Review by Jenna Butler.
Fake Paul, by Kimmy Beach, traces the dark nature of obsession from the clubs of London to the streets of New York. Set amidst the larger cultural craze that was Beatlemania, this collection follows the development of the narrator’s teenage crush on Paul McCartney from simple innocence to full-blown self-destruction.
There is no preamble in this collection; Beach simply throws the reader right into the melée with the tragic death of a fan at a Beatles concert:
in the first balcony
a girl dreams herself
floating down to you before
she can be stopped
she throws one leg over the railing
her friends grasp at the edges of her skirt
tear at the hem as they try to catch her
swings her other leg over
and slips off the tarnished banister
(“Bass Guitar Frenzy” 7)
It is instantly and horrifyingly evident how violent thousands of young women’s obsessions with the Beatles actually were; indeed, the progression of the book reveals just how many women self-destructed during the Beatles era through various forms of obsessive behavior directed toward the band members themselves. The reader’s introduction to this disturbing world is made all the more troubling by the revelation that many of these women were hardly noticed for their behavior at all. They risked everything, perhaps even their lives, on the off-chance that their actions would be seen as those of devoted fans.
It’s not surprising, then, when the narrator herself begins to obsess about the Beatles. Indeed, after such a defined pop culture net has obviously been cast over the young women of England, it seems predetermined that the narrator would grow up to possess obsessions similar to millions of other female fans. The phenomenon Beach presents is that of a cultural trap for the unaware, and she lays it masterfully in the space of a mere handful of pages.
The narrator’s obsession with the Beatles manifests itself all too soon, with the discovery of a Beatles record forgotten amidst the detritus of a late-night party. The young woman is instantly drawn to the photograph of the band on the sleeve, and the very instant she picks out Paul McCartney’s face, a teenage crush begins. The reader instinctively recoils from this as from the memory of the book’s beginning: another woman’s obsessive love that ended in disaster.
It is the poem “Raw Hamburger” that offers the greatest warning of the horrors to come. The narrator accidentally discovers her grandmother’s concealed hunger for raw hamburger meat, but far from being disgusted, the narrator instantly understands this need to carry secrets:
I love the carnivore in her
the secret raw meat eater
inside her neat blue apron.
(“Raw Hamburger” 13)
This seems harmless at first — the grandmother’s guilty pleasure; the speaker’s easy acceptance of it. In the context of the narrator’s later obsession, however, and her burning need to keep that obsession a secret, “Raw Hamburger” is a clear early warning.
From an adolescent crush, a simple secret, the narrator’s obsession moves to the erotic. She visits the places Paul McCartney frequented, searching for physical traces of him that she can possess. The search culminates in a visit to Paul’s home in the company of several other young women. Where some hang back, reluctant to take their crushes beyond the point of decency, the narrator attempts to rummage through Paul’s garbage. Unable to access the singer, she tries to satisfy her obsession through McCartney’s leavings. Here, too, for the first time, the reader is exposed to the narrator’s disdain for anyone whose desire for Paul is not as demonstrative as hers.
Aside from the narrator’s obsession being dangerous (she is involved in altercations with police and security guards), it is also ultimately isolating. Perhaps to protect herself from behaviors she knows to be out of hand, perhaps because the obsession has indeed consumed her, she separates herself from other similarly-obsessed women when justifying her actions to herself and, later, to others. She desperately wants Paul to believe that she is not one of the groupies who hound him: “those girls are crazy” (“Would you feel me?” 22).
In the space of a few short pages, the inevitable happens. A young woman (not the narrator, although the parallels are evident) becomes pregnant by Paul. After following him from London to New York in an effort to have him recognize the child, she is trampled to death in the street by a crowd of fervent admirers attempting to watch Paul on a television display in a local storefront. She is cast away – abandoned, pregnant, and dying – in the wake of a Beatlemania that has grown out of control.
The death is quickly forgotten as the wheel of popular culture grinds relentlessly on. The narrator herself is subsumed, beginning the long internal process of secret self-destruction, injuring herself to secure artifacts that once belonged to Paul. Here, too, the reader begins to sense that her obsession is transferable – first to the wax head of Paul McCartney fantastically pilfered from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and soon after to the man she meets who plays Paul McCartney in a tribute band.
It is during the concert when the narrator first meets “fake Paul” that she realizes how lost she has become during her search to unearth every detail about McCartney’s life. Just as the band onstage is only imitating the Beatles, the Cavern Club and the area in which it is located are reproductions, too. In a moment of clarity, she recognizes that she is desperately chasing things and people that have passed out of reach:
we dance at the side of the stage
noise and the stink of too many people
too much ale
music too loud
I am so high
(“The Cavern Club” 72)
The isolation and the ease with which the narrator’s obsession transfers culminate in her attraction to the “fake Paul” from the tribute band; not as the man himself, but as a substitute for the real Paul. Instantly, unavoidably, she is consumed again:
I’ll dance by myself at fake Paul’s side
of the stage never take my eyes from
him even when he’s not singing
there! he winked at me
I didn’t imagine that.
(“Tribute Band” 79)
Of course, it is only a matter of time before “fake Paul” recognizes her obsession with him for what it is: that of a woman concerned only with the surface of things, with his role as Paul McCartney. Disturbed, he pushes her away, seeing in her behavior nothing more than that same possessiveness displayed to some extent by all of the fans of the tribute band.
By the time the narrator realizes that she has given herself away, that she has allowed her secret to be discovered, “fake Paul” is already distancing himself from her. Desperate, feeling yet another vestige of Paul McCartney drifting out of her reach, she turns to the self-destruction of the exhibitionist:
mirrors slashed with red
I Love You Paul!!
fingertip-shaped drops smoking on bulbs
blood kisses on glass.
Far from having the desired effect, however, her actions only serve to further distance “fake Paul.” Echoing the abrupt manner in which she is cast from the club where the tribute band performs, the narrator is also cast from “fake Paul’s” life. Her isolation is complete, her obsession now baseless. At last, she vocalizes her loneliness and her absolute fatigue at being forced to live her life around the obsession:
I say nothing
(“A Paul Dream Last Night” 106)
She finally acknowledges the despair behind her behavior: that she is really nobody special after all, to Paul McCartney or to anyone. She is nothing more than one of those “frenzied girls who couldn’t get in / mittens thudding on windows / screams condensing on dirty glass” (“Voice after the show” 113). With no more ragged beliefs left to hold her up, there is nothing remaining for her but self-destruction and death.
It is the ending of the book, though, that really drives home the bleak superficiality of Beatlemania. The tribute band packs up its gear and costumes, just as the Beatles themselves did after each gig. They fold away their Beatles personalities with their clothes, preparing to return home to wives, children — lives beyond the personas they inhabit during their day jobs. And just as the Beatles did, as popular culture required them to do in order to maintain their fame, the tribute band has its own collection of castoffs. Beach leaves the reader with the terrible, saddening conviction that the narrator’s obsession and death are nothing out of the ordinary in the world of popular culture. The narrator’s self-destruction, like the trampling death of the mother of Paul McCartney’s baby early on in the book, will soon be tossed aside and forgotten. There will always be someone new willing to take her place.
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.