205 pp., pbk
Review by Lisa A. Flowers
“We’re modeled from trash”, says doomed clone Ruth in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. This quote could have worked brilliantly as an epigraph for Kate Durbin’s E Entertainment, which has been called “the first book in history to be blurbed by both [The Hills’] Heidi Montag and [New York Magazine senior art critic] Jerry Saltz”. A fully realized version of its predecessor, E is a transcription (of an ingenious kind) of shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Mob Wives. It’s Montag (who herself makes an appearance in the book’s final chapter) who describes Durbin as “pop culture’s stenographer.” If so, she’s also its Pygmalion. We cannot pretend to ourselves that the TV shows Durbin is so enamored with are as compelling and meaningful as her own brilliance is, and this is why, once we pick up E, we cannot stop watching … or reading, for in E chapters are channels, and mediums are scarcely worth delineating.
“When I first met Linda Kasabian in the summer of 1970 she was wearing her hair parted neatly in the middle, no makeup, Elizabeth Arden ‘Blue Grass’ perfume, and the unpressed blue uniform issued to inmates at the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in Los Angeles”, opens a section in Joan Didion’ White Album. Didion’s account is an exploration of minutiae’s role in the butterfly effect, of the things no one thinks of until they become repossessed into a higher tragedy or significance.
On July 27, 1970, I went to the Magnin-Hi Shop of I. Magnin in Beverly Hills and picked out, at Linda Kasabian’s request, the dress in which she began her testimony about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. “Size 9 Petite,” her instructions read. “Mini but not extremely mini. In velvet if possible. Emerald green or gold. Or: A Mexican peasant-style dress, smocked or embroidered.” She needed a dress that morning because the district attorney, Vincent Bugliosi, had expressed doubts about the dress she had planned to wear, a long white homespun shift. “Long is for evening,” he had advised Linda. Long was for evening and white was for brides. At her own wedding in 1965, Linda Kasabian had worn a white brocade suit.
The I. Magnin parcel haunts the rest of Didion’s account, its symbolism already well behind itself, and us. Like Didion, Durbin uses ostensibly minor details to illuminate what it is to be “dressed” (like unwashable blood on Bluebeard’s key) in a continuum our inanimate objects are immune to. When corpses are found, the most existentially striking thing about them is often the comparative incorruptibility of their garments and possessions: the shine of their recently-bought boots, the ringing normalcy of their i-Phones, the bright gleam of a rainslicker, buried deep in the woods, still shielding from the elements as promised.
We see this kind of transformation in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, when HAL shuts down the life support systems of the slumbering astronauts, and the scene takes on a devastating, profound, almost religious reverence as their pods suddenly become sarcophagi with mummies folded within: archaeological relics for deep space, and for the ages. We also see it in Durbin’s The Girls Next Door, an austere, chillingly clinical dissection of the Playboy mansion, which ushers into a series of abandoned images that have left their doors open to foraging animals, to wandering homicidal maniacs, to leaves fluttering through the great halls, to nothing at all:
The beige carpet is stained in various places and covered in clothing and other items, such as a half- eaten Eggo waffle with cinnamon and sugar on it. There are barbells next to the waffle. There is a half empty bottle of Absolut Vodka under the bed, next to a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. The phone number has a Las Vegas area code.
Partygoers hold bouquets of pastel pink, yellow, and blue balloons. Adjacent to the pinball area, there is a Cab room that resembles the backseat of a car… In the far corner of the Cab room is a plastic trashcan with a pastel yellow playboy bunny head spray painted near the bottom. The trashcan has a black garbage bag. The bag is empty.
Girls is reminiscent, also, of Didion’s account of “California murderess” Lucille Miller, who allegedly burned her husband alive, and of the couple’s deserted, post-crime dream home:
The new house is empty now, the house on the street with the sign that says
The Millers never did get it landscaped, and weeds grow up around the fieldstone siding. The television aerial has toppled on the roof, and a trash can is stuffed with the debris of family life—a cheap suitcase, a child’s game called “Lie Detector.” There is a sign on what would have been the lawn, and the sign reads “ESTATE SALE”
At other times, the autopsy-exactness of Durbin’s descriptions spill over with lushness and flowers, as the celebrity wives lounge like Titian goddesses amid their Still Lives:
There is a thick tropical flower arrangement in the center, stuffed with birds of paradise, orchids, ginger, anthurium, and protea. White Delirium candles glow in- side amber blown glass holders. The empty dinner plates have silver, scalloped edges. Silver cloth napkins wait in front of empty wine and water glasses…
The setting sun spills peach light into the vast, beige and green, Mediterranean-tiled room. The women gossip about the Wives. They sip from giant pink cocktail glasses, blueberries and raspberries swimming in vodka and cranberry juice.
