February 2013

Jane Hu

features

Hidden Costs: The Narrative of Class and Race in Chris Kraus's Summer of Hate

Paul has just gotten out of jail (not for the first time) for having illegally charged $937 to an old company card. He's on parole, for which he pays $25 a week, on top of the $120 per month to have his Breath-Safer monitored. He wants to buy a used Nissan ZX '81, but the car costs $1,200, and, after rent and parole costs, Paul only makes $150 a week. Catt is a cultural theorist and professor, who pays her Mars Vista therapist $200 per forty-five-minute session. Also a landlord, Catt purchases thirty-six Albuquerque housing units with $200,000 tax-sheltered dollars left over. She pays squatters $1,000 to exit the units since the process of eviction would amount to $750, not counting two months' time lost for remodeling. In Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Arizona, it costs taxpayers $500 a day to keep someone in jail. Then there are loans that turn into debts. Paul's $3,500 student loan has somehow grown to $21,000. Along the way, he incurs $1,857 in bad checks and $2,105.67 in interest, court fees, and penalties. Don't forget the tax.

An income statement is one way to explain the plot of Chris Kraus's new novel, Summer of Hate, which makes a point throughout to convey exact amounts of money spent. Summer of Hate offers a rare reminder ­-- or rare in the context of the novel -- that everything has its cost. Kraus has argued that narrative functions as a capitalist form, so it follows that for Kraus a rejection of conventional narrative techniques figures as a refusal to follow the rules of capitalism. In accounting for capitalist effects, Summer of Hate is a novel that emphasizes how capitalism substantively determines the narrative of all characters. We learn that a "dumpy Victorville twelve-plex" bought for $30K during the height of the '03 SoCal real estate boom is in March 2005 -- when Summer of Hate begins -- worth almost $2 million. Over the course of the book the numbers carry over, as interest compounds, that one can hardly ignore how taxes add up. It's a bookkeeping mystery that, by the end of Kraus's novel, we understand in terms of a narrative one as well.

Even as Kraus meticulously keeps track of money spent, her protagonists, Catt and Paul, remain suspicious that the numbers make much sense. With so many hidden costs -- if you factor in emotional costs, as well as the interest that comes with time -- how can any figure be accurate? Catt goes as far as to pronounce doubt as that which will displace the old narrative faith: "Doubt, the existential disease of the 20th century, would trump narrative." (Could this doubt be an effect of capitalism?) Neither Catt nor Paul is looking for narrative closure or clean endings, and as long as the taxes accumulate even the idea of closure seems a mere fiction.

The emphasis on doubt sends a warning to readers: Kraus's novel might not add up; it might end prematurely before there's time to do any adding at all. Catt muses that "she hasn't told anyone about these events, because there's no way to talk about them, she hasn't yet arranged them into a narrative." The novel might never even start. Summer of Hate begins with Catt's meditation on her death. All beginnings suggest the form of an ending.

Can a novel's beginning ever be a disappointment if readers are expected to become invested in how it ends? Summer of Hate opens with a chapter about Catt, but the story is ultimately about Paul. Kraus has spoken about this opening chapter as a way of getting the plot going, a way of moving Catt closer to Paul so that their stories can finally meet. Catt is a white heterosexual female art critic who also owns land. She has never been to prison, even though her financial management isn't exactly inculpable. Paul has just been released on parole when they first meet, and is surprised when Catt -- this intellectual from LA -- hires him as property manager for the apartments she's just purchased. (It's a hobby, she tells him.) This business transaction, however, develops into a romance.

Reading backward from the end, the beginning of Summer of Hate might be viewed as a disappointment. Kraus begins with Catt on the run from her ex-lover (whom she refers to as her killer), though this narrative strand is soon dropped almost completely. Similarly with Paul, romantic intrigues are suggested, only to be cast aside. Such unfulfilled setups can leave one feeling a little duped, so when Catt and Paul finally meet one another, readers don't particularly expect that their plotlines to dovetail into one about love. "Narrative becomes convention when it follows a convention arc," says Kraus in an interview, "the narrative that I like best is the kind that pulls the rug from under your feet." Through Catt and Paul, Kraus recasts the romance plot so common in novels under new circumstances. Changing the arc might start by simply displacing the arc to somewhere we haven't seen it before.

