The Allure and Toxicity of Fantasy: A Conversation with Ben Fama
By Dan MagersFebruary 9, 2024
If I Close My Eyes by Ben Fama
This could be a quirky rom-com or light Hollywood satire if it didn’t come amid an uncontrolled spiral of US mass shootings—or if we didn’t know that Fama was a student at Virginia Tech during the notorious 2007 massacre. Fama is also a well-known poet and influential editor, publisher, and literary tastemaker through his publishing platform Wonder, which has released some of the most exciting poetry books of the last several years. He has a poet’s ear for dialogue—especially Jesse and Mars’s authentic, intimate text-message conversations—as well as evocative descriptions of Los Angeles and Jesse’s own interior thoughts and impressions.
If I Close My Eyes can be interpreted through multiple prisms: Hollywood satire, coming-of-age story, L.A. novel. It meditates on internet culture, social media fame, digital intimacy, and the dialectic between reality and fantasy that plays out in Jesse’s head as well as in the novel itself. Emily Gould described it as “young Bret Easton Ellis with a heart”—or maybe Less than Zero without the deadness—and it includes celebrity cameos by Marilyn Manson, Judd Apatow, and the Kardashians to boot.
The following conversation is an edited interview I conducted with Fama over Zoom shortly after the novel’s publication in October 2023. It is a follow-up to a 2014 interview, and it touches upon the origin, influences, and themes of the novel; the phenomenon of “poet novels”; the poetry-versus-fiction debate; Simone Weil; mass shootings; and the allure and toxicity of fantasy.
DAN MAGERS: We talked in 2014 about how your experience at Virginia Tech was a very violent one, and the capstone of that was being on campus when the VT shooting happened. Your novel begins with a shooting and ends with Jesse transforming the shooting experience into art. How did your own experience enter into this novel?
BEN FAMA: Public shootings have become so rote. Every day, something like this happens. It went from sort of like an unbelievable point of departure to, like, actually kind of normal in a way. At Virginia Tech, it was totally unbelievable that that had happened, like crazy, like really crazy. And now it’s happening at the same schools more than once in a month.
And just being able to see violence. I remember the Faces of Death VHS tapes at the video store when I was a kid. I knew you could see people accidentally being killed, like while they were doing sports, and they die. Like, they just happened to get filmed. Getting gored by an animal. And you could rent it.
Now, by accident, Twitter just shows you that happening. And the fact that we’ve gone from there to here is really unbelievable, actually. I don’t think we’ve really come to terms with what it means to see people dying all the time. Like, all the time.
I did have a friend who was in one of the classrooms at Virginia Tech. And they were one of the two people who survived, and he did not get shot and the other survivor did. Time magazine interviewed him. I was always, like, I didn’t want to ask him that many questions about it. But I read this interview. He told the magazine reporter everything, and he described lying on the floor. Making eye contact with the other girl who was the only other person still alive in the room, and they were just holding eye contact. Just trying to keep each other going.
And it’s the most haunting thing I’ve ever heard. So that’s in the haunted house scene at the end of the novel, in a mall food court. They’re hiding under tables while there’s footsteps audible. That’s something that spooks me out every time I think about it, still to this day.
We last spoke shortly before your debut poetry book Fantasy (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015). Since then, you’ve published another poetry collection (Death Wish, Newest York Arts Press, 2019) and become a well-known editor and publisher through your publishing platform Wonder. Tell me about how this novel came into being.
This is the third novel I tried to write. I got number one going and was trying on what it felt like to do that kind of form, and I really liked it. But it was just very much an experiment. Number two I actually was trying to go the distance with, but it just wasn’t coming together. I didn’t love the world I was creating. The characters were interesting to think about, but in practice, writing it out, it just didn’t have the magic I wanted. Plot is a big problem for me. I love plots. I really wanted to write fiction because of how much I loved reading novels. It is so juicy to me. I wanted to figure out how it works.
I was trained by poetry where you can just write ambience and atmosphere. But in a novel, if there’s not a story that people are interested in, with characters that they care about, they’ll close the book. Opinions come more readily to people because they’ll read 10 pages and be like, “This story fucking sucks.”
I like putting characters in situations and just taking that to the extreme. Then having this happen so then they end up in this next scene …
Like creating these characters and kind of setting them in this world and then seeing where they go. It reminds me of this long essay by Émile Zola called “The Experimental Novel.” He saw the novel as almost this scientific experiment where you create characters and Darwinistically see what happens to them in the story. What was it about this narrative that kept the magic alive, as you put it?
I really wanted to stay in the pleasure zone of writing throughout the whole process. I did my best to try to really think about what was exciting about it to me when I felt that dread when I opened the Word document.
The main character is so enamored by not just the 30-year-old wannabe starlet but also the image of herself she’s able to create. There’s a heavy element of fantasy. He’s at an age where you’re gonna make a lot of mistakes, so I could just put him in a lot of really interesting situations—having him sort of like follow his nose, where Mars is the North Star that he follows around. The aura of that was just really fun to write.
You said in one of your interviews that some people, when they read your novel, seemed put off by the Kim Kardashian book signing shooting that opens the story. They were like, “Take this out” because it makes things seem less serious. You said that annoyed you?
