imageLate last month, I went to a clothing exchange party at Kate Durbin’s blue-walled apartment in Pasadena. As we sipped on glasses of champagne and small cans of San Pellegrino sparkling fruit beverages, I asked Durbin how she sourced her collection of clothing items with Ariel, the Little Mermaid, printed on them. Durbin explained that Ariel was going through a bit of a trendy period at the moment and she was stocking up — when Ariel was less en vogue, Durbin still wanted to wear her around.

Durbin’s sartorial philosophies dovetail with her writerly ones. She is not an artist buoyed by or dependent on trends; she’s aware of what the culture is fixating on and chews through it for us. The chapter entitled “The Hills” in latest book, E! Entertainment, isn’t less relevant because The Hills is no longer on the air, because the chapter is not about what happens in the show, it’s about what happens to us when we watch it.

Durbin writes fearlessly and shrewdly about reality television, gender performance (male and female alike), Lady Gaga, the teen girl aesthetic, and gothic fiction. E! Entertainment is, on its face, a series of transcriptions of scenes and episodes from various reality television shows — but Durban’s transliteration of those visuals texts renders familiar TV shows into cultural mirrors and supernatural meditations on celebrity.

We talked about E!, Hugh Hefner, and transcribing reality TV over email.

Catie Disabato: Over what period of time did you put together these pieces? Some of the pieces in E! Entertainment were previously published in two chapbooks. Did you revise them at all for the book?

Kate Durbin: I worked on E! for three years. Sections appeared in two chapbooks, both by LA publisher Insert Blanc Press: Kept Women and E! Entertainment. Kept Women was renamed “The Girls Next Door” for the new book. It’s a series of rooms of the Playboy mansion, and I did add a new room for the book version. I also edited the material from the other chapbook, but didn’t make any substantial changes to it.

Since we’re on the subject of “The Girls Next Door” — what kind of research did you do on that section? Did you ever visit the Playboy mansion?

I’ve been a fan of the E! show TGND [The Girls Next Door] for years and have all the seasons on DVD. So I frequently hit pause in order to transcribe the various rooms. I also read the biography Mr. Playboy to garner some info that I couldn’t readily spot. Much of the mansion hasn’t changed since the 1970s — Hef is very nostalgic and very consistent and he has a very specific kind of old Hollywood meets 70s LA meets contemporary corporate chain restaurants in Las Vegas kind of aesthetic. There were also a few elements that I imagined. I like to leave those up to the reader, though. After all, the question everyone asks about reality TV is: what’s real and what’s fake? This is a question with no answer.

I may have gone to the mansion and I may have whispered something into Hef’s ear.

On the question of what’s real and fake in reality TV — I agree that is the question that gets asked, and I also think you are correct that there is no answer. So, with that puzzle solved I’d like to propose a more interesting replacement question for the world, and us, to ponder: what is reality TV reflecting in our culture? 

A few of the things I was thinking about while writing were: How does the medium of reality TV reflect our cultural attitudes toward women? How does it promote certain tropes and narratives that are limiting or outmoded — like that of the housewife or the fairytale wedding? How are those narratives failing before our very eyes, even as these actors are trying earnestly to uphold them? I was also thinking of money, of lifestyle, of brand fetishization, which has become so extreme that it’s almost comical. That’s why I named all the brands on the shows, while of course normally you are only semi-conscious of the product placement while you are watching, say, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. In a way the voice of E! is a kind of mash-up between a fashion rag and the camera itself.

Also, reality TV is the ultimate in voyeurism. We live in a surveillance culture. Is the camera’s gaze inherently the male gaze? Is it the state’s gaze? Can the camera be compassionate? Who is directing the master meta-narrative?

I really like a couple of reality TV shows not covered in your book — TLC’s Four Weddings and The Bachelor/The Bachelorette — for many, many reasons, but one of them is that I think that Four Weddings truly reflects the ways in which weddings can be grotesque, and The Bachelor/Bachelorette reflects the ways in which dating can actually be a contrived performance. If your book is a mirror, what is it reflecting? Or, what do you think the shows you chose to cover are reflecting?