Paul's history, as well as the conditions surrounding Catt's Albuquerque real estate, is one of poverty, and Kraus works hard to convey this. Paul's perspective holds little faith that the current economic system will work in his favor, and this is expressed at the level of narrative form. Kraus's invocation of exact amounts of money spent, stolen, and owed is a way to keep readers cognizant of how the bourgeois novel has been complicit with capitalistic beliefs even in its attempts to ignore it. Each amount of money cited stands as an interruption of narrative interiority and psychological exploration. At the same time, it helps the novel explore what happens to the fact of money when it is placed in the hands of a human being. "Everything," we're reminded in Summer of Hate, "is replaceable. But at what psychic cost?" Less money doesn't necessarily mean more feelings, but it does open up to different ones.

In spite of its flirtation with the psychological effects of money -- having it, using it, losing it -- Summer of Hate hardly follows the tenets of the psychological novel, realist a la Henry James. Like Kraus's prior novels published by Semiotext(e) -- I Love Dick (1997), Aliens and Anorexia (2000), and Torpor (2006) -- Summer of Hate is at once fiction, autobiography, cultural theory, psychoanalysis, and journalism. (Catt "saw no boundaries between feeling and thought, sex and philosophy.") None of Kraus's previous works wholeheartedly embraces novelistic interiority, but instead choose, even in the more confessional I Love Dick, to regard internal emotions with suspect irony.

I Love Dick is, notably, about Kraus's real-life infatuation with cultural theorist Dick Hebdige as told through the supposedly real-life letters she, and her then-husband Sylvère Lotringer, wrote to him. Kraus has explained that she started the Native Agents series for Semiotexte(e), under which I Love Dick was published, in order to distribute "the kind of writing that I liked -- and that writing was entirely in the first person." Still, there is a sense that the true events that influenced I Love Dick can just as well be separate, and perhaps even should be separated, from the text itself. The way that Kraus has increasingly distanced herself from that novel over the years, as well as the kind of writer she once was, only emphasizes this detachment. Even as Kraus imbues female narrators with her own biographical details, she injects enough fiction to unsettle any reader's attempt to identify the heroine of I Love Dick as Chris Kraus proper.

The resonances between I Love Dick and Summer of Hate -- Kraus's first novel and her most recent -- are expressed at the level of the title. There's something avenging about the appearance of "Hate" in the latest publication, and one wonders what might have been if that verb had stood where "Love" did in the first. While I Love Dick, even in its title, places its author near the center of its text (she is, after all, the I through which most of the letters are spoken), Summer of Hate loses the personal pronoun and the novel follows to displace and disperse the hate. One is left wondering where to place the blame and burden of such antagonistic feeling, which is both an advantage and frustration to the novel. One doesn't get roused as much when reading Summer of Hate, but this buffer -- a kind of indirectness -- of feeling also makes space for reflection and judgment not just toward a single character, but at the entire system upon which the novel runs. Not to speak too much in terms of biography, but this seems a distinct kind of growth in Kraus's writing.

What has happened to the "I" in Summer of Hate? No longer told in discreet epistles, the novel is told through constantly shifting voices (the rug-pull at the level of the sentence). Kraus can show the merging and pivoting of novelistic perspectives in a single paragraph. At an AA meeting, Paul runs into Frank Harwood, an old prison mate, and tells him

"Oh, I'm in discussions with some out-of-state entrepreneurs. They're based in LA, and they want me to manage their real estate assets here in Albuquerque." What the fuck did Paul come up with that? He sounds like the pre-prison Frank Harwood. And Frank smiles a bit, he's still too dim to completely decide whether Paul's bullshitting.

Other times, a kind of omniscient judgment interrupts story, taking it out of time to announce the present of an author:

I've been thinking about paroling to Albuquerque, [Paul had] written last year in his journal. Instead of Farmington. Why shouldn't I go back to school? Study psychology? In fact he'd misspelled the word and written "phycology," which was one more example of what spending eight years in this town does to your brain.

