Fantasy, by Ben Fama. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, April 2015. 88 pages. $17.00, paper.
Opening the envelope that contained Ben Fama’s Fantasy was an exhilarating experience. It had been raining for several days when I noticed the wet package stuck to the bottom of my mailbox. While many books have succumbed to a fate of shriveled pages, warped and discolored covers in this way, Fantasy came out of its sleeve pristine in the pearlescent glow of its subtly glittering cover and embossed silver foil. John Lisle’s cover design, smoke trails hovering around a pair of disembodied eyes and lips and curling up to frame the title, evokes the clinical decadence of 1960s sci-fi a la 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I read Fama’s Fantasy one evening while lying on the mid-century vinyl mustard splay-legged couch in my lounge. As I read his book, the light outside faded, I turned on an overhead light, and the valley I live above became incredibly dark. I listened to nothing but the hum of the wall heater above my head keeping the room at a balmy twenty-four degrees Celsius, with the guitar riff from David Bowie’s “Fame” (with his and Lennon’s voices repeating the title) looping in my head.
The epigraph to Fantasy quotes Robert Glück describing Bruce Boone’s fear of consumerism, where, as with many vices, “you must always raise the ante to achieve the same degree of pleasure,” the result being that you “become a different person and not necessarily the one you intended.”
Last year, I became obsessed with playing Covet, an iPhone app in which it is of paramount necessity to style your character in of-the-season looks that are then voted on by a pool of fellow app users. You must reach in-game goals to receive the cash necessary to fund your wardrobe, which becomes obsolete at the end of each season. I found that by playing Covet daily, I was able to attain a simulated version of the very real high of purchasing expensive clothing online.
In Fantasy, Fama invites the reader to gaze in at his constructs through double-paned glass, a desensitizing vacuum separating the heat of the reader’s body from the chilled text inside. The reader is left window-shopping for Los Angeles, Paris, Tumblr, New York, lifestyles unattainable in their upkeep and rigor/rigueur. Similar to Covet, Fama’s ostensible removal of the necessity of choice allows the reader to play out these fantasies, overlaid or dealt one by one in a decaying row of possibilities.
Reading Fantasy, I was reminded of the scene in Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s Passport to Paris, where Jeremy brings preteens Melanie and Allyson to the Louvre. In an eerie pre-net-art montage, the girls walk among swirling, computer-generated animations of well-known paintings that eventually drip down the screen as the girls become increasingly overwhelmed and oversaturated. At times, it feels easy to get lost in the dazzling, elite vibe of a collection that includes poems like “Moët,” in which the narrator declares “The Rodarte sample sale was shit,” but this is also revelatory of its joy. This poem in full reads: “The Rodarte sample sale was shit / Now I’m just lying on my sofa / I hate this ‘in love’ feeling / But I have it”; and how banal, how quickly romantic we have become, as I too am lying on my couch, feeling comfortable and grotesque in love.
Fama’s titular poem is a cipher, beginning with the line: “Forever is the saddest word.” One of my favorite elements of Fantasy is its focus on human growth and decay. A sensational example of this is a compound Fama invents—as far as I know—called accellate, which is capable of regenerating cells. With accellate, natural death becomes obsolete for a selected few. In the first poem in the collection, it is revealed that Angelina Jolie has, as expected, been one of the first to undergo this reconstruction. With Jolie, there is a buoyancy and celebrity surrounding this process, with its promise of future decentralization and endemic disease control. But Fama’s return to accellate in the second-to-last poem brings with it a gravity and a weight less dwelt upon in its first iteration. Not only is the product inherently elitist, its test subjects are revealed in their humanity, the experiment laid bare in all its implications. A semi-terrifying, futuristic world view permeates Fantasy in its penchant for predictions and globalized thinking.
The Google Map vacation feels central to Fantasy, as in the poem “Los Angeles”: “Listened to this song ‘Tropical Winter’ on repeat / while POV jogging through Runyon Canyon.” This is the only way I can read about the Metropolitan Opera, the George V hotel, Estée Lauder perfume, Dean and DeLuca and Zipcars without letting it get me down. And again, “Fantasy” teaches you how to process the collection: “The Internet is my home / Where it is easy to be beautiful / And seen and new / In the glow / In the spell.” Spending more time online has allowed me to save up enough money this year to buy a car, a purple Demio named Kanye that is as greedy for fossil fuels as a subcompact can be. Some may find this less practical than, say, a five hundred dollar printed kaftan, but Kanye brings me to far away locales like Paraparaumu for sunset walks on the beach and Petone for unprocessed peanut butter. As Fama says, “There will always be new stuff to buy.”
Being human requires walking a super-fine line between perfection and decomposition, which is a final, prevalent sensibility in Fantasy. Fama brings the reader into a world in which cocktail events at the Gershwin Hotel are prepared for alongside ruminations of future suicide, as in “Odalisque”: “It becomes obvious / When I am thinking of you / Lying on the bleached sand / In the soft powdery / Easthampton light / I will die / Under conditions / Premeditated by myself.” At its core, Fantasy operates as a wayward child of Melissa Broder’s and Kate Durbin’s poetry, an impulse to turn inward on one’s self that becomes all the more aesthetically revealing.
Carolyn DeCarlo is an American writer living in New Zealand. She has written a chapbook, Strawberry Hill (Pangur Ban Party, 2013) and co-authored two chapbooks, Twilight Zone (NAP, 2013) and Bound: An Ode to Falling in Love (Compound Press, 2014), with Jackson Nieuwland. You can find her @carodecarlo.