I am a huge fan of The Bachelor and it was one show I wanted to include in the book but didn’t because it falls under the “curated competition” sub-genre. I purposely didn’t include anything under that umbrella in E! because the role of the producers is too overt for the effect I was going for. But I’m writing another book now, a horror novel, about The Bachelor. I agree that it’s a fascinating exploration of courtship rituals in the United States, and in particular how we’ve shifted from religion-sanctioned to producer-and-TV audience sanctioned unions.

For E!, I was drawn instinctively to shows about courtship rituals, lifestyle politics, and female friendships. I selected shows like the Real Housewives subgenre and Kim Kardashian’s Wedding — such a gorgeous, failed affair — and The Girls Next Door — because all of these shows destabilize traditional notions of marriage and courtship, albeit unintentionally. By slowing them, by making subtle changes like turning Kim’s husband to TV static and erasing the women from the Playboy mansion, I think I revealed their utter weirdness more fully. Many of the real housewives aren’t even wives, or at least aren’t housewives. And Kim’s “fairytale” marriage lasted 72 days. The prototypical “girls next door” is anything but — they live in a mansion and share the same boyfriend, Hugh Hefner, who churns out girlfriends like mass produced Disney princess stickers. And yet he’s also an American Dream maker, like Walt Disney, like reality TV.

There are so many topics I want to jump off of, but first, the supernatural elements, like turning Kim’s husband into static. I love that the format of this book reproduces the editing style of the reality TV shows, which makes sense when you’re watching the show, but feels supernatural when it’s reproduced in text. Specifically, the placement of bodies between cuts on the screen seems natural when we watch, but feels unnatural when written. 

Did you intentionally play up the supernatural feeling in “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding” by emphasizing these kinds of moments?

I love that you noticed the supernatural quality to “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding.” A few critics have called it “surreal” but I think you are right that it’s more supernatural — there is something occult to it. All of the cameras in that section become “black objects,” like the black box in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I wanted to play with the idea of the “fairy tale,” since that was the title of the special on E!, and of course fairy tales contain magic (and in the case of pre-Disney fairy tales it’s of course a darker magic). In Kim’s Fairytale Wedding the magic is sort of meaningless and barely there, serving no practical aim like Cinderella’s pumpkin turned coach. But it does serve to make the Kardashians seem special and powerful and not fully real, which is how I think America sees them. But maybe the best part about it is that it’s mostly not made up or inserted magic — I am literally just describing the magic of television, the scene switches and music and subtitles that are already there. I’ve always thought the fact that TV exists at all, that these images can be contained in a black box like that, and also that they are just floating out there in space as particles, is magic. It doesn’t even make sense that television exists at all, let alone reality television.

There’s a moment in the section of your book called “The Hills” that I think is in some ways similar to the supernatural elements of “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding.” It occurs during a climatic argument between The Hills cast members Lauren and Heidi. All of a sudden, there’s another person on the page — and after a moment, the reader realizes that person is a cameraman, caught in a reflection. Anyone who watches enough reality television has seen a slip of the fourth wall like this one, but on your pages, it feels like a big reveal. I think that’s because it’s a strange invasion to have been following these characters through a narrative arc, and then suddenly there’s an observer “so close to Lauren their bodies touch.” That observer is both a surrogate for the reader and a little bit of a scary monster. 

Can you talk a bit about that moment?  How did you decide to compose it and what were the intended effects?

The camera man (or is he?) seems vaguely threatening, this shadowy figure. Is he the grim reaper? Is he big brother? Is he a producer? A voyeur? Is he the reader? Because our shoulders are touching.

There’s another moment in that section where there’s a dark object in a room behind the main room of the club that looks like “black roses, a sculpture, or a camera.” Those three reference points — funeral flowers, an art object, or a screen — represent what E! became for me as I wrote it. When I was a child I had this plastic toy house and the house had a door that would open, but behind the door was a sort of wall or second door that you couldn’t see behind. I tried and tried to break that second door because I wanted to see into the house. Of course I knew there was nothing in there, but I had to look anyway. That is what art is to me: a plastic house with two doors with a mystery behind the second door.