“In the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo,” wrote TS Eliot. Much of E is like Alcestis as filtered through The Cocktail Party; much of it, too, recalls the anguished narration in the post-mortem scene in Silence of the Lambs: “Her ears are pierced three times, and there’s glitter nail polish.” And this segues us into another question; if the women in E’s narrative are in fact dead, would the significance of the book change, or would these reality wives, still surrounded by luxuriously cataloged trinkets and objects, simply default … without the reader ever noticing … into Rilke’s equally pampered but now long-mummified courtesans, who
Lie in their long hair,
Brown faces sunk deep in themselves…
As if before too great a distance…
So they lie filled with Things,
Costly Things, gems, utensils, toys,
Smashed trinkets (how much fell into them!)
And they darken like a river-bed.
The longest part of E is Kim’s Fairytale Wedding, a surrealist/Shirley Jackson-like chronicle of the pre-nups of Kim Kardashian and NBA player Kris Humphries, who is referred to throughout as “NH”, or the “Non-Husband.” A segment of Wedding opens with the vision of
The 110 parkway, heading to downtown Los Angeles…
Next, a white church-like steeple against a blue sky, a monument with birds crawling on it, a tree with leaves whipping.
A baroque-replica lamppost, clouds across a blue sky generating faster than regular clouds.
The marriage itself happens in very short order, scuttling and disintegrating—like Durbin’s description of LA’s meteorology—much “faster than regular clouds.” Much of E is about marriage, and with it about fear: fear of aging, fear of being replaced.
But it’s Durbin’s variation on an episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills—in which a noted celebrity psychic insults the Wives at a lavish dinner party— that really turns this theme into a bonafide horror story about mortality and loneliness:
The Wives watch the Medium silently, glossy, blinking. “If my husband ever leaves me I’m going with him,” says Wife Kyle.
Wife Adrienne folds her arms over her hot pink Dior and shakes her head. The diamond skeletons jerk.
“You have achieved nothing in life,” says the Medium, looking around the table at the Wives. She sucks her e-cig, blows vapor. “You’re nothing. You’ve done nothing.” She makes a hand gesture of jacking a cock off. “I can tell you when you will die, and what will happen to your family…You’re every cheerleader at a high school that made some girl kill herself … You’re mean, morally corrupt, and profoundly bankrupt. You’re just angry bitches. You’re unhappy with your life and always will be. Your husbands love their nannies, but I can’t fault them. You’re a bunch of icy bitches.” The Medium holds the e-cig upright. “I want to shove this up your fucking asses, just to prove a point. Except, I think you’d need a bigger one than this to even feel it. Oh yeah, I went there. Bitch is a one-syllable word for a reason. It’s all you will ever understand.”
Compared to the jaded, caustic sensibilities at play in the above vignette, Kim’s Fairytale Wedding is all earnestness and emotional appeal. We see Kim being playful with her mother and sisters as she expounds upon her apprehensions. Nonetheless, the preparatory wedding-flutter is couched in a tone of constant menace and unease:
“I just don’t want to cry. I like cried already twice today,” says Kim. Everyone clusters tight around her. Sister Khloe adjusts Kim’s veil.
A man points a black object at Kim.
There is a strange relationship at play between Kim and her stepfather that at times approaches the implication of a homicide—a mystery locked into clinical narration, desperately trying to tell its story via symbols that have no choice but to step, modeled and robotic, through a Roman bloodbath:
Back in the master bath, Stepdad gives Kim a side hug. He noisily kisses the top of her head. “It’ll be okay, baby,” he says in a baby voice.
They break their embrace, head to the bathroom door. The red of Kim’s tulip skirt splashes against the walls.
Party guests sit stiffly, as if posed with the weapons that killed them:
Blurred heads pack the store window, looking in from outside. The bodies attached to the heads have on shorts and other casual wear. They hold black objects. Across from them, inside the store, sits a headless mannequin on white table. The mannequin is wearing a mustard Armani sweater and grey jeans.
The Not-Husband is getting fitted for his tuxedo.
The growing panic here is almost palpable. This is not a fitting for a wedding, to be sure, but for a funerary viewing.