A generous interpretation of Kraus's movement away from the single "I" might mean to see it as an ethical endeavor not to speak on behalf of others. "I still use 'I' in my critical work," says Kraus in an interview, "it's a more mature and intellectual 'I' in this case. But I began using character names to convey fiction's mess of real-life, contradictory experience." In another interview: "When I wrote I Love Dick, I was a complete outsider, so it was a very reckless, wild I. Now that my work has been more widely circulated, to continue to write from that outsider position would be false. It seemed easier to convey Catt Dunlop's vortex through the third person." With the loss of authorial anonymity, it seems that the writer has a responsibility to tell her story from a position of greater ambiguity. The "I" in I Love Dick had, in a sense, less to lose.

As this interview continues, however, Kraus makes sure to note that the subjectivities in Summer of Hate have in no way been domesticated or cultivated.

Narrative hinges on subjectivity, and we're accustomed to a certain kind of subjectivity. It's usually very refined: an incredibly solipsistic I that knows how to talk about itself in relation to a limited culture. Grammar, composition, the art world, the intellectual world: it's the upper-middle class Western I. So how to describe a subjectivity that's been bludgeoned to the point of nonexistence? This is a very different project than early 20th century Socialist-realist-working class literature, writers like John Dos Passos and Jack London who advanced a more heroic proletariat protagonist. That certainly isn't the case here.

Presumably, Summer of Hate has attempted to avoid adopting the upper-middle class Western I. Kraus wants to speak from the position of a "bludgeoned subjectivity" -- one that novelists have not, by definition, taken time to care or attend for -- to make it present through its recognition. I'm not sure, however, if what Kraus has done in this endeavor amounts to new expressions of subjectivities unfamiliar to the bourgeois novel, or if she's simply introduced less sophisticated genres of crime and pulp in a novel published by the theory-heavy intellectual imprint of Semiotext(e).

One begins to see a pattern to how the rug is pulled. Catt calls her work more realist than fabulist, and the realist axiom at the center of Summer of Hate seems to be that the impoverished and underprivileged are part of a system that will never cease to fuck them over. So much money circulates through Kraus's novel, but most of these exchanges express a familiar logic: the poor will continue to get poorer while the rich get richer.

The conventional narrative arc of the nineteenth-century novel -- those of Dickens and Austen -- show moments where individuals trump their socioeconomic environments. But Kraus (after a brief mention of Moll Flanders near the start of her novel) is drawing from another tradition, citing George Orwell, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes as influences behind Summer of Hate. In 1929, Himes was incarcerated at the age of nineteen for robbing a white home, and it was in prison where he started writing. During his incarceration, Himes was occasionally published in Esquire under his prison ID. While we can only speculate on how much his blackness and upbringing precipitated this event, we do know that Himes made it clear in almost all his writing that his books were necessarily influenced by race. When he was fired from Hollywood, it was because Jack Warner of Warner Brothers didn't "want no niggers on this lot."

Kraus talks of Himes as if Summer of Hate were a kind of tribute to this black author:

Chester Himes, who wrote both literary fiction and crime genre books, was a huge influence. He'd been incarcerated for seven years during his youth… His work was just butchered during his lifetime. A black man, writing about race, in the mid 20th century, and just brilliant, full of uncensored rage.

She mentions Highsmith, too, but briefly, at the end of the paragraph, as if an afterthought. Yet if we presume that Paul Garcia (who seems at best only nominally not-white in the novel) stands as an homage to Himes, then it's race that begins to feel like the afterthought in Summer of Hate. There are few references to anyone who isn't white in Summer of Hate, and when they do come it's with a cringe. Paul himself sleeps with "a fat Navajo woman" prostitute, reacting with nothing but racial and classist disgust, as he wonders about the friend who paid for her: "Typical Jerry. So cheap, he could not even spring for a nice, blonde Santa Fe whore." There might be many real and even understandable reasons for this thought to pass through Paul's mind, but the novel doesn't explore them. While Kraus introduces Paul as Lebanese on his mother's side and at least part Mexican on his father's, one might not even remember this detail by the novel's end. Summer of Hate moves forward with so little reference to race, and Paul reads as someone who both passes as white and upholds the privileges that come with doing so. (Why did Kraus make Paul Lebanese-Mexican? What would have been the implications if Paul was black? Would it have made it more difficult for Summer of Hate and its readers to ignore his race?) Perhaps Paul is meant to be some kind of tribute to Himes, or an exploration of what it means to be both poor and not-white in terms of the California prison system, but if so the attempt is a weak one. Where I most wanted doubt and hesitation was where there was least of either to be found.

