Review by Ess Wagner
by Kate Durbin
Wonder, May 2014
I don’t watch much reality television, but when I do I tend to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s mindless and relaxing. I like looking at their pretty hair and faux eyelashes and severe curves. It demands nothing of me as a viewer. But what does reality TV in book form demand of me as a reader?
Kate Durbin’s new book, E! Entertainment, at first feels very much like watching TV (except you can’t read it while stoned or eating Indian take-out). But the more of it I read, the more questions I had: Is this real? Did she transcribe this or is it fiction? Is this poetry? Is this parody? Social critique? What is this:
Wife Ette shakes her head. “You’re not going to suggest Hello Kitty shapes are you?”
“I saw it and it was really cute,” says Wife Josie. “They made sushi, like, the rice was like shaped like her head, and they put like accents, like the bow was like a little piece of fish and stuff.” As she talks about the bow she makes a bow-tying motion above her big hair and tilts her head to the side.
And the whole book is like that–eight chapters of reality “episodes” on nearly 200 pages of pink paper. The book can be discomfiting and disorienting at times. The “screen” image changes frequently, often zoomed in and probably cut from a different point in time and spliced in for dramatic effect but at the cost of irregularities–something in someone’s hand that wasn’t there before, boxes on the floor then the couch. The composition of each scene is very busy—so much so that characters lose their identity or fail to have an identity at all, often referred to in very literal terms: Blonde Mullet Woman, the Go-To Guy for Weddings, the Medium, Wife Kyle’s BFF, the Make-Up Artist, black silk shirt girl, fingernail-nibbling girl, etc. Or we just see a collage of a person via their bedroom and personal belongings, as in the “Girls Next Door” chapter:
This large bedroom is hot pink and organized. The Queen bed’s bright pink comforter is off-set sprays of black and white bunnies with bowties pillows. There is also a large Hello Kitty pillow…Inside the Control Clutter Closet are numerous glittering gowns and themed costumes, such as sexy devil and sexy angel. The closet is color and calendar coordinated.
Without substantial identity, the stars are also devoid of sincere emotions, tending to instead display scripted and/or inhibited ones, and the viewer must rely on the music at the beginning of each “scene” to present the emotional context of either what just happened or what’s going to happen.
To better understand how Durbin’s work both conforms to and bucks traditional literary and artistic forms, I turned to my old Marilyn Stokstad art history textbook:
1. “The elaboration of surface detail to create ornamental effects combined with an effort to capture the essence of form is characteristic of abstract art” …
2. “Realistic art…has a surface reality; the artists appear, with greater or lesser accuracy, to be recording exactly what they see. Realistic art…can carry complex messages and be open to individual interpretation”…
3. “Realism and abstraction represent opposite approaches to the representation of beauty” (Stokstad 19).
Durbin has created a work that refuses to be clearly defined. It meets the definition of both realism and abstraction. It’s a hybrid of prose poetry, flash fiction, and documentary/transcription. It brings to my mind James Hampton’s 1964 sculpture, Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, which is made of old furniture, flashbulbs, and miscellaneous trash tacked together and wrapped in aluminum, gold foil, and purple paper. E! Entertainment is the throne, its viewers/readers are the nation’s millennium general assembly, with Durbin paying precise attention to the gold foil wrapped around vapid and otherwise uninteresting people:
Wife Kyle has long, shiny brown hair and big gold Dior hoop earrings. She sighs, looking out the limo window into the setting sun. Her hazel eyes glitter, along with her champagne.
“And believe me, Wife Camille’s likable,” says Wife Kyle, pointing out the window with her champagne glass. She has a gold Dior stud bracelet on.
“But if she’s mean to you, I’m obviously not going to watch her,” says Wife Kyle’s BFF, who has cascading strawberry blonde curls and a tiny, sculpted nose. Piles of Chanel pearls rest in her cleavage. She sits next to Wife Kyle on the limo seat.
“It was–a fluke thing, maybe. We’ll see,” says Wife Kyle. She is wearing a beige and blue Pucci dress with billowy sleeves. She is very tan.
“All I know is everybody adores you,” says Wife Kyle’s BFF. “You’ve had your friends forever.”
Wife Kyle nods. She takes out a Chanel compact and eye pencil from a black leather Chanel bag and starts lining her eyes.
Durbin elaborates on the ornamentation of each woman, never attempting to dig beneath the surface. All we get is what’s physically present and happening in the scene. It doesn’t matter much if these superficial relationships and self-involvement are part of the packaging; the picture itself is more important than the depth of the scene/conversation/relationship.
There are also numerous mentions of Delirium candles throughout the book. Delirium is apparently a popular brand of luxury candles, but the frequency with which they appear made me wonder if the reality stars who purchased them have an acute mental disturbance characterized by confused thinking and disrupted attention usually accompanied by disordered speech and hallucinations. Durbin gives us exactly what “reality” looks like, and by not giving us a fixed meaning behind the picture, she also gives us delirium.
It’s difficult to tell if Durbin’s work is transcribed or invented, much like the reality shows she studies. The note at the beginning of the book states that it’s a work of fiction, but is it fiction because the shows are fiction? The only thing I know for certain is that this is what we invest in culturally. It’s tacky social encounters dressed up in designer clothes. It’s lipstick on a pig. It’s a photograph of a painting. It is American Pop Culture.
* * *
The World’s Shittiest Cosmo
by Aaron Krol, resident mixologist
I couldn’t wait to pair a drink with E! Entertainment. I needed a drink with the same effect as the book itself: the bewilderment, the fascination, and especially the need to pass it around the table: you have got to taste this. The characters, those wealthy, empty, hyper-fashionable mannequins, could only be matched with a cosmopolitan; but the book’s potent effect on the reader, that creeping feeling of what has my culture wrought, needed a little something extra. Hence, this flashy, crowded, utterly misguided cocktail that takes a classic cosmo and pours a bellini on top:
2 oz. vodka
1 oz. triple sec
1/2 oz. cranberry juice
1/2 oz. peach juice or peach puree
Prosecco sparkling wine
Mix the vodka, triple sec, cranberry and peach in a shaker with ice. Squeeze the lime wedge over the mixture. Shake thoroughly (this is a drink where you’d love to get little slivers of ice slush in) and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with Prosecco until the glass is too full to lift without spilling. Lift, spill, and drink. I think Stoli is one of the better inexpensive vodkas, and of course Cointreau for the triple sec. But really, you won’t taste anything but the fruit and sticky sweetness. And a lot of vodka.