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All photographs by Patricia Voulgaris

'Inside the Presidential Bungalow,' an Excerpt from Luke Goebel's Upcoming Novel

Luke Goebel

A photoshoot takes a surprising turn.

All photographs by Patricia Voulgaris

This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

The bungalow had its own pool, behind tall pink stucco walls, with one living wall of succulents in a color scale of oranges, teal, light blues, dense greens, limes, and yellows. It looked like a part of an inner courtyard of one of the finer hotels in Marrakesh, or some shit off Pinterest. Banana fronds grew from built-in planters, a table and chairs for six and a poolside lounge chair and sunbrella were placed near to the windows and slider doors coming from the living room. Royal purple bougainvillea grew from other built in planters as did a citrus tree. There were three extremely long white steps into the pool with a single silver railing, and white gleaming tiles on the ledges of the pool.

Susie was being prepared for a video recording by Peter. They were snorting cocaine. She was not going to do any more heroin or opiates.

“What should you wear?” Peter asked.

She and Peter had been discussing John Berger’s lifework, particularly his views on the sexes, and if Susie should be shot on video, VR, and on cameraphone, in the artistic tradition of the “nude”… meaning as an object, as there to be seen by the assumed male viewer of subjectivity, gazing up on the female form, her aware of herself as made object, the moral public viewers taking cues on how to judge her from how she presents herself as deserving to be treated.

“Duct tape only, across privates?” Peter said, not lasciviously. Susie was in swimwear, currently, her hair wet. The pool and outside pool area weren’t as nice as Susie’s own backyard by any stretch of the imagination. They went in from the pool. She dripped water on the table and on the powder while snorting a line.

She was high on cocaine and speeding, questioning everything, watching it all happen and feeling her throat numb and thick. The dopamine flowing.

“Berger was foolish to think of men as one group purely unified. Women as another. He knew he was, sensing the coming future, but went on with binaries because they worked to bring a larger point—media trains the viewer to be the subject, and to be pleased, objectifying nudes, but at some point in the saturation of media, oversaturation, and in the pornographic objectification of bodies, the viewer disappears into narcissism and alienation, or into perversions, into wanting to be objectified—individualization goes too far and the viewer is too trained from childhood’s rupture between vision and language, to training, to internalized self-scrutiny against the dominant values of power, sexual power, and greed, that the viewer is eventually maddened, alienated, narcissistic, and impotent.”

“Yes!” Peter exclaimed, stealing back speech. “Every action becomes a replica of what has been seen before, every personality, every speech. And that is the canvas of contemporary culture, and this bungalow is our place to stake our claim on reality—we will bring back reality right here. Your mythos will be rooted in the firm earth of actuality, event, born from the frustration of oversaturation—of loss of self.”

Inside the bungalow, modern and classic design met with Mediterranean influence, built-in floor-to-ceiling white shelves and entertainment area, oak floors, 12-foot ceilings, the signature pink and green colors of the hotel, but very little green. Lots of white, from carpet to bedding—even wall panels of leather in a recessed wall that nooked headboards and night tables and lamps of the master bed area tucked back into its receded cove. It was modern and contemporary elegant, in white, as if to say fancy, hip, and for white people. Whiteness. Power.

Silver mirrors and fine handmade lampshades and fixture accents flowed just nicely. The walls were painted crème, the oriental rugs were thin, antique, Persian, the modern furniture mostly robin’s egg blue or crème leather. It was beyond boringly underwhelming. It said I paid too much. She hated it.

The one good feature was the fireplace in the bedroom: a very classic 1920s Spanish stucco plaster fireplace, in a time when the moguls were doing everything in Louis XIV furniture, but this was the real classic everyman style of LA. It was the highlight of the bungalow. The lack of pretense and the actual object of the fireplaces, which showed the workers’ hands having fashioned it.

Velvet chairs and ottomans, glass, wood, white rugs, orchids, mirrors, long sheer white and unbleached linen drapes, actually fine burled oak nightstands, leather overstuffed dining chairs and mirrored-glass dining room table, and the long open entrance veranda of windows and mirrors. It all felt vacant. A representation of a representation. A cold gesture at wealth, at a home, which is exactly what it wasn’t! A home. Once it had been home to Howard Hughes. They shouldn’t have touched a thing. Although then that was fetishizing the moguls—families of power today still bought the houses, furnished, with every photograph, of old powerful families of LA, and touched nothing.

All of this would have to be cut into tiny pieces. It was exhausting to think of it, and then bombs would have to be set in the other rooms in the main hotel on the southeast corner.

Every item that could be destroyed, cut and sliced into smaller and smaller pieces. Improved, really. She didn’t quite understand why, but was envisioning how she could make this opportunity offered to her work as an art project. The office’s crème rug. The printer and fax machine and copier would have to be broken to bits.

Silver lamps with small vintage lampshades—at least the shades would have to be shredded and boxed.

Wall sconces and mirrors and large tall wooden doors, all white—those could mostly stay intact. As could whole pieces of furniture that couldn’t be cut into bits.

Everything white leather and green velour and paper books and rugs and curtains… all would have to be cut into smaller and smaller pieces, Peter was explaining the project.

