Love letters — specifically, dead love letters that never quite connect with their addressees and maybe aren't meant to — are having a moment. Eve Babitz's 1977 book Slow Days, Fast Company — an essay collection framed by love letters to a man who won't read them — has just been reissued, at nearly the same time as the premiere of Jill Soloway's Amazon show I Love Dick, an adaptation of Chris Kraus' genre-busting book about a collection of love letters that receives no response.
Why this uptick in dead love notes? Why the sudden interest in women doggedly and literarily courting men long after the game's been lost?
I Love Dick offers a grand theory of letters: what they do for the writers and what they demand of their recipients. The show stars Kathryn Hahn as Chris, a 40-year-old indie filmmaker whose jittery star is coming unstuck, Griffin Dunne as her older and more successful husband Sylvère, and Kevin Bacon as Dick — a dreamy cowboy of a beef jerky beefcake of a man-writer — I Love Dick is an experimental hurricane of a show about creatives and creeps and letters and love. (And desire, its abject cousin.)
If you haven't read the book, you should know two things:
1. I Love Dick is, unsurprisingly, about Chris loving Dick.
2. It's not about that at all really, since before we meet Dick, we meet Chris' letters to him:
(Screenshot/Amazon/I Love Dick)
(Screenshot/Amazon/I Love Dick)
This is progress of a kind. The twin figures of the unloved woman and her sister the predatory "cougar" have been so embarrassing for so long, so reducible to humiliating impulses that really ought to be subordinated, that the idea of the artist as female lover — as pursuer, as writer of sonnets, as spinner of lust into art — has never gotten much traction. (This despite the fact that plenty of male writers, from Shakespeare to Nabokov to Neruda, built literary reputations out of the more performative aspects of being creepily and obsessively in love.) When a woman's gunning hard for a man, you don't usually picture sonnets. You picture Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
The woman who wants without being wanted remains a problem. When a camera can caress a man's body as dreamily as Soloway's caresses Bacon's in this pilot, we lurch a little closer to something like sensual parity. That doesn't mean equal-opportunity creeping is necessarily pleasant; Chris's initial hyper-charged exchange with Dick will make you cringe in exactly the way these sorts of things make you cringe in real life. But the sexual charge is as real as its absence once Dick realizes who she is — "Dick's fellow's wife." That she doesn't or can't accept his lack of interest is itself interesting — one of the great dramatic questions for a culture struggling to figure out what it means when women are sexual consumers as well as sexual objects.
Kraus' book was published 20 years after Eve Babitz's, and both are structured around the familiar, embarrassing phenomenon of a woman obsessed: Both contain the admission that the narrator wants the guy, the admission that she didn't get him, and the certainty that the thing is worth writing nevertheless. In both, the idea that the failure is worth documenting becomes a philosophy in its own right, an announcement of a necessary artistic genre.
I Love Dick opens with a naked and unwanted confession of love. Compare that to how Babitz starts Slow Days, Fast Company: "This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent," she says. "But I want it clearly understood from the start that I don't expect it to turn out well." She notes that happy endings are dreary and implausible; failures in love are, if anything, the best argument for it: "Women, especially, engage themselves in ghastly self-inflicted tortures for which they've been primed since childhood," she writes, and historically the argument has been "it's going to be dreadful so you may as well learn to enjoy it."
Babitz does enjoy it — even when she thinks about forgoing men. When a friend suggests to her that she could be the man, she tries. "I had a sudden transplant of sense as I imagined myself 'the man' and just how creepy I bet I could be: dodging emotional entanglements and lying and otherwise having a lovely time. Forgetting to phone."
But the thought experiment doesn't stick and neither does Babitz's definition of creepiness: If creeps were once the guys who forgot to call, they're now the guys who call too much. And the only thing creepier than a guy who pushes too hard is a girl who does the same. (Soloway's adaptation captures this: Kathryn Hahn's Chris is creepy and bored and just incredibly, wonderfully embarrassing to watch.)
Back to Babitz: "Since it's impossible to get this one I'm in love with to read anything unless it's about or to him," she writes, "I'm going to riddle this book with Easter Egg italics so that this time it won't take him two and a half years to read my book like it did the first one. The seduction of a non-reader is how I plan to tie up L.A." And if for a minute it seems that we, her actual readers, are getting the short end of the stick here, it doesn't last. Babitz's love letters and Easter Eggs start vanishing halfway through the book as it starts to grow into its own, fully-fleshed thing. By the end, we don't know whether the guy she's in love with read it. We also don't care — what we got in exchange for eavesdropping on this weird one-sided lovers' correspondence was so much better than a happy ending.
In I Love Dick (the book, not the show), Kraus starts off declaring her love for Dick based on a single dinner together. She and her husband start writing Dick letters they don't send about the problem of her crush. The letters get longer and weirder, and writing this way produces a predictable erotic charge.
Eventually, though, Chris starts writing to Dick on her own: "I've never thought writing could be such a direct communication but you're a perfect listener. My silent partner, listening so long as I stay on track and tell you what is really on my mind," she writes. It's perfect projection, as Dick correctly points out in one of their few real-life conversations:
"But you don't know me! We've had two or three evenings! Talked on the phone once or twice! And you project this shit all over me, you kidnap me, you stalk me, invade me with your games, and I don't want it! I never asked for it! I think you're evil and psychotic!"
But Chris won't leave it at that. After weeks of Dick's non-response to her packet of letters — she and her husband have proposed it as an art project in collaboration with him — it's clear that her writing doesn't have all that much to do with the real-life addressee: "That night she sat up late in the living room writing her first diary entry. Impossible to write alone. The diary begins: Dear Dick."
Dick — who by now exceeds his name by any conceivable measure — becomes the recipient for every thought, not just the confessional ones. ("Since this is such a dead-letter night, Dick, perhaps I'll transcribe a few notes that I made in the car," she writes.) And the process of documenting impulses becomes an occasion for other things — for meditations on art installations, theory, torture victims, or a woman's hunger strike to save her husband. The letters stray from their object to subjects of their own, and this — to Chris the Artist — is interesting.
That's where I Love Dick breaks through into a new thing: "Chris was not a torture victim, not a peasant. She was an American artist, and for the first time it occurred to her that perhaps the only thing she had to offer was her specificity. By writing Dick she was offering her life as Case Study."
Offering a documented history of love and lust with all its attendant embarrassments and philosophical possibilities does constitute an achievement that's more than personal. So do Shakespeare's sonnets with their coy references to same-sex love and the dark lady. One edition even has a dedication to a mysterious Mr. W.H., "the onlie begetter of these ensuing sonnets," which is signed not by Shakespeare but by the printer — an effect that muddies the waters even as it bolsters the sonnets' gossipy credentials. Because love letters are gossip, and dead letters are the love poems of our time. Per Babitz, "People read fiction the same way they listen to gossip, so if you're reading this at all then you might as well read my private asides written so he'll read it. I have to be extremely funny and wonderful around him just to get his attention at all and it's a shame to let it all go for one person."
As philosophies of love go, it's a weak but pragmatic stance. Seen properly, love poems are obsessive and embarrassingly public and always more interested in themselves than in the beloved. They're occasions for philosophy: "Indeed, one of the most striking things about the sonnets is how utterly unsentimental and rigorously tough-minded their account of love and friendship is," writes Michael Schoenfeldt of Shakespeare's work. It's a description that applies with equal force to Babitz and to Kraus, two 20th-century miners of love's humiliations in the service of art with whom we're finally — 40 and 20 years later, in the hot brown month of August — prepared to reckon.