'I Love Dick' Is Based On A True Story, But This Reality Is Stylized
I Love Dick operates under a premise that is both unconventional and bold as it follows Chris (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) as they pursue his mentor, Dick (Kevin Bacon), in their quest for sexual gratification. While the story seems unlikely, I Love Dick is based on a true story, if loosely.
While the show is gaining viewers, fans may be surprised to know that I Love Dick already made a big impression when Chris Kraus published her novel of the same name in 1997. The characters are based on Kraus and her then partner, Sylvère Lotringer, and their encounters with Dick, an acquaintance of Lotringer's. The novel is structured as epistolary (by telling the story through letters), with Chris writing letters and diary entries addressed to Dick. Moving from third person to first person point of view, the story attempts to create an honest portrayal of this complex relationship as Chris moves away from Sylvère and towards her own sexual desires.
Kraus is very clear about the purpose for I Love Dick, in the opening paragraph for her 2016 piece in The Guardian, titled "I Love Dick Happened In Real Life, But Is Not a Memoir":
In both the novel and the series, I Love Dick is Chris' attempt to move from observer to participant of her life as the letters begin to grow in the form of essays and then later moving off the page into real life. For the show, the "letters" are scene breaks that transition into the narrative action.
If art is the sincerest form of flattery, it may have missed Kraus's version of Dick, based on real-life art critic Dick Hebdige. In the series, Dick is no longer an art critic but a cowboy and sculptor who is beloved by his small town. When Chris introduces herself to Dick's colleagues at a party in the show, they respond with, "Your husband is one of Dick's fellows!" Dick is portrayed as a big fish in the small pond of Marfa, Texas (the book takes place in Los Angeles) while Chris is perceived as a woman trying to break out of the confinement of this same small town.
In contrast, the novel's version of Dick contained more insight into Dick's identity, which enabled readers in-the-know to tie it to Hebdige. According to an interview Kraus gave to The Observer, Hebdige was "appalled by the book," despite what Kraus feels were attempts to protect his image while staying true to her own story. Kraus claims she offered Hebdige the chance to write the introduction, so readers would think it was "a joke that [they] cooked up together." Hebdige told New York Magazine that the book was "beneath contempt."
Kraus is known for creating stories out of her personal experiences and I Love Dick is no exception. In Leslie Jamison's profile of Kraus in The New Yorker, she wrote, "She uses the materials of her life to seek this 'a-personal' meaning— something larger, more universal. Her work isn’t an expression of narcissism so much as a preemptive challenge to anyone who might read it that way."
It is this challenge that addresses the novelist's way of thriving for authenticity without sacrificing her work. I Love Dick, in both novel and series form, manages to walk that very fine line between fact and fiction.