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Your Body Becomes You

Alexandra Kleeman
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
(Harper, 2015)

How does a book imprint a body? Emotionally? Neurologically? Physically? Can a book become you, like food? I ate an entire red snapper by myself on a hot afternoon in Thailand. It was too big for me. I thought of the book as I ate. There were dents in my thighs where the book had rested. I thought of how this fish was becoming me, or I it, and how I could take a piece of this island with me, these waters. My adventure felt less fleeting in this way. I took grains of sand with me between the pages, trapped close to the spine. I did not eat the eyes of the fish.

Alexandra Kleeman has something to say. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a novel of ideas. It is about watching TV. It is about our inability to connect with others no matter how similar our organs or digestive systems. It is about consuming and being consumed—by dogma, habits, commercials. In the vein of George Saunders, it is a surrealist, at times funny, and over-the-top critique of consumer society. In the vein of Nicholson Baker, Kleeman zooms into these ideas in order to tackle them. As a result, and as is the case in Baker’s novels (which I love), not much happens on the page. The narrator, named A, goes next door to an abandoned home and sits; she puts makeup on her roommate; she sleeps; she thinks; she goes to the grocery store a few times but doesn’t buy anything. She and her boyfriend split up, but the action is off screen. (In the third act, however, the action picks up and time condenses: she enters a cult, is kicked out of said cult, and ends up on a game show, naked.) But this book isn’t about its plot. Telling you what happens won’t spoil anything (I hope—sorry). What is important—and brilliant—is the how. Each plot element is like a thought experiment taken to its crazy but logical conclusion. There cannot be a traditional plot in Kleeman’s world—how could anything happen to nameless characters in this nameless, safe town except within one’s own head? The only change that can occur is television acting upon a mind. Television, we quickly learn, is not passive.

The novel opens with a question: “Is it true that we are more or less the same on the inside?” The book that follows is a meditation on bodies: What are they for? Do they reflect or define who we are? Is it possible to get to know ourselves through our physical forms?

The search for an answer brings to light people’s interchangeability. A’s roommate, B, attempts to become more and more like A—asking for an identical makeover, cutting off her long braid and gifting it to A. It is a problem of stolen or traded female identity in the tradition of Bergman’s Persona or Mankiewicz’s All About Eve—except that A is not solid in her own identity to begin with. B’s actions amplify A’s fear of losing her sense of self: “Most mornings I barely resembled myself: it was like waking up with a stranger.” The syntax also illustrates their interchangeability: “Sweat beaded on our skin and felt creaturely, like many legs ready to be set in motion.” Together, they eat popsicles that are conjoined then broken in two. “‘They erase themselves from your body,’ B says.” But other than popsicles, “…B really didn’t eat. Maybe she was saving her stomach for something that didn’t yet exist.” Eventually, A stops eating as well, save for an orange every now and again.

The one other person in A’s life is her too-level-headed boyfriend, C. When A gets too anxious or begins to unknow herself, she can always turn to C: “C was good at handling me. He made things suddenly, instantaneously normal, just by explaining them. He was like a magnifying glass, I only had to look through him to see the world in crisp detail.” A keeps B and C away from one another, afraid they’ll end up together, especially once B makes strides to look and be more like A. Her paranoia grows (and her fear later becomes real-ish): “B and C would make a great couple, I realized. They’d get along like crazy.”

In You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Kleeman peddles in the uncanny. The novel begins painfully close to reality, but something is just a bit off. We are given a smattering of hints as to the extent of the oddness of this world in the first act: the Disappearing Dad Disorder, the man who stole all the veal from the supermarket and then becomes its spokesperson, or A’s neighbors who mysteriously leave their suburban life behind, covering themselves in white-sheet ghost costumes as they escape into the night. Certain details of this world are mind-bending and yet perfectly familiar: Wally’s, the grocery conglomerate A frequents, creates “a flexible shopping environment” that “inspires creativity” (i.e. aisles and products shift places between visits) and employees wear Wally mascot costumes and must speak through their “Wallyholes.” Here, they sell items like the Peapple, “a revolutionary new fruit.”

