Blog Post

Orals Update: C. Kraus and N. Mailer (and N. Nabokov)

My orals exam is around the corner at last, and my dissertation prospectus is (I think and some who would know have agreed!) nearly done. It's been so unexpectedly useful to write the prospectus as I read and reread texts from my three lists - and I say unexpectedly because, although I was advised to attempt the simultaneity, for a while I thought that the diss idea was straying almost completely away from two of the lists. One of the things working on both at once has proven to me - as needs happening time and again - is the usefulness of having a big project to work on that both reprieves you from and brings you back to the other big project you are working on. They've woven together in ways I didn't anticipate, on detail and conceptual levels. Most importantly, I think, the prospectus work has reminded me that all of this is work toward the next big project, the diss (and then the first book after that). Even when I feel overwhelmed or confused, I'm excited.

A few thoughts below on some of the orals texts I've been reading this week (none of which are currently slated for inclusion in the diss, but I'm always ready to be surprised):

Chris Kraus' I Love Dick is such an amazing novel (cum reimagined memoir cum travelogue cum fantasy cum many other things) that I've been hearing about for a while, and I am so grateful to one of my advisors for recommending it for my remembering list. (I almost wish it had drawings so it could dialogue with Alison Bechdel and Sherman Alexie on an added level.) The degree to which Kraus plays with narrative conventions is almost staggering, and her allusions are so deep I'm not even sure I know where they end. I'll try for a few minutes to parse out (purposely without having the texts in front of me) why I think her text is so important to (actually) at least two of my lists - remembering and liminality in music - and maybe even to the third, on embodiment in writing and in the classroom.

To start, my strongest connections to this text have to do with its creativity, rejection of narrative convention, and incredible bravery. Kraus takes real people and (presumably some) real events and reimagines them through a prism of social critique and personal awareness. She, her former husband, the critic Sylvère Lotringer, and the eponymous Dick (who we now know is cultural/ed critic Dick Hebdige) form a fascinating triangle, and yet it's marked by Dick's absence from most of the text, at least as a direct version of himself. Kraus evokes him in letters to such a degree that about halfway through the book, I started to wonder how much she might have been inspired by Waiting for Godot - and then he reappears, briefly, and then again right before the book's shattering end. Or, more precisely, Kraus brings him back in, for her narrative control over this work is intense and deeply felt. As many of the book's accolades have mentioned, it reimagines a woman's subjectivity in complex and creative ways, and one of the ultimate points about Dick himself is that he is explicitly not the point.

I see a relationship on tonal, structural, and allusive levels between Kraus and Nabokov, specifically with Lolita. Some stray observations to that end: Both authors – and, in between them temporally, Erica Jong – take on sex as an element of simultaneous freedom and imprisonment. They each craft protagonists who find too much meaning in another person, and end up learning some important things about themselves in the process. Humbert Humbert's utter lack of morality is, of course, one unavoidable difference, Tonally, each of them also write with similar levels of self-awareness and humor – capitalizing phrases, and alluding deeply and constantly to other works. Nabokov and Kraus also both narrate their protagonists' memorable road trips.

Another text I've been relating to Lolita lately is Norman Mailer's unforgettable Marilyn: A Biography. I (re-)read it through a prism of such intense hatred, it's hard to shake - but it gives me lots of thoughts! I knew I hated it when I added it to my list, but Mailer really came through on that front on my reread. There's more tonal similarity here, this time in the realm of superiority and utter conviction that the narrator is smarter and more learned than the reader and also than the subject. Mailer looks down his nose at Monroe through the hundreds of pages he spends on her, and, similar to Humbert Humbert, he removes her subjectivity as he goes. She's less a person than a text to be analyzed, a body to be examined (and probably masturbated over). For instance, when he talks about her childhood, he eschews personal pronouns, calling the woman who gave birth to her "the mother." He also makes fun of Monroe's first modeling agent for having a Faulknerian name when his own paragraphs evoke that writer in the full pages they traverse; he doesn't seem to recognize this disjunct. His snootiness is mostly centered on women, though not completely – he sneers at the biographies that precede his own for not being complete enough or for having a different way with words than his. 


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