It's troubling that Kraus emphasizes Himes's influence -- very clearly pointing out the significance of his race -- while still evading, in a novel so emphatically about the prison system, the relation between incarceration and race in the American prison-industrial complex in 2005. Maybe what Kraus intended to say that Himes's forms influenced her. Or perhaps writing a novel about a man unjustly imprisoned -- who remains haunted by the consequences of this imprisonment for the remainder of his life -- is enough of a nod to Himes's life. But Kraus doesn't bring up the narrative techniques Himes might have used while writing in prison -- we don't learn how Himes's "I" might have influenced Kraus's perception of or use of her own. Instead, methods of narrative and genre are attributed to Highsmith ("Psychologically, she's so realistic," says Kraus).

I'm tired of a kind of radical white feminism that mostly ignores questions of race. This has been an ongoing problem for too long, though people, writers and activists, continue to shy away from its implications. On an all-white panel on female narcissism, people spoke of Kraus as though the absence of other races were a surprise. For some reason, it feels an even more complicit act when someone claiming radical politics -- when a group that directly opposes hegemonic or patriarchal systems -- is unable to engage with the views and voices of raced bodies. Many react defensively, taking the suggestion that they might be racist as an attack on their political coherency -- on their individual righteousness. In reviews of I Love Dick, no one speaks of how Kraus's section on white human rights activist Jennifer Harbury (briefly married to Mayan rebel leader, Efrain Bamaca) felt grossly appropriative of the Guatemalan communities in which and for whom Harbury fought for. In that novel, Kraus's (or the narrator Chris's) first invocation of Harbury is banal enough as to suggest self-mockery: "I was going to Guatemala because I'd heard Jennifer Harbury talk about her hunger strike on NPR." But as the meditation on Harbury continues, one grows ever less certain of how Kraus, or Chris, is framing her discussion. Even at that, Kraus's focus on Harbury is more about Chris's relations to Harbury -- and how American media portrayed a female Harvard Law graduate's radical politics and hunger strikes -- than it ever was about Guatemalan political rights, whatever that might mean for readers.

In I Love Dick, Kraus weaves Harbury's story through her own. One paragraph Chris is noting her own journey to Guatamela, while the next she documents how Harbury had arrived there in the past. Even as bullets divide these alternating passages textually, there's an existential drive that underlies them all, drawing Kraus, Chris, and Harbury together. Harbury becomes an example for Chris, a story that she can use to read her own: 

Jennifer Harbury was 39 years old when she met Efraim Bamaca in a rebel training camp in the Guatemalan highland jungle. Until that time her life had been one dry and dusty road. From Baltimore to Cornell. From Cornell to North Africa, then to Afghanistan, backpacking around the outer reaches of these countries without any special plans. She met exiled Palestinians. She saw a lot of poverty and was moved to ask: Must people starve so that we can live the way we do?

There is a sense in I Love Dick that Kraus follows, more than literally, the footsteps of "Jennifer-the-bad-feminist," until eventually Harbury's story (forget that of Bamaca's or the Guatemalans') is presented only to be folded inside Kraus's. Writing to Dick:

I still hadn't gotten round to explaining what Guatemalan genocide had to do with the 180 pages of love letters that I'd written with my husband and then given to you, like a timebomb or a cesspool or a manuscript. But I would, I would. I felt like we were facing each other from the edges of a very dark and scary crater. Truth and difficulty. Truth and sex.

At some point, did Harbury simply fall in love? Did Chris? Did Catt? What does it mean for Kraus to use Harbury's biography, though, versus what it means for her to use Himes's?

Has Kraus has capitalized, like many white writers before her, on the status of a black author as a way of forwarding her own anti-racist sentiments? Himes himself once said, "In fact, it always strikes me as funny (in a strange way) that white people can take problems of race so seriously, guiltily, when they make these problems themselves and keep on making them." This opinion is reflected throughout Himes's writing, which was fueled by experience and anger. On white readers' reception of Richard Wright, Himes says:

No, I didn't say they didn't think much of him. I said that Wright's works themselves did not make any great impression on the white community, although they read them. As a writer, he made an impression on the publishing world. Although the white community read his works and gave a performance of being moved and touched and so forth, it didn't mean a damn thing to them -- they just shed it. It's unfortunate but it's quite true.