A’s main pastime with both C and B, separately, is watching television: Shark Week, commercials, or channel seek (allowing the TV to flip channels automatically). What she consumes becomes the ideal and A conflates her relationships with TV: “I wanted that intimacy, immediate but at a distance, as though our love were as swift and expansive as television.” When A watches B watching TV, she states, “…the bluish light played off her face. The two of them were like one now, B and the television.” When A is putting on makeup in the bathroom and B is watching channel seek in the other room, the television begins narrating her life: “You’re drawing a picture of your face, right smack onto your face.”

Commercial breaks pepper the novel, fictional but real enough to make us uncomfortable. Most of these are for Kandy Kakes—a puck-shaped chocolate snack with a crispy shell, fluffy cake innards and a gooey “top-secret” core with “frosting-flavored icing,” all made of “Real Stuff.” In these commercials, we follow the plight of the Kandy Kakes’ nemesis, the malnourished Kandy Kat. All he wants, desperately, is to eat a Kandy Kake, but he is thwarted at every turn. His bodily composition is incompatible with the thing he wants most.

A’s character develops and the plot shifts in accordance with the shows and commercials she consumes until, in the end, she becomes Kandy Kat, ribs poking through, cartoon-like in her starvation, her body completely transformed. The Kandy Kake is A’s MacGuffin—her arbitrary, empty object of pursuit. Though she is able to physically consume a 65-calorie Kandy Kake, she gains nothing from it.

And yet this is what she craves. “KANDY KAKES. WE KNOW WHO YOU REALLY ARE” is the snack slogan. Food that knows you. A’s problem throughout her journey—from her boyfriend’s apartment complex, to Wally’s, to a Scientology-like cult—is that she doesn’t know what she wants. One desire can easily be substituted with another. “Transference,” C calls it. The question that is implied: If you don’t know what you want, how can you know who you are? But here, Kandy Kakes offers food that knows you. It does the work for you. “Food” that is an answer to one’s pervasive disassociation, “food” that fulfills the desire to be known or to know oneself.

While I was eating Thai food from different regions of the country—tom kha, khao soi, green curry, red curry, massaman curry, pad thai, phat wun sen—the only food A eats throughout the timespan of the book are four things (by my count): popsicles, oranges, Kandy Kakes, and human hair. Each is described in visceral detail, how the food feels against the teeth, the throat. “I could think only of pulp, the soft, warm wad of sweetness on my tongue growing blander as the jaws closed on it, the tiny sacs of juice popping and the ropy bits of rind catching on the teeth. And then there was the amniotic sound, the edgelessness of wet against wet.” She also watches C pop his teeth around a Laundromat hotdog, of which she does not partake: “He made squeaky sounds as he chewed. The casing was popping, splitting, tearing.” It is disgusting and so beautifully written. It did not make me lose my own appetite.

Eventually, she joins (or rather, is led into) the New Christian Church of the Conjoined Eater. There, she goes from being a passive consumer in the outside world to packaging edible beauty products, which the cult owns shares in. (They also happen to own shares in Kandy Kakes, Wally’s, and “a soda that puts you to sleep.”) They group foods by their Darkness and Lightness content, and their followers, including A, are fed only Kandy Kakes. The cult, which inhabits an endless warehouse, is more of a store or factory than a Church, with Managers instead of clergymen. How easily she is (we are?) changed—her mind is now fixated only on Church dogma, her body is now emaciated. But this new body is always covered: the Conjoined Eaters wear Halloween-like sheets with eye-holes that they must always shift in order to see. In the beginning of the book it is only our insides that we are unable to differentiate. But now, covered always in a white sheet, A cannot be picked out of a lineup: “But in this sea of white, it is hard to see any trace or trait on your outside that made you different from
anybody else.”       

