The output of American poet Ben Fama is as wide-ranging in medium as it is tightly curated in aesthetic. Along with his own writing—a clever lacing of pop and gothic culture—Fama also edited a generation-defining poetry magazine that folded at its height and co-founded a stylish publishing venture still on top of its game. His newest work, If I Close My Eyes (Sarka, 2023), is also his first effort into fiction, a debut novel with a narrative that is part stuttering romance, part existential crisis, and part exploration into the underbelly of media assimilation.
The book opens with a nesting-doll scenario of celebrity consumption: our protagonist, nineteen-year-old Jesse Shore, waits in line at a Kardashian meet-and-greet event while simultaneously watching an episode of the family’s reality television show on his phone. As we will learn about Jesse, he is spellbound by this type of anesthetized dramaturgy:
“Jesse fell easily for the allure of this type of celebrity: the reality TV star who didn’t need to fully articulate herself. The genre was full of half-enunciated characters, drawn up in the cutting room, supplemented by A-list cameos, tabloid fantasias, defamatory gossip sites, endorsements, modeling contracts, spin-off products.”
While staring at the screen, Jesse makes a wish: “I could have been born this asshole, instead of myself.” His rumination is interrupted with a climactic event that is only half-recognized in the moment due to his bifurcated attention; a fire is ignited by protestors, leading to a store evacuation. When Jesse is righted by the crowd after stumbling, a popping sound ricochets through the tumult that he barely registers, finding himself more concerned with locating his dropped phone than running for cover—until he feels a bullet pierce his abdomen.
As though a genie with a sharp taste for irony has been summoned, it is in this moment that Jesse finds his wish has been granted in the worst way possible: he has been elevated into the same experience that only moments before he was watching through a screen. An act of senseless violence has catapulted him into the realms of the observed, rather than the observer. He is no longer a member of the audience to the drama of reality-based media but on the stage itself as a minor character.
To punctuate this point, the novel doesn’t introduce the reader to Jesse as he is standing in line but rather vis-a-vis a blurb from a Page Six–worthy tabloid of the event paired with a photo. In a selfie uploaded by a B-list actor experiencing their own lift in publicity from being at the event, there’s Jesse, the unintentional and wounded photobomber. Still, this incident doesn’t even bring him to second-rank importance in this narrative. He’s at the bottom rung, the individual so far in the periphery that even his presence is noteworthy for its peculiarity. Of course, it would be someone like Jesse who would recognize the ephemeral quality of this brief, surreal media rise for what it is: being “temporarily famous.”
Tender and astute, Jesse examines the fugue state of his life that has brought him to the boundary between dreams and reality. Still actively mourning the loss of his mother years prior, his father is emotionally distant, and though other members of his family have succeeded in Hollywood, Jesse has already spent time in rehab. It’s why he identifies with celebrity: “The stars of reality television were always already cultural ruins,” Jesse declares, and it is within this ruination that he exists, experiences, and most devastatingly, aspires to.
The aftermath of his assault is one demarcated by a circle of influence more interested in making use of the business opportunities and social engagements such an experience offers. That the care of his injury is profoundly and painfully deficient highlights just how domineering the fantastical celebrity world is over the reality of a wound needing to be tended. The quicker it heals, the less the event that injured him can be sensationalized.
Even in these moments of becoming observed, Jesse finds no authority or profound insight, life becomes a tape-deck that is chewing the cassette apart as it is being listened to. Jesse continues to struggle through each moment with the anxiety of potentially missing the opportunities that are presented to him, best articulated in the relationship he builds with another victim from the same incident, a model and aspiring-actress named Marcy-Rose Arenas (Mars, for short).
Mars is an encapsulation of what everything Jesse aspires to become closer to: having what Jesse considers to be “a tremendous number of followers, nearly six digits,” she herself is hanging on the fringes of stardom as she tries to break into the acting industry, engaged to a more successful actor. The relationship is already rocky, as her betrothed is being photographed with teenage women, and there is an implication that what exists between Mars and her fiancé is built more for reputation preservation than actual love.
Jesse immediately develops an infatuation with Mars and spends a majority of the novel doing everything he can to transform their friendship into a serious romantic relationship, ignoring the not-insignificant age gap between them as well as her relationship status. His naivety at first pairs well with Mars’s astuteness: they grow closer as they navigate the half-life of their notoriety. Personal ethics are swept under the welcome mat of doors open to more exposure and financial benefit.
But for its outward benefits, their relationship is a center of care and empathy that amplifies and grounds the human experience. “People died so we could feel this way,” says Mars to Jesse in one of their high moments, and the weight and enormity of that simple statement is the underpinning of a book that takes an unflinching view of what some might do for fame and ratings.
One of the more jarring aspects of this novel is not in what grabs the attention of the characters but what does not: the shelving of true moments of visceral life for the sake of what translates better via social media and artistic expression. There is a death during the shooting incident that is scrolled over briefly as Jesse’s eyes land on Mars’s profile; later deaths and illnesses in the book are viewed as side commentary, anomalies that bear nothing more than a passing curiosity before more appealing media matters take center-stage again. The darkness of this novel is not that hard reality isn’t present but is rather ignored, as though the characters themselves are intentionally refusing to see past the limelight at the audience they may truly be performing for.
It is easy to be blinded by desire, another entirely by fantasy, which is what departs Jesse’s character from the antiquated allegory of self-obsessed youth. While still evident, he exhibits a level of amplified self-awareness: a constant, anxiety-inducing interiority to consider how he might prolong his fame or the intoxicating hit of its proximity. The very name of Jesse Shore harkens to another popular reality television phenom, Jersey Shore—a foretelling of the cheap commodification of personal messiness distilled into fandom that has replaced the sense of general malaise and ennui we typically find in coming-of-age stories.
But If I Close My Eyes is not a typical bildungsroman, Rather, it is a fresh spin on this well-trodden narrative construct. The archetype of the lone wolf, the outsider, is here desperate to exploit rather than explode the system to which he finds himself confined. Jesse is not seeking to rebel or grow insightful; for him fame is the only evolution. Iconic characters such as Holden Caulfield from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye succeed as characters in the ways that they challenge convention. But these characters can sometimes do so to such an extent that we as readers are forced to wince through their moments of fallibility, to be reminded of our own cringe-worthy youth.
What solidifies this novel is Fama’s masterful prose, tapping into his poet’s feel for lyricism and voice while using the present social discourse of media ephemera to punctuate his points. Text threads, articles, and social updates play heavily in the written work and provide weight to the elusive nature of discourse and intention, rendering the meaningless meaningful, and vice-versa. This is amplified most powerfully in the sidenotes mumbled by the characters to each other as they travel from one event to another.
Fama’s brightest illuminations are those that capture the haunting echoes of our contemporary shared experience, or those like Jesse, who fall into the social media abyss seeking promises of fast fame. Millions of people post such attempts each day, and the best we can do is decline to play along as judge and jury for those trying to form an identity in the observation of others. They may temporarily lose sight of their soul or get burned by the firestorm of going viral, but as Jesse discovers navigating this terrain, life is worthwhile—even after fame.