I’m answering you somewhat esoterically because what you are pinpointing, this effect of the narrative, both occult and a result of our current technological condition, is an effect of the book’s process of creation, but also of my impulse as an artist to look deeply into something, and what I found in there was the abyss. I haven’t talked about this in other interviews, but I actually think this is a highly existential book. For example, I think the ending of the Kardashians section is completely a meditation on death. There are also many moments throughout the book when camera people seem like grim reapers, waiting on the sidelines. And fashion bags double as body bags.

In the “The Hills” section, the subtitles of cast-members’ speech that a viewer of that episode of television would see on the screen during loud scenes manifest bodily in the world your characters live in. How do they fit in with your references to the ‘black objects?’

You probably noticed that with each of the subsequent sections in E! the reader starts to become more aware of the fact that this is a reality television show they are reading. I’ve likened the trajectory of the book to slowly being sucked into the television. In “Wives Shows” there are no cameras mentioned and no subtitles — the only reference to reality TV is the “controlled setting” the Medium mentions.

In “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding” you get black objects (cameras — but they aren’t called cameras — they could be guns), mysterious appearances and disappearances due to the editing, the magical appearance of letters in the air, music that randomly plays, etc. But there is still no admittance that this is a reality show. When “The Hills” finally comes, at the end of the book, you get direct references to the camera, subtitles, microphone packs, camera people, etc. I did this in part as a nod to the final episode of The Hills, which admitted its own construction by having a grip walk on set and roll away the Hollywood sign. I also did it because by that point the reader has been absorbed into the book, like that kid in The Never Ending Story.

I love The Neverending Story, especially the scene at the end when the Childlike Empress refers not only to the kid who is being absorbed into the book, but also the audience that is watching the movie. The story of The Neverending Story has a simultaneous pulling in and a reaching out. You told me how the reader is pulled in by E! Entertainment as they become more and more aware of the reality television aspects — how does E! reach out?

I think all my work is hyper-aware of audience, and is meta in that sense. My first book, The Ravenous Audience, nodded toward the audience in the title itself, and the girl ghouls on the cover are goading the audience in a way. Many of the poems in that book were in the plural first person, we, which is a method I use again in E! in certain key spots. We as the collective, the collective gaze. I’m very interested in the barbarism of the mob, like in “The Lottery.” I’m also interested in the ways in which humans become like The Borg in Star Trek, or The Thing in a horror movie. I’m not really interested in individuals so much, or perhaps I’m only interested in the individual as it relates to the mob, both the joining and longing to separate.

The audience I am always speaking toward is a combination of a receptive reader, and the violent, peanut crunching crowd Sylvia Plath speaks of in “Lady Lazarus.” I think of the audience as ambivalent — both violent, and yet open on some level to changing their perception, because that’s what art does. Maybe they are something like the Greek chorus in Antigone — these townsfolk who are not to be trusted, who will not speak for Antigone as she is led to her wrongful death. I don’t necessarily think of the audience as individual readers, because those responses might vary, and I have many brilliant, generous readers of my work. This is a collective thing, the collective unconscious. TV is so much about brain deadism, so I often think about what’s happening to us collectively as we watch it.

But to answer your question more directly — I’m not sure E! reaches out. I think ABRA, the collaborative poetry book I wrote with Amaranth Borsuk, reaches out — and ABRA was heavily influenced by The Neverending Story, actually. It’s very much a magic book, the title referencing the magical word abracadabra, and referring to the speaker, who is a conjoined post-human prophet. The reader adds their own texts to the iPad app version of ABRA (which we worked on with Ian Hatcher), creating an endless, evolving, living book. In doing so, they become ABRA too.

For E!, though, I like to think of it as sucking the reader into the TV set entirely and leaving them there. There’s the moment in the movie Poltergeist where the little girl puts her hand on the staticky TV screen — the little girl is the one who can hear the voices inside the TV — and she gets sucked into the walls of the house and trapped between worlds. Maybe E! is really a horror novel, maybe once you find yourself caught in the world of reality TV, you can’t escape because that’s the world we live in. Only now you’ve realized that’s where you’ve been all along.

Catie Disabato’s debut novel, The Ghost Network, is forthcoming in Spring 2015 from Melville House. She has written essays for This RecordingThe Millions, and The Rumpus. Her short fiction was recently featured on Joyland. After growing up in Chicago and graduating from Oberlin College, she now lives in LA, where she spends too much time on  Twitter and Tumblr.

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