The Structuring Absence: Alone with Kate Durbin’s Kept Women

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When I think of Kate Durbin I think of Hollywood. Kept Women has the genius cadence of the Shining, a product of England’s EMI Elstress Studios and an aerial shot of Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge: not Hollywood, a hollow. Kept Women is Durbin’s new chapbook from Insert Blanc Press. A tour of a renowned Los Angeles landmark, the small book is made of ten eerie appeals to an all ready satisfied customer.

There are many intimate paths that wind their way around this expensive Eden, with many nooks for hidden rendezvous.

The Gothic Tudor-style mansion is introduced with every amenity visible from the lawn cataloged with confidence. According to the voice of the visitor’s well-versed guide, all of these features are very beautiful, but what is really swelling to fill the landscape is the visitor’s desire.

There are several sloping hills, idyllic for topless slip n’ sliding in the summer or sledding over a gleaming expanse of imported snow in the winter.

Real topless slip n’ slides are absent. Desire is present. Without it, the visitor could not come inside. The language is one of a supernaturally calm marketer who understands without apprehension that the customer in question has signed away their soul. Therefore, liberties can be freely taken in assuming what counts as the draw.

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At the bottom of the pool are many bobby pins and shards of broken glass. In the pool filters are tangled balls of hair in stages of blond.

The phrase “exclusive perks” is dropped, which may strike the objective surveyor as transparent. But it is in this same passage that the real estate’s Prohibition pedigree is mentioned as well as the ground floor, occupied by hand-carved statues and bronzes. By the time the visitor is being sold on the cellar – the exclusive perk, accessed by “a clandestine walnut panel” – visions of grandeur are beaming in soft focus, beating down from the chandelier on eyelids clenched in dreams.

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The next room, containing Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader figurines, is the monarch’s. The mixture of “opulent grandeur” and “casual, all-American clutter” is a testament to how this place exists at the intersection of all things good and nothing needs to negate anything else. Placing limits on what this space could contain makes no sense. The guide makes no assumptions about how the visitor would fill it because there is no danger: no opposition, no tension. You could murder your wife and kids if you wanted.

There is a Murano glass chandelier above the bed, which has thirty-two pairs of women’s underwear hanging from it.

As the tour continues through other intimate spaces – spaces not implicitly the visitor’s – a Roman bath, Venetian mirrors, and lotus plants are featured. When the guide remarks how “the room’s exotic decadence is overpoweringly alluring,” after the litany of what the master bathroom beholds, one has just cause to suspect that the visitor is being hypnotized. One’s own will might not be the only force at work here. There might be something about this house.

The visitor is guided not just through rooms but through the past, and “the lighting is optimal for minimizing flaws.” The appeal for the vanity includes its resolute artificiality – made of engineered wood, veneered, it has “Old World appeal, while still emanating a modern charm.” The vanity is immortal and covered by Jean Harlow’s wig and Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 Playboy cover, framed – preserved forever.

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The past is within the attainable domain of the visitor, and so the next space is no shock. Three rooms for different kinds of women – there is not enough time in the day to tour all the rooms, but the visitor does not even need to see any. Stopping three times could spark frenzy. These catalogs do not evoke limitless power: they evoke very strictly people. Specifically rendered, outlined by details: “an unmarked bottle of pink pills and a pink diary with a gold lock.”

“The heavy curtains are drawn, evoking a sultry atmosphere. The beige carpet is stained in various places and covered in clothing and other items, such as a half-eaten Eggo waffle with cinnamon and sugar on it.” They are so close. The evidence that it is not just the visitor and guide is stacking. The last room belongs to a set of twins. The curtains are wide open. They must have just stepped out.

Finally, the tour ends in a library containing “some eighteen hundred bound, numbered volumes” – all scrapbooks. Old photos, “documents, interview transcripts, company memos, and various historical papers.” And lastly, a dog bed: a basket with the dog’s name, Charlie, “stamped in Sentimental font.” Unlike every other appeal, all of which end in a pitch instructing and lulling the visitor into understanding why what is desired is desired, the tour ends with an observation. Sentimental is the name of the font, but it is not incidental. How this small detail can be sentimental seals the deal: the visitor has been here, always. This house all ready belongs to him, and he to it.

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Great tour!

Kept Women is in no way an overt reference to any film of Kubrick’s but it does operate atop a structuring absence in the same way Kubrick’s films do. But Durbin writes about something specific in Kept Women that the text does not obscure. The house being toured is the Playboy Mansion. The sinister territory into which I wandered as a reviewer was not to spite the role the Playboy Mansion plays in the book: it reinforced it. Kate Durbin is an artist on par with Kubrick and she is skilled enough to create the kind of vessels that those who regard her work as readers and viewers and tumblrers can fill with the full scale of their fear, repulsion, and fascination. If one is not prepared to face those feelings, they can overwhelm.

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Kept Women by Kate Durbin is available from Insert Blanc Press for $9.

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