As I finished with my draft and started sending it around, sort of testing the waters for publication, one publisher was like, they definitely would be interested, but you have to take Kim Kardashian out. Because it’s a huge blemish on the whole thing. If you think that’s a blemish, you’re gonna not like the book. And I accepted that in that moment. Some people are just allergic to contemporary culture being referenced that directly in literature.
Talk a bit about your novel’s influences. Bret Easton Ellis, Bruce Wagner, and Evelyn Waugh are mentioned in the marketing materials.
For the marketing stuff, those are still very true to my interests. Bret Easton Ellis, he’s such a divisive person. One agent rejected me because, they said, “Your book reminded me too much of Ellis. Which honestly like it’s not a bad thing, I just personally don’t like him. But there’s so many people that do, I think you’re gonna have no problem. So good luck.”
Bruce Wagner, it seems like nobody really reads him, but he’s an L.A. author who has tons of books.
Yeah, he wrote Maps to the Stars [adapted by David Cronenberg, 2014]. His books are kind of like that. His book Dead Stars (2012)? That’s just unbelievable.
And Evelyn Waugh’s books are really fun. Like Brideshead Revisited (1945), even though that book is very serious. But reading Vile Bodies (1930) just made me realize how funny Brideshead Revisited was. Like deadpan, really funny stuff. Or Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts (2004)—there’s like “before” and “after” reading that book, for me. Same with J. G. Ballard and Crash (1973).
Susan Sontag in “Notes on ‘Camp’” talks about how excess replaced harmony in modernity. I think maybe around the time of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Maybe Oscar Wilde too, because she’s writing about camp. But the idea is that excess and aggression and extreme pushes in certain directions have replaced harmony as something of aesthetic value. And I feel like those things I just mentioned are like that.
I heard this thing about The Great Gatsby (1925), how the whole book is contained in the first chapter. And that to me was something that I really wanted to try to do. Which was to put everything that was going to be in my story also just in the first chapter. All the themes, all the emotions. All the elements that are going to be in the book. This is, I’d say, where poetry meets fiction.
I’m glad you brought up poetry because I was very curious about how you think about poetry and novels, and “poet novels.” What do you think a “poetry sensibility” brings to novel writing?
Honestly, I don’t really know. Why can’t you just say this is a novel? And read it on its own terms? It’s just like “how do you label it?” But that’s marketing, you know? I had to shut all of that so far away from my mind to finish this book. At a time when no one was waiting for it, no one was encouraging me. And nobody gave a fuck, and it was like, why am I doing this?
And it was just because I thought it was really a worthwhile artistic endeavor to create a complete narrative. I was so lost in the sauce at that point that I didn’t think about genre at all. I was … miserable, you know, like existentially. It wasn’t like, “Is this a prose poem, or a poet’s novel?” It was, “Should I burn this and throw my computer out the window?”
While writing a novel, it didn’t seem like I was a poet writing. I was just someone trying to figure out how to write a novel.
One thing that fascinates me is the different valences of reality in the novel, how it handles reality and fantasy. At the beginning, Jesse is shot, and he’s in the hospital. He has this dream about making a dying wish for a Keeping Up with the Kardashians cameo. He then awakens to the Kardashians camera crew—Kim, Kanye, Kourtney, and Khloe visiting him at Mount Sinai. There’s this dialectic between realism and romance throughout the novel.
The book starts with him looking at his phone, and it ends with him looking at his phone. Which is actually very Wizard of Oz. In a way, he’s back where he started. He’s gone through this whole journey, and it’s like, “and you were there, and you were there, and you were there …”
Of critical importance to this book is where the meanings of things fall for the characters. There’re no stable meanings, you know? It’s fueled through pleasure and need.
So much of the book is very fantasy-inflected, but in interviews, you criticize fantasy. You said, for example, that the “best thing about fantasies is that there are no contradictions, so you can just dissociate and drift on away.” You described nostalgia as “the same, it’s where we locate our desires without an active conflict. People seem more willing to see nostalgia as a poison, and I would extend that to fantasy. Fantasy mixed with reality creates a toxic plume.” Your first poetry book is called Fantasy. What’s the evolution of your concept of fantasy? How does that connect with your reading of Simone Weil?
I’m glad you mentioned Simone Weil. “Imagination Which Fills the Void” is the name of one of the chapters in her book Gravity and Grace (1952). Which I actually really got into after I finished this book. I think one of the reasons it spoke to me so much is that it deals with the same danger of consoling yourself too much with fantasies.
Weil wants to throw away all consolations. And because she’s trying to find the truth of God, she believes that when you get rid of all your fantasies, when you burst the bubble, the void that’s left there, God will fill it. That’s not in this book, because the characters don’t create that space.
Ben Fama is a writer based in New York City. He is the author of Deathwish (Newest York, 2019), Fantasy (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015), and the chapbooks Odalisque (Bloof, 2014), Cool Memories (Spork, 2013), New Waves (Minutes Books, 2011), and Aquarius Rising (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). He is also the author of the artist book Mall Witch (Wonder, 2012). His writing has appeared in The Believer, Denver Quarterly, Boston Review, Jubilat, LIT, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. He is the co-founder of Wonder, an imprint that publishes innovative poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.
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