CATT DUNLOP, the heroine of Chris Kraus’s novel Summer of Hate, is a 44-year old cultural art critic with a small devoted following of “Asperger’s boys, girls who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, assistant professors who would not be receiving their tenure, lap dancers, cutters, and whores.” It’s 2005, in the throes of the George W. Bush years. Highly intelligent, sensitive, independent, and deeply flawed, Catt is mesmerizing. She’s also funny. “It occurred to Catt,” Kraus writes early in the novel, “that the epistemological groundwork for the war in Iraq had been laid by Paris Hilton’s anal sex video.” Catt’s attention, and the author’s, to American intricacies is unblinking and ruthless.
Autobiographical in tone (Kraus’s biography, with some tinkering, could be substituted for Catt’s), Summer of Hate is original, intelligent, darkly humorous, emotionally honest, and it grips the reader with a relentless thriller-like force.
Kraus’s first novel, I Love Dick, published in 1997, established her reputation as a cult-favorite. A blending of letters, art reviews, philosophical pronouncements, and essays, I Love Dick wasn’t fiction but it wasn’t nonfiction, and it gained staunch admirers and critics. “In the beginning,” Kraus said in an interview, “I’d create these experiences just to have something to report on. That’s what it was with I Love Dick.” Her subsequent novels, Aliens & Anorexia and Torpor, continued this confusion, displacing genre and categorization, stumping traditional narratives of female identity, opening the path for experimental women writers. Kraus maneuvers within the freedoms provided at the periphery of the publishing world’s rigid and generalized marketing. She founded Semiotext(e) Native Agents Imprint to publish fiction, mostly by women, as an analogue to French theories of subjectivity, and she’s an active, influential, and respected figure in the art scene as well.
In Summer of Hate, Catt seeks out a lover from a bondage website to appease her undercurrent of a death wish, and then, realizing her mistake, she flees “her killer” in self-preservation, eventually traveling to Albuquerque to buy distressed buildings. This is Catt’s re-engagement and re-commitment to life, since she has an almost childlike pleasure in her talent for real estate investments.
There, she meets and hires Paul Garcia, a 39-year old recovering alcoholic and convicted felon on parole, newly released from serving a 16-month sentence in state prison for defrauding Halliburton industries, his former employer, of $937. Catt reflects:
Meanwhile, she’s amassed tens of thousands of dollars by working within the tax code’s gray zones. Unaware of his former employer’s massive war crimes, Paul seems ashamed of stealing less than an art gallery spends on an after party.
Kraus uses a roving point of view, mostly alternating between Catt and Paul, but we also get glimpses of other characters, such as the poet and professor Terry Stiles, deserving of her own novel. Kraus’s language is stripped, her sentences simple. Here she describes Catt and Paul’s dating: “All in all, the courtship lasts three days. After that, they’re together.”
Which brings me to: What does it mean to hire a guy, date him, and, three-days later, pick up his tabs, becoming both his boss and lover? What about before that, secretly wearing a dog collar, purchased from PetCo, and seeking out a man that wants to murder you? What is sex? What is love? What is art? What is an artist? What is good treatment of people? What is codependency? Summer of Hate is unabashedly strange, its elbows and knees poking out from a more conventional love narrative. Is it a thriller? Is it about intellectual dysfunction? Class? Dubious relationships? A power reversal? A portrait of the cycle of recidivism in the prison system? No, not exactly. The novel has no definable center, shape, or plot, which allows for a weirdness and discomfort that is at once so interestingly and realistically rendered that it’s as if the novel is willing to have imperfection in order to be uniquely itself. What makes Summer of Love not a mass-market mainstream book is what makes it so good, and what makes the strangeness so real.
Catt tries to experience life beyond her middle-aged art critic existence, a searching quest. Unlike Catt, Paul was raised in poverty by a schizophrenic mother and an apathetic father; he’s never traveled beyond New Mexico’s borders, and he lacks a formal education. He observes of Catt’s observation of him:
Once while they were fooling around, talking shit, she looked him in the eye and said, ‘You think you’re smarter than other people.’ Uh oh, he thought, here it comes. But then she continued, ‘And you’re probably right. But what can it be like to be that intelligent and have no information?’ One of those questions you’re not expected to answer.
Paul’s drinking history is a pit of destruction, and he grasps on to AA. Almost two-years sober when he and Catt meet, he speaks a simplified recovery-language that vexes Catt as an assault to her intelligence, although he questions AA’s more generic and saccharine new-age followers, and struggles with ambivalence. Like Michelle Huneven’s novel Blame, a detailed and complex account of both recovery and the prison system, Krauss succeeds on both fronts as well. But in depicting the constant fragility of Paul’s sobriety, Catt mostly owns the narrative, and just as Paul depends on her for survival, her perspective on both AA and Paul’s recovery overshadows his.
Kraus demonstrates how Paul’s roadblocks are cemented in a system intent on keeping the poor paralyzed and powerless. He needs Catt, and he especially needs her money. Although his alcoholism and the possibility of relapse remain a constant threat, without Catt, Paul, whether sober or not, is doomed. Throw enough money at the problem like Catt, and you can catch a break. Otherwise, it’s up to the caprices of a defective judicial system. Paul’s travails culminate in the nightmarish territory that Sheriff Joe Arpaio (recently in the news for avoiding federal prosecution) oversees in Maricopa County.
In an interview, Kraus cites Patricia Highsmith, master of the thriller, as an influence, specifically the way Highsmith manipulates time to create character and tension. Kraus notes that Highsmith slows time during routine scenes, and then quickens it in scenes of violence or action in order to convey psychological tension. Kraus pays due homage to Highsmith by moving in slow motion through scenes such as Catt’s property renovations, rendering an acute psychological and realistic profile of her characters. Later, Kraus ratchets the action into an almost unbearable page-inducing tension, where time moves quickly, breathlessly; as the novel speeds to a conclusion, the final chapters move in an expository burst.
The reader is left to wonder about Catt and Paul. Was Catt a victim? Was Paul using her? Yet there’s a note of hope, a presage of a future. The corrosive sense of disaster — the summer of hate — can’t quite destroy a very deep connection. Catt and Paul weren’t supposed to meet, much less trust and love each other. Like the novel, their connection feels bizarre, wildly unconventional, and strangely real.