Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: E! Entertainment by Kate Durbin

Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment, published by Insert Press, is certainly entertaining, but its ultimate effect is unsettling. The Conceptual Writing-like flat reportage of surface physical textures and human interactions gives a sense, throughout the text, that a great deal is missing, or the equally unsettling sense that maybe there isn’t anything important missing after all. Psychological motivations for the various characters (some are characters from well-known TV shows, while others appear as themselves in the context of Reality TV or media reports) are blotted out in transcriptions that record the surface of what they’re doing at the moment, as if that surface is all that matters:

“You just sit here by yourself?” asks Heidi, looking up to the ceiling. She laughs. Audrina starts to smile, then purses her lips together. She looks up at the ceiling too, nodding, her lips still pursed. Shot of Heidi looking up at Audrina. “Um,” says Heidi. “Spencer and I are having a little housewarming party and wanted to see if you and Lauren wanted to come” (16).

Why they do what they do is at times implied, at times simply not there. The result is a text that shows people as bodies in motion, watching and being watched, with some of the motions disorienting or odd or even pathological, and others having a kind of intense banality that can be even more disorienting than the oddities.

The book is broken into several sections of interconnected  prose paragraphs mingled among sometimes blurred film stills. The first follows several of the main characters from the TV show The Hills (2006-2010); the second describes some scenes from the show Dynasty (1981-89). The third section features Lindsey Lohan, through the words of reporters, as she appears in court, and the final segment seems to be from the short-lived Anna Nicole Show (2002-03) that starred the short-lived Anna Nicole.

The degree of bathos and abjection increases from section to section. By the time of the Lohan and Nicole sections, the actresses’ public personas are breaking down as the actresses themselves do the same, so that the distinctions between a public performance and a person become frighteningly lost:

ANNA: Huh? I don’t know. Oh. You said open ‘em. With a wha—for a waterpark? I wanna go. Why not. My baby’s over there sleepin. I think I just have a little gas. I think I just I think I’m having some gas trouble. It hurts and I need some gas poot stuff so I can poot it out. (54)

The lack of interpretive commentary from Durbin is crucial to the book’s oddity. She neither accuses this world of being shallow and degrading or revels in its supposed glamor. While she makes no attempt to call any of the situations banal, the lack of any attempt at psychological or social insight leaves readers with the sense that while these things are indeed happening, there’s nothing really making them happen except the fact that they’ve been created in order to be watched. I found myself wondering why and how these things and people had come to be, but realized that the author would be providing no answers.

Of course, ordinary capitalist television shows almost always feature a heavy-handed morality. The normal titillations of capitalist urges (money, beauty, sex, power, etc) get thrown hypocritically against a finger-pointing, numbingly conventional sense of right and wrong. It’s as if the two opposing urges (to lust or to condemn) shape in the dialectic between them the lives both of successful television characters and television viewers, and eliminate all other possible ways of feeling and thinking.

By removing both the titillation and the morality, E! Entertainment leaves readers with the disconcerting sense that there’s no significant reason why these things are happening beyond the possibilities they create for voyeurism. Readers wanting a moral framework (Marxist or psychoanalytical or Christian or anything else), or even a simple explanation of why things are happening, will have to impose them on the text. Instead, what E! Entertainment shows readers is bodies wrenching awkwardly with desire, anxiety, and physical pain, struggling with each other and talking to each other and dramatizing in public the fact of themselves. What finally turns the book into a kind of contemporary gothic is the developing dread, the sense that the whole show is leading in the direction of decay and collapse. The voyeur watches others go through their act of pain and dying in order to avoid the uncomfortable and unspoken truth that the voyeur too is headed in the same direction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with nearly every word you just said... E news provides nothing but horrid, brainless television... I'd rather watch something worth my time, not some idiot acting out in public for "attention" from "normal people". "Normal people" who, most likely, hide their ideals for the "better ideals" people around them represent up in arms, and have a mind set which resembles a flock of sheep.