Other passages suggest ritual killing, or sacrifice, carried out with the solemnity of a Druid rite:
Kim kneels in front of the basket and starts lifting shirts, touching them. Behind her on the beige nightstand is one lit, white Delirium candle.
The Not-Husband’s electric hands are on the beige chair back. He watches Kim, expressionless. Behind him on the wall is a huge flat screen, turned off.
Kim and the Not-Husband take a drive to the cemetery to visit Kim’s father’s grave, and when they kneel over the stone, we see “three shadows” looming over the monument, like de Chirico’s La fabrique des reves, while the ceremonial sunflowers Kim brings “flop into the hole.” The Not-Husband’s height is continually emphasized, as if he were some clown on stilts “towering miles above” his bride, looking down at her with a twinkling and terrible merriment. And, alternately, sometimes E is just a beautiful narrative about hope, and the desire to finally get out of the story and live, a desire that is particularly moving and heartbreaking in light of its encroaching end:
“Don’t make me cry,” says Kim, patting her sister’s arm. “I just want to hug you,” says Sister Khloe, in a baby voice. She leans down and hugs Kim again.
Foliage spills from etched pots. Birds trill. The green lawn cradles a white loveseat with carved stone hearts.
Durbin’s transcriptions are always at risk of transitioning from opulence into the technical language of death, tragedy, and icy efficiency. E, though it aims to expose, is really a book about the violent upheavals that veneer laminates. This is perhaps most profoundly illustrated by the below three excerpts, the first two from The Girls Next Door and the third from the official autopsy report of Marilyn Monroe, to whom E! Entertainment is dedicated.
The Gothic Tudor-style mansion is tucked away on six acres that enclose a greenhouse, game house, guest- house, zoo, tennis courts, and swimming pool. There are several sloping hills, idyllic for topless slip n’ sliding in the summer or sledding over a gleaming expanse of imported snow in the winter. A marble panel is viewable just inside the video monitored main gate, presenting a depiction of Aurora, Roman goddess of the sunrise, guiding a group of young Eves into the southern California dawn.
The estate profits from a waterfall, streams, koi pond, and in-ground pool, all organically linked. There is a rock grotto and a tiered flagstone patio with a bar and a bathhouse made of natural stone. Modeled on prehistoric caves in France, the grotto’s glass ceiling is implanted with panels of prehistoric objects and insects rapt in amber. At the bottom of the pool are many bobby pins and shards of broken glass. In the pool filters are tangled balls of hair in stages of blonde. The bathhouse contains a shower that resembles a cave, ideal for a post-dip cleanse, or a native photo shoot. The sponges in the shower were once natural, living creatures.
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES REGISTRAR/RECORDER
The unembalmed body is that of a 36-year-old well-developed, well-nourished Caucasian female weighing 117 pounds and measuring 65-1/2 inches in length. The scalp is covered with bleached blond hair. The eyes are blue. The fixed lividity is noted in the face, neck, chest, upper portions of arms and the right side of the abdomen. The faint lividity which disappears upon pressure is noted in the back and posterior aspect of the arms and legs…the nose shows no evidence of fracture. No evidence of trauma is noted in the scalp, forehead, cheeks, lips or chin. The neck shows no evidence of trauma. Examination of the hands and nails shows no defects. The lower extremities show no evidence of trauma.
The bigger question E begs is the question of what “evidence” is at all, and whether it is even possible to discern its more profound philosophical implications in any kind of a present tense. “A lot of guys change,” says battered, pre-murder Nikki Grace/Susan Blue in Lynch’s Inland Empire. “They don’t change, they reveal. This guy—he revealed something. Thinking back on it, all along it was being revealed.”
So it is with whatever the subtext of E is trying to tell us. The book shows us that we’re not so much observing evidence as we are locked in with it, engaged in a Tortoise and Hare race rendered unwinnable by the ridiculously devolutionary backasswardness of time. The fact that a “reality” television recording (whether it’s staged or not) can offer us a playback of our place in said continuum is really scant consolation, as what’s done is always what’s done. But it does provide a valuable opportunity for us to reevaluate our potential for compassion, which is and ought to be endless; and to reassess what the responsibility of spectatorship … like the “responsibility” of rain over laminate (or tears in rain, as Roy Batty would say) … actually means.
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, vocalist, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, THEThe Poetry, The Collagist, Entropy, and other magazines and online journals. She is a poetry curator for Luna Luna Magazine. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in the rugged terrain above Boulder, Colorado. Visit her here or here.