“The image of these corpses, their video, their corresponding portraits shown in the HTC VR goggles, must register with the public, deeply, as a recognition of their own predicament within the entertainment complex of the new world.”

The cocaine was laid out in slaloms and moguls down the mirrored dining-room table. He was taking a little ski race down the table with a bill up his nose.

“Cocaine is the new drug for you, Susie Q,” Peter said as he unpinched off the nostril and lifted up from the metal zebra. He snorted and jerked to a stop as if a soldier in formation, standing so straight. The music was up. Loud. It was the Marketts’ “Vanishing Point.”

“Susie, I have done my research. Cocaine will get you off opiates. It’s best if you bang it, IV form, but we aren’t going to do that.” He was putting duct tape around her and the dining-room chair, a big leather oversize dining-room chair, one of six, in the bungalow. The phone was set up standing, and the camera faced them, recording.

“And,” Peter called, “ACTION!,” hitting his remote for the VR. After a few moments of shooting her, taped to the chair, her wriggling, making faces of absurd desirability, innocence, and then sudden power in looking straight at the camera—Peter entered the shot.

“We are here with Susie. She has been addicted to opioid analgesics as part of America’s sacrifice of the young and older populations to the god of Moloch. Who among you hasn’t sacrificed one family member at least to the drugs? We are getting her off the Oxy, by force, while holding her ransom. Mom, Dad… we need you to get those gold bars from out of the ground where you hid them beneath the flowering plum tree. You need to buy your daughter back.”

“As for me, no, I am not a Saudi. This is a disguise. I’m a white man. Though I dream in color. Susie, the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse published a study in 1994 about reduction of opiate withdrawal-like symptoms by cocaine abuse during methadone and buprenorphine maintenance and what was especially interesting was that the lower doses of buprenorphine mixed with cocaine use was best at suppressing or circumventing any withdrawal symptoms from opioids. Higher levels of buprenorphine mixed with cocaine led to actually increased symptoms of opioid withdrawal. So, the key is tiny bits of buprenorphine and coke. Buprenorphine is Subutex, which is a drug I have given you today already in a very low dose. The cocaine we are adding will get you off the pills and without much withdrawal.”

“Help,” Susie said, duct taped to the chair. “Help me, please.” She gave the camera her best acting attempt, then cold glare again.

“What are you going to be doing next here, Susie?”

He had the VR camera facing her. He had explained his entire VR project earlier. She was duct taped tight to the leather dining chair. Her hair was cut into a bob like Twiggy’s. Her eyes were wild and alert and wet. She struggled a bit in a sexualized role of frustration.

“Cutting this room into little pieces, Peter.”

“Why are we doing that?”

“I don’t remember. Actually I’m kind of freaking out. I still don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“We are cutting up the presidential bungalow—everything in it into little pieces, Susie.”

“Why are we doing this, Peter?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“Not exactly.”

Lamar was over in the living room eating room service, binging. He was dressed in his underthings, a glob of cheese and mustard on a garter strap.

“We are testing reality, Susie. By cutting up every single item in this room in this entire bungalow of rooms, into smaller and smaller pieces, and we will remember what is real by taking action to check reality. Make sure it’s not computer generated. That they did their homework all the way through if it is… that at some point it doesn’t glitch… and also by cutting it all apart we show them what it’s really worth, this representation of luxury.”

“Don’t we already know what is real? If we cut it all up, don’t we show that it doesn’t matter?”

“Wrong! We make sure that it does matter! We also make sure that it’s not a computer program. We make sure that reality is real. We experience it as real by deconstructing it from a concept into a reality. It will be worth more to us destroyed than intact. It is our way of showing the world this means nothing. How wealth is disgusting, spending 20K a night for a room. And we’ll show the viewing public that we are disturbed enough by the nightmares of war, race war, endless environmental devastation, war in the Middle East, lost value of reality, real life, nature, planet—to take action. To deconstruct their symbols. This is a séance for LA, for Hollywood, for a world that once knew the simple joy of living and now is a Western world that cannot see through the lie of greed, lust, and fame.”

“Why will it be worth more in pieces?”

“You tell me.”

“Because it will be ours? Because it will be historic? Because the only thing that’s worth real value is fame? Notoriety?”

“Exactly.”

“Then I want to keep everything. I want to put every group of thing we dice into a separate container. I need lots of containers. Tons of them. And masking tape and black markers. This is going to be what I’ll use for my first public art show. All the cut-apart materials from the Beverly Hills Hotel Presidential Bungalow. If I’m a goddamn hostage, I want to use this moment to make an artistic statement as well. Out of the materials of the world you are calling false. Out of the corpses to be brought in as your performance. If I’m going to be your hostage, kidnapped, I need to make an art project out of this. I will figure out how to at least use it for art.”

“Take another heaping of coke, Susie.”

He took her by the hair, pushed her head forward into a line, plugged her nostril with a fresh rolled hundred, and pinched the other nostril for her. She took the line, and threw her head back, as if refreshed and abused, gasping a bit.

Peter picked up the phone. “I need bins. Lots of bins. Maybe 50. And black markers and masking tape. Can you have someone go out for these things? Charge it to the card on file. Great. Thank you.”

“Susie, as you wish.”

Excerpted from a novel in progress.