be published for another half-century.”
The End of a Primitive by Chester Himes
“Himes’ account of a ‘lost weekend’ spent by a frustrated, impoverished, angry Black writer and a single, professional white woman in her Gramercy Park apartment ends, as it must, in murder and mayhem. Or, in Himes’ own words: ‘I put a sexually frustrated American woman and a racially frustrated Black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy.’ There’s also some apt, funny digs at the famed artist colony, Yaddo, that appears in the book as ‘Skidoo.’ In his introduction to the first uncensored edition published shortly before his death, Himes recalled: ‘Strangely enough, I was cleansed of envy and hate by writing about white Americans with satire and scorn.’”
Great Expectations by Kathy Acker
“Written in the wake of her mother’s suicide as she moved between New York, Seattle, San Francisco and then back to New York in 1979-1981, Great Expectations is at once an embrace and expulsion of grief, and the culmination of all Acker’s formal experiments to that date. ‘A narrative,’ she writes, ‘is an emotional moving.’ She’d yet to be commercially published or known beyond the art world. Writing on the cusp of the new decade, Acker brazenly juxtaposes the post-structuralist fascination with consciousness alongside extreme pornography, diatribe, parody, gossip, and trash. Driven by grief, she turns grief inside out and channels it into a larger investigation. ‘My mother committed suicide and I ran away,’ the book ends. ‘I don’t know if the world is better off worse than it has been. I know the only anguish comes from running away.’”
Labyrinth by Roberto Bolano (short story published in The Secret of Evil)
“In this story, written shortly after he’d arrived without immigration papers in Spain, Bolano proves that description can be the ultimate weapon. Over the course of ten pages, he considers a single photograph of the Parisian Tel Quel group, the intellectual superstars of his youth. No aspect of this banal group portrait escapes his attention: the ficus plants behind the table; the bags under Phillipe Soller’s eyes; the contour of Julia Kristeva’s breasts under her turtleneck sweater. Bolano crashes the party with this scathing homage.”
Queer by William S. Burroughs
“This short third-person novel written while Burroughs was living in Mexico City in the early 1950s after accidentally shooting his wife Joan Volmer is a painfully detailed account of the protagonist Lee’s complete infatuation with an elusive, opportunistic, and barely interested acquaintance named Allerton. The book remained unpublished for decades. When it was finally published in 1985, Burroughs observed that he wrote the book as a kind of inoculation: ‘Why,’ Burroughs asked, ‘should I wish to chronicle so carefully these extremely painful and unpleasant and lacerating memories? While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation… the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.’”