Nothing says twenty-first-century contemporary America like the convergence of reality TV, a mass shooting, and instant celebrity. This is precisely the scene where poet Ben Fama’s first novel, If I Close My Eyes, begins. Enter Jesse Shore on his nineteenth birthday, while passing his gap year working retail in Manhattan, as he waits in line at Kim Kardashian’s book signing at 555 Fifth Avenue. Cameras are rolling as anti-fur protesters surge, followed by gunshots, which “almost sounded cute, like snapping bubble wrap.” This kind of juxtaposition of horror and cuteness trails Jesse throughout the book. One person is killed; another, Marsy-Rose Arenas, is grazed; and Jesse ends up in the hospital for a few weeks. As he comes to, film crews are setting up in his room: enter the Kardashians, Kanye, and producer Ryan Seacrest.
The absurdity inherent to this juncture of violence and Kardashians with cameras rolling has been present since the nascence of reality TV, which first blossomed after the OJ Simpson Bronco chase. Kardashian patriarch Robert read Simpson’s suicide note to ninety-five million viewers. This, more than a decade before E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK) debuted, a show that you know even if you’ve never seen an episode. The docusoap thrives on the ebb and flow of interpersonal drama. It’s the same chaos that brings together Jesse and Marsy-Rose (also known as Mars)—a natural beauty and aspiring though steadily B-list actress—as both attempt to parlay their fleeting visibility into something more lasting.
Something more lasting takes the form of many ideas: creating a spin-off show with Jesse and Mars; filing suit based on a theory that the protest and shooting were instigated by the show; becoming paid representatives in campaigns against gun violence. One might think they would bond over their shared trauma, but truly it’s over their desire for capital—cultural and financial. Of course, Jesse swoons over Mars’s beauty and is also drawn to her wildness. He’s a willing sidekick, too, indulging and partaking in her substance-fueled dramas. Mars is attracted to her melancholy young admirer and his clever ideas. It’s the LA fever dream of a television drama. It’s the putrid LA sunshine of Tangerine. It’s the addled LA of Jon Lindsey’s Body High, and at times the addictively vapid and beguiling LA of KUWTK.
For a story so chaotic that pops with the banter and name-dropping of a social media feed, If I Close My Eyes has a surprisingly conventional structure. Fama is the author of two poetry books, Fantasy and Deathwish. Both are linguistically playful, steeped in the moment, and pursue similar obsessions to If I Close My Eyes, but they read as if they were dashed off, an insignia of élan. The novel is a completely different project. Fictional tabloid clips and New York Times profiles (Fama nails the style) are folded within the narrative, and yet the storylines are continuous. Jesse pines for Mars, Jesse relapses, Jesse resists his self-destructive impulses. Ultimately, the narrative circles back to the Kardashians, to a resolution where the reader can witness how Jesse and Mars are both moving forward in their lives. But maybe this is a red herring. Jesse often points out the red herrings in dramas, including in his mother’s Emmy-nominated series and in KUWTK: “[The] family drama was a red herring: the conflict is the desire for more screen time against the fickle antagonism of the viewership, the passing time that ebbs and flows the ratings toward and away from high-res horizons.”
Jesse’s realization of the family drama as a red herring points the reader toward Fama’s machinations within the novel, and to ask what is so compelling about this narrative—only to find, with both admiration and cynicism, that the story is deployed to engross. When done well, the reader is rapt and complicit in these age-old tropes. It’s Fama’s meta-textual nod toward the contrivances of a novel, to the act of author as auteur. By turning the mirror, Fama provokes further inquiry into the nature of our own obsessions.
Publisher: SARKA Page count: 170 Price: $20.00 Key quote: “Jesse felt a paranoid wave that the shooting and subsequent attention were part of a Faustian deal Mars had made to become more famous by way of the incident, he and the dead woman the collateral damage of her career path.” Shelve next to: Kate Durbin, Jon Lindsey, Robert Ashley Unscientifically calculated reading time: Five dermal filler appointments