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Interview: Chris Kraus


Renowned writer of such mind-bending books as I Love Dick, Aliens & Anorexia and Torpor, Chris Kraus cuts a new and insatiably clever line in her forthcoming novel, Summer of Hate, an excerpt of which appears on Joyland. In this explosive work Kraus breaks down big themes like art writing, romance, and capitalism, all within a wildly expansive take on the thriller. Kraus, also the founding editor of Semiotext(e)’s highly essential Native Agents Series, was kind enough to discuss the process of creating Summer of Hate.  — Janine Armin

Joyland: You mention the protagonist Catt’s attempt to “place more faith in narrative.” In your writing, do you tend to focus more on form than narrative? Touching on your One Hour Empire piece, what is the key thing to be aware of when trying to develop a strong narrative?

Chris Kraus: Catt’s line is kind of a joke she cracks to herself. A frustrated historian, she’s better known for writing about visual art – which is, you know – all form – art criticism is like, conceptual copywriting! But now she’s hiding out in a Mexican town fleeing her real or imagined killer – in the opening the chapter, I was very consciously trying to write it as a thriller.  Action is more of a guide for my writing than form or narrative – I ask myself, what is the text trying to do? What am I trying to make happen? 

The art piece in One Hour Empire was commissioned for a book about the conceptual artist Stefan Bruggemann. The editor, Nico Oliviero had the great idea of scrapping the predictable critical essays and instead turned the texts into a writing game. Everyone was assigned twelve words that had to appear in the essay. I found myself writing towards the meanings of those words to me at the time – and then discovering the connections between those meanings through each of the stories. 

Summer of Hate sort of subliminally questions or rejects new narrative writing and its focus on subjectivity.  I was drawn more to the classics of old-fashioned narrative: Patricia Highsmith, John Steinbeck, Balzac. One of the ideas I’m trying to bring forward within the book is just how limited our ‘subjectivity’ is, anyway. And also, the strip-mining of subjectivity among the underclass characters. Paul’s ‘subjectivity’ is limited because he has no information. And this was the situation I observed in the southwest US at the time – what had once been working class culture, reduced to a binary choice between 12 Step programs and born again Christianity, or addiction and prison.

JL: How autobiographical is the text? To what extent is this used to explore narrative?

Kraus: Everything in the book is true and all of is fiction.  That is – the novel is composed of elements taken from life, but it’s not a transcription. The selection is very strategic, and the events are arranged to lead to (I hope!) a foreseeable but still disturbing ending. I knew when I started the book it would have to end with him leaving her – so the selection of elements, the psychological balance leads up to that point.

JL: Catt’s killer attempts to remove her curiosity by taking her money. This and other scenarios crop up as didactic metaphors. Are these cautionary tales tailored to culture workers? Like the one Michel and Catt share about Delphine and her tragic loss of interest in the man she chooses over her professor husband?

Kraus: Yeah – there are a few cautionary tales being told here! Catt and her art-world friends are very attuned to them.

JL: Catt admires actors who “maintained real lives and interests outside the culture industry.” Is Catt’s attempt to turn her world inside out a distancing from her occupation and maybe relationships associated with occupation?

Kraus: Definitely. She hasn’t given up being a journalist – she wants access to “real life” experience that’s pretty much edited out of even so-called alternative culture. 

JL: Midway through Summer you write: “Michel preferred to take the long view of mental illness, though it was easier to accept as a manifestation of late capitalism than something encroaching on his actual, life.” Do you think Catt suffers from capitalism as mental illness? Is this an epidemic? What are the symptoms?

Kraus: She is delirious.  Of course the line is a joke about how much easier it is to deal with delirium in purely conceptual terms, and not someone’s actual madness. It’s well known that late capitalism is completely sociopathic.  Catt’s madness is highly articulated; she’s read all the books – whereas Paul and the other underclass characters are consigned to seeing the world in terms of their limited palette of “feelings.”

JL: Finally, alluding to the painful finale, which I may have over-sentimentalized, is love the search for parallel thinking? Is it always a mistake - but a necessary one?

Kraus: Yes, but it’s so often doomed!  Which I guess is what leads us to writing and reading.