Torpor is the final part of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick trilogy, a series which chronicles the final years of her (character’s) marriage to the cultural theorist Sylvère Lotringer and her obsession with Dick and her attempts to become a filmmaker, and maybe in the process become a little bit more like her hero, Simone Wiel. Set in 1991, three years before the events of I Love Dick, Torpor follows Sylvie and Jarome, characters with names borrowed from Georges Perec’s Things: A Story of the 60s, which cannot be read as anything but pseudonyms for Chris and Sylvère, on an ill-fated journey to Romania in the vain hope that they can somehow adopt a baby, despite the fact that post-revolution, Romania has banned all adoption. The journey actually takes them to the heart of the compromises and traumas upon which their relationship is built, leaving them with no hope of a simple happily-ever-after together but maybe a stronger sense of how to go on living.
Torpor is by far the most conventionally novelistic part of the trilogy. The device of letters to an imagined other are long gone and yet still to come. And essays about idealised, marginalised thinkers and artists are placed in the background. After two volumes, in which Chris, the character, has tried to illustrate just how much more qualified she is to theorise about life and culture than the Bataille boys that surround her husband, in the third person, through the alias of Sylvie, she is finally able to fully integrate her analysis into her storytelling. The result is something incredibly rich in terms of a personal narrative, a historical document and a reflection on the nature of subjectivity itself. But it is also bloody funny. As in this passage on the couple’s dog, Lily, who is not only a focal point that holds their relationship together but also a point of commonality between Chris and Sylvère and Perec’s Sylvie and Jarome;
Sylvie’s views on interspecies sex were mixed. Allowing their little dog to hump her leg was probably perverse, but still, she wanted to be a conduit for canine happiness. When she’d adopted Lily at the city pound six years ago, the dog was nearly blind and starving. She’d obviously suffered terrible ordeals, and Sylvie wanted to believe that misery could simply be replaced with happiness. Time was a straight line, stretching out in front of you. If you could create a golden kind of time and lay it right beside the other time, the time of horror, Bad History could just recede into the distance without ever having to be resolved. This theory worked well enough with Lily. Sylvie couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working with Jerome.
There is something irresolvable about a human life that cannot simply be sorted out by another person. Not least if that life has been lived through the Holocaust. Torpor is a story about knowing the end of something is coming but being unable to know when that end will come. This is true of both their relationship and the political dreams and tragedies of the twentieth century. In telling this story it answers a great many of the narrative question set up in I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia while continuing to explore those thematic questions that defy easy resolution. One could say that, while this is a depressed book, it is not a depressing book. Rather it helps us to understand sadness and trauma as being things that are not insurmountable but at the same time never succumbing to the glib ideology that they must be completely conquered. This novel is not just something for Chris Kraus completists but instead an important part of the story. It is some of the vital data with which to make a life a case study.
You can listen to the Ark Audio Book Club podcast on Torpor here.