Though letter-writing is practiced by very few nowadays, it’s at the center of Amazon’s I Love Dick.
When you picture a Jane Austen novel, one of the images that will most likely figure in your vision is a woman sitting at her desk or at a windowsill, writing a letter. Letter-writing was the main method of communication up until telephones were invented. Yet, letters have maintained a kind of romanticized quality to them, and not just because of their association with Victorian literature. Indeed, Jill Soloway’s entire show I Love Dick hinges upon its protagonist Chris Kraus’ (Kathryn Hahn) letters to Dick (Kevin Bacon), and whether they will get sent or not.Kathryn Hahn in ‘I Love Dick’
Of course, this is an adaptation of a memoir written by Chris Kraus in the ‘90s, when email was only just catching on and texting was certainly not a thing yet. But the fact that Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins decided not to adapt it nor update the technology speaks to the enduring power and theatricality of letter-writing. Chris could ostensibly be writing long drafts of emails to Dick or sending him erotic voicemails. Yet, Soloway is clearly interested in the tactility of letters. Chris types her letters, prints them up, and hangs them with clothes pegs on a string above her bed – airing out her dirty laundry. The unsent letters, read aloud to the viewer (and to her husband Sylvere) contain a kind of scandalous intimacy. Spoken desire, but unsent. It’s telling that Chris classifies her letters as an early draft, as an art project. What Kraus and Soloway have done, both in their respective mediums is to show how an artist does not need to surpass herself in order to make art. She can remain firmly and awkwardly within her own desire, exploring it from within. As Kraus declares in a later episode, “this is not a love letter, this is a manifesto.” And like all manifestos, they are meant to be shared.
When she has sex with her husband Sylvere, she pulls the letters down from their pegs and reads them aloud to him. He’s turned on by her obsession and her unrestrained desire for another man. This wonky lust-triangle remains intact until Chris delivers her letters to Dick. There are so many letters that she packages them in a wooden box. It would seem that when writing love letters, you can’t send them one by one; you must either hide them from view entirely or flood the reader with your words. What’s interesting about her sending him letters is that what characterizes letter-writing is long distance, as well as the anxious wait for a reply. So, given that they both live in Marfa, we can read this distance not in geographical terms but as the space between desire and the fulfillment thereof. The waiting in the show is not waiting for a reply. It’s waiting for her to send them, for her to fulfill her desire.
The letter writing most clearly resembles a manifesto in Episode 5, “A Short History Of Weird Girls”, the best and most adventurous episode. It begins with Chris speaking one of her letters to the camera as she stands in the stark Texan landscape. She speaks of her sexual history as she walks through flashback vignettes from her childhood and young adulthood. Then, we transition away from Chris and towards Devon and Toby’s (2 supporting characters) letters to Dick, and finally to Paula, Dick’s undervalued curator at the gallery. Through these 4 juxtaposing narratives, I Love Dick creates a web of female expression. Letters can be private forms of communication, but it is their potential to be both withheld and sent that gives them and their writers so much power. This shared act of writing to Dick is a creation of a female network, in which all women are invited to pen their thoughts on desire. Moreover, in an earlier episode, Devon intercepts one of Chris’ letters and devises a play based on the letters, affirming Chris’ desire as burgeoning art. Female desire is infectious and inspiring. It can’t help but cause a chain-mail reaction.
Episode 6, “This is Not a Love Letter,” begins with Chris taping her letters across town for everyone to read. Chris’ performance is heightened by the juxtaposition of Toby live-streaming herself undressing in a trailer park full of oil-riggers. While Chris’ act is, for the viewer, ill-advised but a logical next-step, Toby’s performance art is read as pretentious and naive. Perhaps Soloway is acknowledging Chris’ self-indulgence. Chris ignores the etiquette of desire and gets Dick’s attention. Toby’s live-stream gets half a million people’s attention but doesn’t start any conversations.
Like every performance, it’s never meant for one person. If you thought that the letters were about and for Dick, then clearly you’ve never written a letter before. Though addressed to him, these letters are not meant for him. She doesn’t want a response, or at least she doesn’t need one. She wants her desire to be heard, in all its suffocating, claustrophobic unease. Indeed, on the two occasions in which Chris and Dick come close to having sex, the act is foiled.
Every letter is a love letter. Every letter is about waiting. Waiting to be read, waiting to be heard.