In Aliens & Anorexia, we meet the author, Chris Kraus, during the humiliating last rites of shopping her unwanted, money-guzzling film around the Berlin Film Festival, where she finally declares the project dead, after it has been “rejected by every major festival from Sundance to Australia to Turin.” Entitled Gravity & Grace, Kraus’s movie shows “a group of earnest lunatics” waiting for aliens to rescue them from their blah lives in a New Zealand suburban yard. Given Kraus’s description of her filmmaking approach, it’s no big surprise that G&G tanks: “The idea of ‘movie’ was a mesh of words and voices and emotion which I’d just assumed Dennis [the DP] would know how to translate. I’d never thought of movies visually before; could hardly tell the difference between a two-shot and a closeup.”
Kraus tries to get over herself and her cinematic mishap by interweaving the account of her flop with the life stories of other earnest visionaries who died with puny places in the canon. She hails the Damien Hirst-esque meat artiste Paul Thek as someone who aimed for “a plateau at which a person might, with all their will and consciousness, become a thing.” She presents her heroine Simone Weil as the Frida Kahlo of French philosophers: a frail Jewess who accepts Christ and eventually starves herself to death at 34 in a rapture of altruism, TB, and indignation that the world fell so short of her beloved Greek ideal of the Good. As Kraus narrates Thek’s and Weil’s sagas with redemptive fervor, you get the sense that her zeal to upgrade them from also-ran status thinly masks her desire to redeem herself.
Throughout, Aliens & Anorexia sucks us into an intellectual time warp, one that revives an embarrassing ’80s moment that fetishized “transgressive martyrs” and glorified hysteria as a site of resistance to patriarchy. Typical of a certain kind of intellectual who filters everything through discourse, Kraus romanticizes actor-outers like anorexics, alleged alien abductees, and inarticulate girls, in whose experience she fantasizes a kind of transcendent freedom from language. While Kraus’s theoretical vintage values “escaping” psychology through sensation, mysticism, s/m, and terrorism, her methods for busting out are so trite and unfelicitous that they restrict more than they liberate.
The two reigning metaphors of the book—aliens and anorexia—exalt inarticulateness and dis-identification with the body. Kraus idolizes ’70s journalist-gone-bad Ulrike Meinhof, the German Patty Hearst, who pops up as a leitmotif channeling alien-intensity: “She became an Alien, i.e. someone who has changed. . . . At 42, she’d finally come to occupy the same sensate psychic space she’d once longingly observed among incarcerated teenage girls.” That’s when Meinhof threw off the “confines of discursive language” and took to Direct Action—as a terrorist. Kraus champions Weil, too, as an “admirable freak.” Challenging those who pathologize anorexia as a “feminine disorder,” Kraus attempts to redeem it as “the female subject’s attempt to step outside her body.” She writes maudlin letters to Walter Benjamin, telling him: “Cynicism travels through the food chain. To stop eating is to temporarily withdraw from it. Without love it is impossible to eat.”
I Love Dick, Kraus’s previous novel, explored her unrequited crush on cultural studies prof Dick Hebdige. Her real-life husband, Sylvere Lotringer, is best known as the big importer of postwar French theory to the U.S. university scene, where it enjoyed its heyday sometime during Early Madonna. The supportive prof lurks on the periphery of Aliens & Anorexia, writing scholarly essays on Bataille and letting Kraus pimp his lecturing services for film money. Filling the void in their open marriage and isolated in L.A., Kraus conducts a banal long-distance “s/m” phone sex relationship and wallows in her abjection.
In the last third of the book, Kraus deftly slips us into the lame film itself, where her flimsy characters recall the goofy low production values of Liquid Sky, but with none of the wit. This ploy offers the possibility of freeing Kraus, and the reader, from the rest of Aliens & Anorexia‘s plaintive musings on failure, the avant-garde, and herself, but it never entirely comes off. Even when Kraus shifts the focus away from her pet martyrs, we’re still stuck with her mawkish sensibility and didacticism.
Yet by affirming the “weakness” of herunderappreciated spiritual heroes, Kraus may have found an idiot-proof formula for this book to work whether it works or not. Upon reading the unhappy Thek’s diaries, including his poem “Why Am I So Boring,” Kraus suddenly understands “that writing can be bad and still be part of something good. That ‘art’ is really ‘artifact,’ Exhibit A, Exhibit B, of something else: a person’s whole experience and life. And that always there’s the chance that this will fail. That things will not work out.” Kraus has indeed, given us such an “artifact.”