Since RCA’s 630-TS of 1946, the television set and its resultant programming have been aimed at the American masses, and it’s safe to say that from that point forward our relationship to television has been nothing short of schizophrenic: Americans supremely enjoy television and commonly overindulge in it, yet they also worry about what effect that enjoyment might have on their personal lives, or, more gravely, on the fate of America at large. Americans also supremely enjoy processing their relationship to television. This processing takes many written forms: journalists recapitalize on the popularity of television shows by chronicling or critiquing a show’s popularity or progress; academics pursue degrees and tenure by writing about television’s place in popular culture or its influence on (or confluence with) other art forms; and of course television — as dystopian technology, as projection of our society, as instrument of propaganda — has been in the fiction writer’s wheelhouse for decades. I don’t think I can overstate how acutely aware Kate Durbin’s affecting new book E! Entertainment is of all of this. Durbin’s book is smart, wry, and powerful, and it re-presents America’s most popular reality television shows in a disarmingly straightforward prose that mines the materiality and vapidity that swells our most ubiquitous entertainment medium.
I use the terms straightforward and unflinching because, of all the ways that one might write fiction about America’s fascination with reality television — perhaps going behind-the-scenes to flesh-out television characters as human beings, or exposing the unreality of the “reality,” or looking at the cultural reception of various shows through characters that are television viewers — Kate Durbin chooses perhaps the most risky. She looks directly into the screen and describes what she sees: “The Wives remove their hands from their eyes,” Durbin writes in “Real Wives. They look around. The table is covered in the crumpled remains of cake on paper plates and empty paper cups with droplets of raspberry punch clinging to their waxy sides.” Durbin’s prose is the result of a painstaking process of transcription — she’s reported that it can take two hours to transcribe two minutes of programming — and the results are incredibly compelling. E! Entertainment draws us in through closely observed, clear prose—a prose that, though steeped in opulence because of its subject (“‘Hit me up,’ says a woman in a black Jill Sanders tuxedo jacket, carrying a Black Birkin”; “Near the window is a wooden table with two antique ruby decanters on it, half-filled with Courvoisier L’Essence de Courvoisier Brandy”), resists adding any unnecessary ornament. Durbin’s book doesn’t simply ask us to look at what whizzes by our eyes more slowly than we typically do; it does the looking for us.
Each of the eight sections (“Channels”) of the book focuses on a discrete program or media event. The book is primarily interested in the strain of reality television that, in the early oughts, centered on rich and/or famous women. Channel 1, “Wives Shows,” is a fugue of a number of Bravo’s Real Housewives series that premiered between 2006 and 2011; Channel 2, “The Girls Next Door,” is a character-less panorama of various rooms within the Playboy mansion that feature prominently in E!’s series by the same name (2005-2010); and the final channel is “Channel 8: The Hills” (MTV 2006-2010). Among these channels, we also find shorter channels that focus on media events (“Lindsay’s Necklace Trial,” “Foxy Knoxy”) or event-based reality television (“Kim’s Fantasy Wedding”), each of which is a key part of the book’s broader interest in sensational, misleading, and objectifying depictions of women, a subject that those familiar with Durbin’s other writing and web-based work will recognize.
Though the expositional prose remains almost point-of-view-less, objective nearly to dissolution, Durbin texturizes each channel differently, experimenting with forms that interpolate dialogue directly from the programs, descriptions of television editing techniques, and sections of various lengths. The reproduction of dialogue (“‘It’s really special to be here with Kim and to take a moment out of the craziness and really remember it’s more about family and creating memories with family and not about the perfect little napkin in the right spot,’ says the Not-Husband”) and resonant repetitions (“Wife Lisa blinks faux lashes. Wife Taylor blinks faux lashes. Wife Adrienne blinks faux lashes. Wife Kim bites her lip”) are nearly affectless, yet consistency and accumulation makes the technique work. Essentially, by faithfully depicting the reality of reality television, Durbin reveals the surreality of the real, the uncanny in the everyday.
This surreality reaches its peak in “Channel 3: Kim’s Fantasy Wedding,” which follows the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Chris Humphries (amusingly dubbed “Not-Husband” or “NH” throughout the channel) from their rehearsal dinner to their wedding ceremony. Channel 3 is the longest program in the book, and in it we find Durbin’s most over-the-top use of a naming trope: even minor characters are renamed—“Guy A,” “Jungle Print Woman”—as they might be in television credits. In this channel, the reader learns that there is perhaps nothing more uncanny than the reproduction of Kim Kardashian explaining how her memory works: “I’m going through the clothes, and you know, all of these memories keep coming up”; “It’s just like going through these shirts and stuff, knowing my Dad wore them, it’s just like so much you know”; “Stepdad is like my Dad”). Though in isolation these pronouncements sound, of course, empty, what strikes us as Durbin’s readers is her ability to energize such language through the form of the story. Channel 3 sutures together precisely chosen emptinesses (of speech, of exposition, of scripted conflict), and forces the show to perform its own critique without moralizing or soapboxing. Durbin’s writing enables the show to speak for itself in a way that the show alone may not.
If there is a shortcoming of Durbin’s book, it’s that the shorter channels, which focus more on discrete media moments, leave us wanting more. The writing in these sections is just as strong, particularly in Channel 5: Foxy Knoxy, but the world is less complete than it is in the channels that focus on particular television series. Ultimately, though, Durbin’s book nimbly surfs (okay, so, one television pun) a new wave of postmodern fiction that explores televisual content in forms that speak to our current relationship to television. David Foster Wallace’s essays (particularly “E Unibus Pluram”) and fiction (stories such as “Little Expressionless Animal” and “My Appearance,” and, of course Infinite Jest) have given us a sense of a premillennial set of concerns about television and entertainment with regard to irony, sincerity, and entertainment commodities and forms, but Durbin’s book represents/realizes more precisely the cultural milieu that we find ourselves in. Whereas Wallace sought to get under the skin of television personalities in his early short fiction, Durbin gives us what we see and hear from the programming itself. Rendered in her stripped-down prose, prose that forces us to pause and reabsorb what we have already seen and heard, this may be a much more powerful — and sinister — endeavor.