about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Getty Fiend
A Review of The Getty Fiend by Ken White
Introduction by Michael de Plessis

Spencer Dew

Part screenplay, part poetry, part splicing of the two, The Getty Fiend offers, we’re told at the get-go, “a medieval melodrama in contemporary los angeles” opening with establishing shots, falcon-eye, a constricting gyre, that descend quickly to the museum in question, and a hidden room within, decked out in “Mad Men-swank meets Teddy Roosevelt-chic. Time capsule hopelessly out of synch. Also parchment, scrolls, quill, wick and tallow.” The hybridity that follows follows suit: there’s a werewolf, a man-beast, and obsession over that actress, “the once / not future sorceress” now frozen on upscale clothing ads across the city, “all grown and smoking hot / smoking fucking hot,” far from Hogwarts but not in a place characterized by more powerful, practical magic: L.A. What is the Getty if not a shrine to alchemy, the transformation of balloon dogs to gold?

So this melodrama—however medieval its themes—is set in our world, revealing something of its inherent mystery and horror-show aspects. For instance, idling at the Mac store, one character reflects not merely on the physical marks of a particular melancholia (“They have freckles / like pats of butter or bran flakes or bacon spatter”). While fending off the constant solicitation of employees-cum-geniuses—“[Browsing. Just browsing just browsing. Browsing: just browsing, thanks.]”—she considers name-brand treatments for this condition: “Give the patient a diet of mixed greens from the Whole Foods / salad bar then open a vein... / If Whole Foods too distant substitute from Trader Joe’s an entire quart / of the green tea ice cream, now discontinued. For three days / let afflicted submerge in baths of Smart Water and whey protein....”

Earlier tales of monstrous transmogrification reflected anxiety at immigration or industrialization, yet this one is firmly late capitalist, with even a hum of Patrick Bateman in its obsessions. Though the real transformation here is poetic, into poetry—which is also where this book packs its real bite—reimagining the everyday urban scenery (“Margin should lurking / mint Crown Vic / cherry whoop-whoop”) and the phenomenology of screen-dependence (“https:// time slips”) while at the same time giving us a capital-letter creature feature (“THE BEAST trots onto a private full-sized tennis court lit by Mercury Vapor lamps. From house the TRICKLE of infinity pool.”).

One medieval touch is in focusing on the ways sexual longing—and sexual ecstasy—transmogrify, in turn, into mystical states of yearning and transcendence. White is really, really good at writing sex, in part because the sex he describes is understood, by at least some of the people and were-people party to it, as so good, as “injurious striving. Terrific cardio. Pied- / montese. Pure USDA Grade A # 1 prime / beef all the way to heel” or as “sex so acrobatic that Kveldulfur // quite certain he’d tweaked his iliopsoas / semi-severely. Sorcha shone, a devotee / wrapping up with hot vinyasa, her spine / torched conduit / still simmering.”

But Lady Sorcha, whom we see first, “bedecked in Ann Taylor factory seconds” ultimately has eyes—and body—for someone else. The lust-interest is straight from the sacristy, sacred St. Luke, an almost too-perfect specimen, equipped with “unfairly godly lips which he pursed hither and yon to close effect,” his “taunt hip flexor . . . quad muscled / as a Williams sister’s,” plus, bluntly, “mighty hung, friends.” “Luke always backed by big brass”

‘Cause I’ve got BAM!   [personality].
Walk [like Deuteronomy].
Talk [with calamity].
Smile [it’s all vanity].
Charm [works like Dramamine].
Love [tuba drowns mouthed words].
An’ plus I got a great big har-ar-art.

As Kveldulfur confesses to being, really, a beast, his erstwhile lover Sorcha tamps down her descriptions of just how much someone else “has reached // out to/into me.” Kveldulfur’s accounting of his “ultimate cross-dressing” (a “Total chromosomal / charade”) is set alongside, via dual columns, Sorcha’s statement that a new guy has now managed to do that which unspools her skin. One body blurs into beast mode, the other vibrates till it feels deliciously flayed.

Luke, meanwhile, fucks without limits. As his rival furs out and becomes, at points, totally feral, so too St. Luke transforms, a kind of were-gigalo, preternaturally skilled:

Now St. Luke’s reversed into single leg swing
routine—moores and spindle flows into Thomas
flairs. His ground work, crownwork and....
Lumineers? All-round caps? He laughs, travels expertly
Counterclockwise Sorcha’s ecstatic
apparatus. Wedding cake shrapnel. Still a bit
of wedding cake [no, not his] on St. Luke’s
upper lip....

These miracles—and others—transform Sorcha into “the famished queen / of spectacular head.” Her previous lover

...Kveldulfur had lapped her
for hours dialing rotary phone upstream
against one and two o’clock, rolling
one lonely BB in figure-8s across the wall
just to bring her off....

Luke, meanwhile, has an all-access pass, tapping the “inner button” of Lady Sorcha, thinking, “as supplicants / to a supple throne, let us / improvise our lubricants....”

There is more than sex going on in this book. Characters blend protein shakes and form, from shimmery hot globules, a silver bullet, for the predicable purposes but for a surprising scene in which, after the rupture of metal through flesh, is declared that “the boom was in the shot” and there’s a rapid pulling back, characters revealed as actors on a break between takes, California notoriously fake. Though “fake,” of course, is a subjective judgment, especially in the context of such quickly shifting ontologies, from human to beast, from enamored to over, from at rest to engorged. Likewise, I guess, fiend-ness is in the eye of the beholder. The beast in these pages comes across as sympathetic, even pitiable—bumbling out his confession to the woman whose mind is wetly elsewhere, or coming back into his fallible human body and needing “a jog, / some ice, four Advil, two beers—the formula / could once grow a lost limb back” but now just dulls the ache. It’s hard to remain as apex predator very long, in Los Angeles. White, on the other hand, feels here at the absolute top of his game, stitching phrases and images in a exuberantly fresh, delicious style, an artful caterwaul, a fashionable fable.

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