“I prefer the surface,” Andrew Durbin told BOMB Magazine in an interview. It’s true that Durbin, author of “Mature Themes,” skims far across the surface of pop culture. He collapses and collects every trend between the opposing — yet similar — realms of hip normcore and mainstream basicness. Judging by his various references, one gets the impression that he splits his time attending art openings at Chelsea galleries and perusing Perez Hilton. He can talk at lengths equally about Cher from “Clueless” and about Charles Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Watch the Throne — and he does, often on the same page.
“Mature Themes” has 13 sections. Durbin considers each chapter a poem, but they resemble hybrids of poems, short stories and essays, with Durbin’s brand of humor characterized by spurts of hyper-self-aware imaginings. Though his musings take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, the best tales take place in LA, perhaps because of the stereotypes of superficiality that make the city’s culture so easy to satirize. In one chapter, he cradles a crying Leonardo DiCaprio in the bathroom at the premiere screening of “The Beach”; in another, he sits across from Katy Perry at dinner, debating with the group whether the boys of One Direction are gay or “just being boys.”
This makes for a read that’s both compelling and challenging. Each section begins easy to read and then can swiftly swirl into lofty metaphysical theories and philosophies based in mainstream ephemera. In a more melancholy poem, named after the artist Monica Majoli, Durbin begins with the description of looking at one of her artworks at the Frieze Art Fair. After a few lines, he escalates to describe the fair as “not quite depressed in its paralyzed tears / but certainly deprived of recourse / to the promissory world of liberation / it might have once suggested.” Durbin’s romanticism isn’t selective but applies to works of blue-chip art and to his Tamagotchi pet angel.
Though the critical theory jargon can be overpowering at times, the satire ultimately succeeds. For example, Durbin’s thoughts on Justin Bieber getting slimed at the Kids Choice Awards run off a cliff: “To think, even green goo, the texture of semen, became a corporate signifier.”
Our life isn’t separated into high- and low-brow categories — both inform our learning, experience and imaginations. Durbin’s food-porn descriptions of Gordon Ramsay’s no-price-listed Prestige Menu and Paula Deen’s “Shore is Good” $10 seafood dip, which rival each other, demonstrate that. In the same way, reality and fantasy — though they can be antonymous — exist because of one another. Celebrities manufacture their personas, working to maintain a perfected brand for consumers.
Durbin has said that, in a way, publishing “Mature Themes” is like going mainstream. He even took the title from Ariel Pink’s breakout (into mainstream music) album by the same name. Durbin’s Pitchfork-reading audience might have read the review of Pink’s 2012 album: “Pink often incorporates humor into his songs, but it’s hard to be sure if you’re in on the joke … This seesaw between sincerity and insincerity is the fuel that drives Pink’s music.” Similar motivations propel much of Durbin’s discourse, and it is refreshing to see young writers so accurately encapsulating contemporary culture while experimenting with the structure of writing forms themselves.
The book belongs in our world, where the popularity of Kim Kardashian’s PAPER magazine cover comes with the historical baggage of a problematic aesthetic precursor. Saartjie Baartman (the woman also known as “Hottentot Venus”), was paraded around for the size of her derriere as a part of a racist freakshow in 19th-century London. Kardashian’s cover mimics the same pose, which previously was a source of humiliation but is now flaunted to “break the Internet.”
This perverse lineage is exactly the type of absurdity in our media history that Durbin relishes. There are underlying structures and reasons for much of the mass culture we have — Durbin prods at these in his debut, critiquing humanity while remaining relatable in his love for top-40 hits and Adidas tracksuits.
You can purchase “Mature Themes” on Amazon.