Ben Fama is fascinated by endings – particularly, by the finality of endings that happen when books or films end — but in real life, only exist through death.
“There's just something sly about writing a story that totally ends, because life isn't like that. It’s the myth of closure,” Fama says over lattes at a bakery near his home in Ridgewood, Queens. “The idea that you watch an episode of TV and everything is tied up at the end is so painful when life doesn't do that…The artifice is almost campy in a way. It almost seems John Waters-esque.”
In Fama’s debut novel If I Close My Eyes, 30-year-old budding actress Mars Arenas and 19-year-old aspiring screenwriter Jesse Shore almost face the ultimate ending of untimely deaths — but narrowly escape. After surviving a shooting at a Kim Kardashian book signing in Midtown, the unlikely pair is bound to each other. They’re thrust into the national spotlight, suddenly famous for being in the wrong place at the wrong time — and in their corresponding grief and mechanisms of processing, form an unlikely romance.
Fama started writing the novel in 2015 the day after Halloween — a fact that almost made me spit out my coffee given how remarkably contemporary it feels, particularly in terms of its scintillating satire of celebrity culture and how it plays out online: “‘I don’t have a Kardashian body, Rihanna body, a Ratajkowski body. I don’t post nude selfies, at least not for the internet.’ Jesse knew this was true from his tour of her photos, though confessing as much would implicate him in the pernicious voyeurism they were discussing,” Fama writes.
But as it turns out, over the last eight years, the Kardashians and mass shootings have become only more relevant, not less. It’s worth noting that Fama attended Virginia tech during the 2007 shooting. In the lineage of mass shootings, he sought to reflect the kind that’s become the norm today.
“It was not a puberty informed raging nineties Maryland Manson climate. It was just really out of nowhere in a way,” Fama says of Virginia Tech. “But then the next generation of public shootings just seemed like they happen willy-nilly anywhere: You could just be out doing the most banal thing and then all of a sudden there's a storm of bullets around you.” Fama writes the shooting scene — which happens in the first pages of the book — with a kind of distance that mirrors the banality and confusing of the shooting: There are pops (“they almost sounded cute, like snapping bubble wrap,” he writes) and before you know it, Jesse is waking up in a hospital.
If I Close My Eyes is an addictive novel — one I read in a single sitting — with a reality of soap opera proportions: cliffhangers, reversals, mini-dramas, and tabloid fodder. It may pull on the levers of the promise and letdown of the Hollywood dream, the cages of fame and artifice and persona, but at its heart, it’s a novel that is as much about cynicism as it is about coming of age. After all, they often go hand in hand.
Mars is a D-list actress consumed by the calculated maneuvers required for her career, whether it be sleeping with the right people or forming tenuous connections in order to get her 15 minutes of fame. Jesse, on the other hand, is a motherless, wayward teenager who, when suddenly pushed into the spotlight, is clueless about how to pull those levers. He can barely catch up with his own feelings, whether it be lust, grief, or disgust. But part of growing up is learning to decipher your own currency — or figuring out how and if you want to spend it.
“I would say cynicism is sort of what the book is about in a way,” Fama says. “It’s about all the pessimistic outlooks that people have on the world that are fueled by just how many bad things can happen to you that can be turned into a cynical use to advance your self-interest in a way.”
Set in Los Angeles and New York City, Fama captures the driving, kinetic energy of LA or as Fama put it, “a pulsing, libidinous vibe,” with a particular poetry.
“He’d almost forgotten how bright Southern California was, pushing sunshine down your throat until you gagged,” Fama writes. “Sun over waves. Sun over glass. Sun in the wines. Sun over succulents. Sun over reruns. Sun over traffic. Sun over dramas and desperations and timid hookups and last breaths. Sun over skid row. Sunshine over rehab. Sun over cell towers. Sun on dispensaries. Sun pouring over sun. Sunshine blasting the closed set. Sun buying drugs. January wave. Cars overheating in traffic.”
The author of two full-length poetry collections and the founder of Wonder Press, Fama’s expertise lies in “creating situations and ambiance and atmosphere and semiotics of things,” he says. “In a novel, you have to have a plot or else people close the book 10 pages in. I was like, damn, ‘What am I going to do?’”
So Fama decided to come up with the most scintillating plot he could think of and use it as a skeleton from which to write. Peppered with fictional tabloid and news articles, text messages, and notes for screenplays, the book feels distinctly contemporary – capturing a flash so bright in the pan that you can’t look away.
“It's a book that knows it's a book,” Fama says. “It wants you to know it's a book and it wants you to know it's seducing you and to keep turning to pages.”
The novel’s kitschy, self-referential nature, and heightened reality allows things to fall into place in pleasurable ways, in ways you could only dream. Jesse gets into a fender bender and the driver happens to be Judd Apatow, which he parlays into a pitch meeting. Mars gets kicked out of the Surf Lodge after getting into a public scuffle with Kendall Jenner over her doberman; later, she has a reconciliation scene on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. At one point, David Schwimmer offers Jessie a bar of Xanax at the Chateau Marmont. It’s a kind of world that is immensely pleasurable to read; one where anything – even tragedy – can be spun into gold, even if it’s just plated.