There is an interplay or interchangeability between television and reality, just like there is between people in this strange world. A’s hunger leads us down a surreal path somehow, always, linked to television. About the pain in her organs, she says, “that pressure like a man’s hand pushing down on an oversized game-show buzzer.” A ends up in a truly fake world—a grocery store with fake doors, full of only plastic, “primary,” ideal food. She is “no longer a member of the food chain.” She, too, has become unreal, a product of her environment: “He looked more closely at me, as though I might have something written in my eye, a note from the manufacturer or instructions for use.” Her madness is guided or dictated by her consumer environment, just as purchasing habits are, until, in the final movement of the novel, A watches herself on TV. She has been a stranger to herself, but here is an image she can finally accept as her own: undernourished, ribs nearly poking through skin. On TV she is finally able to see herself. And the realization of her hunger comes as a kind of enlightenment and redemption.  

You, not you, you, not you. Reading this novel, I felt, at times, absent from myself. During A’s most hallucinatory moments, I was coming off a red-eye from Singapore: no sleep, jet-lagged, wide-eyed, and weird. This book made me weirder.

It is a nightmarish world, and perhaps that’s exactly what it is: this would account for the hallucinatory, dream-like nature of the plot and the uncertain passing of time. But A assures us it is not: “I might have been asleep the last few days, dreaming a long and extremely detailed dream where my roommate was turning into me and I was turning into nobody. But…if you’re feeling your lungs open and close, you can’t be dreaming.”

But for all the strangeness of the characters and surrealness of the world they live in, Kleeman manages to do what great literature does: she makes us feel less alone. There are the relatable quirks and flaws that I latched on to particularly: “For C, it was possible to get along with me even if I, for my part, was not getting along with him. It was lonely being the only one who knew how I was feeling, to not be stored in the mind of someone else who could remind you who you were.”

And, like in all great literature, our (my) flaws are pointed out for us: “‘You need them not only to be doing something for you but also feeling some specific way about it,’ C said[…]‘Why can’t you just let people have their own inner lives, as long as they’re doing pretty much what they’re supposed to with their outer lives?’”

She describes the idiotic habits we don’t know we have until they are presented in a work of fiction. For instance, in the time-warp of the Laundromat with C, A relays: “I took out my phone and checked to see if C was doing anything on his phone that I could see on mine, but he wasn’t.”

If this is a book of ideas, then even the characters can be seen as ideas, too. Even at the beginning the interactions are dream-like and fragmented. When they break up, A obsesses over C, who she never seemed to like that much to begin with. Would the distances be felt more if there had been a semblance of connection to begin with? When she pines after him, I don’t necessarily believe it, but perhaps the point is that A is only going through the motions of wanting and depth of feeling, which is no longer possible for her. It is all disassociation. All thinking. Her body is thought more than it is flesh; especially without food, it is thought of more than it functions.

Without specifics like character names, is Kleeman closing in on the ideal, like the plastic pears at the Wallyform? Early on, A says of B: “Sympathy for her transported me out of myself, away from my own problems. She was cut to my shape and size like a trapdoor: similar enough that I could imagine myself into her, different enough to make that fantasy a form of escape.” This line could be read as a metaphor for what fiction can do—it acts as transport, as escape. In this world, people provide what fiction provides the rest of us. But maybe it is, like most fiction, about wanting to belong: “I was impressed by how well the cans stacked together: they fit to each other the way I wished I fit to the things around me.” Kleeman asks us to ask the big questions: Who am I? Is it possible to know the self? What difference does it make? By creating spaces for us to try to fit that don’t quite work, by inviting us into a familiar but surreal and off-putting setting, she suggests an inevitable truth: we will never fit like canned goods.


Carmiel Banasky

CARMIEL BANASKY is the author of the novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, published with Dzanc Books. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, PEN America, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, The Rumpus, and on NPR, among other places. She earned her BA from the University of Arizona and her MFA from Hunter College, where she taught undergraduate Creative Writing.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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