I would like to recommend to you all Aliens and Anorexia by the American avant-garde writer, editor, and filmmaker Chris Kraus. Published in 2000, it was her second novel, and I think it more successfully realizes the goals set by another recent American novel, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. (This isn’t the place for my thoughts on Kushner’s accomplished, but ultimately disappointing, novel, but if you want to read those you can find some of them here.)
What is at the heart of these two books? Modernism, femininity, feminism in the avant-garde art world, transgression, transgressive aesthetics, and revolutionary politics.
Aliens and Anorexia begins with the narrator on a mission to show her film at the Berlin Film Festival. She has attempted to find a distributor for the film before, and it has not been well received. She knows it is a longshot, and an expensive one at that, but she feels she must try. She arrives in Berlin and immediately feels lost, confused, an outsider; she arrives at the Festival and is causally insulted. She soon fears this has all been a big, expensive waste of time, dignity, and money, of which she has very little.
The film the narrator wants to show is called Gravity and Grace—the author Chris Kraus also made a film by this name. Also like Kraus, the narrator has a husband named Sylvère Lotringer who is a French theorist. Doubtless there are other similarities that I’m either forgetting right now or did not acknowledge.
The title “Gravity and Grace” is taken from a book by the French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil, although the film (we do eventually learn what it is about) has little ostensibly to do with Weil’s book. Weil is a big influence on Aliens and Anorexia. Throughout Kraus recounts much of Weil’s strange life, her interactions with the other major female French theorists of her time, Simone de Beauvoir, and her writing. There’s also the matter of Weil’s strange death: the narrator, an anorexic, tries to understand why it was the Weil starved to death while working a British desk job in an attempt to contribute to the war against Hitler (earlier, Weil had wanted to go behind the lines as a spy). History has given us a medical answer to this question, but the narrator wants an emotional one.
In addition to Weil, the other famous woman that the narrator uses as an emotional sounding board and inspiration is Ulrich Meinhof, member of the infamous Baader-Meinhof Group terrorist group active in in West Germany in the ’70s. On May 9, 1976 Meinhof was found dead in her prison cell, ostensibly by hanging, although there has always been some question as to whether she committed suicide or was murdered. Kraus repeatedly returns to the moment of her death, linking it to an utterance she attributes to Meinhof:
Within moments of her death in 1976, Ulrike Meinhof became an Alien. “It’s only at the moment of death when an earthling can achieve the quality and intensity which aliens start with.”
These words are referenced throughout the book, as is the theme of aliens and abductions, which Kraus returns to briefly, but never explains beyond some insinuations and imagery. Aliens also come into play once we finally learn about the plot of the narrator’s film, Gravity and Grace.
In addition to all of these, Aliens and Anorexia also tells the story of the life and art of the controversial installation artist Paul Thek.
So what we have in Aliens and Anorexia is a series of narratives joined together and nested into one another in various ways. Kraus makes it all work extremely well. Each sub-narrative is compelling in and of itself, and Kraus wears her considerably erudition lightly. This book is just over 250 pages, and I read it in a single day. There is much depth and theory here, but Kraus keeps her narrative moving, and her prose is very tight and propulsive.
What I most appreciated in Aliens and Anorexia is how it brought me in to the life of its narrator—an outsider artist, an ill person, and one who is very much looking for something that I can’t quite define but that has to do with sex and love (one plot strand covers her S/M relationship via anonymous telephone with another filmmaker living in Nairobi). Kraus makes it all feel organic, the various pieces of the narrator’s intellect that are mutually reinforcing, as though they are all reflections and/or aspects of one another, even though they are at times ostensibly very different.
She is also very philosophic in Aliens and Anorexia. Fascinating observations and intriguing theories spring off virtually every page in this book. I would say her philosophic subject here might be the perils and necessity of empathy, particularly as it relates to the arts. And to the life of the narrator.
Aliens and Anorexia tells a story, and it is satisfying on the level of plot (you could even call it a page-turner), but I still feel that it’s very avant-garde for the way it approaches its subject, and for the things that it tries to bring into conversation with one another. It’s a book that takes risks with subject matter and prose. It’s also a very beautiful, touching, heartfelt novel.