How much of what Himes once said about white reader's reception of Richard Wright remains true today? It's still refreshing whenever white writers mention the politics and history of a race that isn't their own, but, as often is the case, Kraus keeps Himes on the sidelines. Referenced in interviews, he becomes more a symbol to be acknowledged than a historical reality that one should honor one's writing. Summer of Hate condemns the insidiousness behind class hierarchies (through her ever-growing accounting lists, keeping Paul forever back while Catt moves freely, ahead and away), while brushing over hierarchies of race, as well as how race relates to class. When I think about Kraus's portrayal of the working class alongside her use of race, both ultimately seem to be appropriations by an artist that means well, yet still reproduces the carelessness of the privileged.

This might just be a counterfactual, an alternative narrative I've read into Summer of Hate, for the novel ultimately doesn't mention race enough for me, or you, to contend with its representations. It's just not there, and when it is it's mostly in the form of white trash. Summer of Hate takes place elsewhere, in Kraus's "I," and can anyone blame an author for that? "Catt isn't really the main character," says Kraus in an interview, "But it's easier -- I mean, she's more like the typical reader -- to draw people into the story via her world. Weird as her situation is, as an urban professional, she's the one to whom people can more quickly relate." From the start, with Catt and her escape from her Polish ex-lover, with Catt and her ex-husband, Michel, and their friends ("artists and college professors" all), we're in a culturally privileged and legitimized world -- one that for previous readers of Kraus isn't entirely unfamiliar.

Just as Kraus's novel is about prisons, it's also a story about place, and that place is ultimately outside of the prison. With each of Catt's attempts to keep Paul from returning to prison, Summer of Hate tries, again and again, to move its characters away from worlds they know, and toward building new ones. While Catt attempts to renovate her real estate in Albuquerque, she's also working on another project: the "rehabilitation" of an ex-convict, Paul. Catt quickly learns that some projects you can abandon, while others seem to follow you.

In ways that incarceration and location are related, Summer of Hate is about what it means to own or belong to a piece of land. In order to avoid answering these questions, Paul and Catt are continually on the run (they also exist inside a road novel). The theme of relocation and travel is one not unfamiliar to Kraus, who explores it in both her films, such as Gravity and Grace, and in books novelistic (Torpor) and art historical (Where Art Belongs). In an interview, Kraus talks of "the idea that you can take yourself out of a certain kind of misery and put yourself into another kind of splendor. I think my books are like that. There's an element of travel and simultaneity." Kraus believes that there's a kind of epiphany to be found in movement -- that by not staying still, we might learn what it means to be in a place yet unknown to us, or even an in-between place that doesn't really exist. This, for Kraus, incites a kind of longing within us, and possibly even a kind of love. But I wonder if love (or longing, or faith, or hope, anything opposite of doubt) is enough for the kind of political novel Kraus has hoped to write in Summer of Hate. I wonder if the kinds of reaching and movement and displacement are not really just moments of escape, and not really movements toward change. The novel is in large part about the question of who gets to travel, and who, when caught, gets to escape.

As you near the end of Summer of Hate, Kraus pulls the rug a few more times. While Catt is vacationing in a Baja, Paul gets arrested in Phoenix, where he once was involved in a hit-and-run. This isn't the first time Catt has had to bail Paul out, and it might also not be the last. Catt's choice to join Paul in Phoenix and hire an overpriced lawyer ($35,000 retainer) is a movement of love and faith, but it's also one not everyone can make. Certainly, not every Paul has a Catt. But interestingly, in Summer of Love, we need a Catt in order to get to know a Paul.

What's more, we need the white woman cultural theorist to fall in love with the ex-convict before we really invest in his future (and, following Catt, his messy past as well). Does our entrance into other perspectives always depend on our ability to fall in love? Such a revelation seems crucial. Maybe, this time, love will be different. In a way, too, Kraus seems to want readers to pursue the different, the counterfactual -- and that's one of its richest impulses. "There are always the contours," Paul imagines, "the details, time broken down into hundreds of new situations." What if I hadn't stopped to get a drink? What if I rode a different car? Perhaps the future isn't determined by the past, nor does the past have to happen the way it did." That sort of doubt is a saving thing.

Summer of Hate by Chris Kraus
Semiotext(e)
ISBN: 978-1584351139
256 pages