A Thirst That Big: On Alexandra Kleeman’s “Something New Under the Sun”
By Tess GuntySeptember 20, 2021
Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman
Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed — and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.
Even though novels like Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible (2020) have been published since Ghosh wrote these words, his message remains apposite: a crisis of historic magnitude has produced strikingly little art about it. Into this landscape of failure arrives another answer to Ghosh’s call: Something New Under the Sun, the third book and second novel from Alexandra Kleeman. Something New negotiates the wild torrents of the climate crisis while sailing a recognizable narrative barque: a four-act structure, a noir-adjacent plot, and the color palette of a Miranda July film. Something New is not just an intellectual and imaginative victory, but also an emotional one. It vivifies a catastrophe that often registers as tragically abstract, bestowing upon the Anthropocene and every creature it afflicts the kind of attention that Simone Weil equates to prayer.
Those familiar with the book’s title will accurately predict its concerns. Published two decades ago, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World is a book of nonfiction by the environmental historian J. R. McNeill. Whether or not Kleeman intended her title as a nod to McNeill is unclear, but her work, like his, devotes scientific attention to the geological costs of human dominance. The novel depicts a future in which WAT-R — a synthetic, privatized water substitute — has monopolized California, commodifying a human right. (If this plot point strikes you as farfetched, I recommend viewing the 2017 documentary Water and Power: A California Heist.) WAT-R’s ascendency corresponds with the emergence of “some new kind of dementia” called ROAD, a disease that can afflict anyone of any age. Symptoms include severe dehydration and memory loss, but also “hallucination of water,” “unrequited affection,” and “man in suit.” ROADies are collected in Green Vans and treated at Memodyne Clinics.
The novel follows middle-aged Patrick Hamlin during his stay in Los Angeles, where he participates in the film adaptation of his novel Elsinore Lane. (Elsinore is the Danish port where William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set, and Hamlin’s novel is about a young man reckoning with his father’s death; Hamlet references abound.) Soon, Patrick meets the film’s lead, Cassidy Carter, a volatile starlet who attained fame as a child starring in the series Kassi Keene: Kid Detective. Cassidy and Patrick become unlikely co-detectives as they unravel a conspiracy that links their film, WAT-R Corp, and ROAD. But Kleeman uses the mystery as a scaffolding rather than an engine — the mystery in question is never very mysterious. Instead, the book generates power through its intricate ecosystem of resonances and its devotion to the theme of ecological collapse. While Something New remains rooted in plausible — indeed, probable — human drama, its animals, plants, and landscapes are not portrayed as incidental accoutrements to the narrative; they are the narrative. In 10 observant chapters, Something New distinguishes itself by treating the nonhuman creatures of its world as primary characters whose relevance need not be explained, whose integrity need not be earned.
Toward the beginning, a character mentions the popularity of ghost stories in Hollywood, saying: “You know there’s never going to be a ghost hanging around someplace for a boring reason. Where there’s a ghost, there’s a story.” Because this case is made so early on, accompanied by the requisite Hamlet allusions, it seems that Kleeman is slipping the reader instructions. Indeed, Something New is a compelling ghost story — a dystopia haunted by the loss of environmental harmony. Its characters are haunted by the past, and its readers are haunted by the future.
Something New opens with a sentence that announces its central themes: “On the palm-sized screen it looks curiously real, like something he’s already seen.” Artificiality and memory alteration have taken precedence in Kleeman’s oeuvre thus far; she has written fiction about fake fruit, fake weather, fake blood, and now fake water. In her 2019 story “The Fruit Factory,” she writes: “Where once there used to be dozens and dozens of different kinds of pineapple, now there is only one: the best one.” Similarly, WAT-R is marketed as realer and better than “the vintage stuff.” WAT-R billboards promise “WATER DONE RIGHT.” One character describes the substance as “the same as water, just a little bit more so.” A WAT-R Corp employee says, “The WAT-R we make here is cleaner, more perfect at a chemical level.” As in Kleeman’s prior work, Something New uses fraudulence to expose the precarity and holiness of the real.
In everything she writes, Kleeman is asking: What is lost as our environments, foods, and relationships travel further and further from their natural states? Some things, she suggests, can never be reproduced, only imitated. The essence lost in translation may appear disposable but is in fact sacred. Kleeman employs memory alteration to explore similar concerns. Her phantasmagorical short stories are often saturated in amnesia, and who could forget the “disappearing dads” of her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (2015)? When the dads return, they join different families, their memories eroded. Something New stars a disappearing dad; as time goes on, the reader watches Patrick gradually shed his realness and wane into a ghost. During his phone calls with his daughter Nora, she repeatedly asks: “Dad? Are you there?” As characters lose their recent memories, ancestral memories of water surface. Cassidy falls asleep “dreaming of the sea, dreaming in a body different from her own, one lower to the ground and buzzing with totalizing sensation. In her dream, she crawled across the sandy beach and toward the saline bound.” Kleeman uses the theme of memory loss to argue that alienation from the natural world produces an alienation from the self.
In the second chapter, the omniscient narrator intervenes to spend a paragraph reverently describing the behaviors and features of quail as Cassidy eats one. In another novel, this might seem like an intrusion of irrelevant factoids, but Something New makes it clear that there is nothing more relevant to its greater moral project than the brain-to-body ratio of a small, edible bird. “[T]he quail carcass is the size and shape of a human heart, a tender scrap of life that once darted through carpeting of leaf mulch in search of small bugs and hid for safety in the warm, dark rot of a hollow log,” begins the passage. It ends with a disarming confrontation: the quail “sleeps through the night in a single, unbroken stretch — except during long winter nights, when, like a human being, it sometimes wakes in the middle of the night and falls back asleep.” To read a species fact sheet is informative; to imagine an individual quail waking in the middle of a night is transformative. Throughout the novel, Kleeman dares readers to comprehend, for a moment, that every animal is as real as they are. The violence these animals suffer in the name of human greed is real, too.
One scene opens with Cassidy lying in her empty swimming pool, which she aims to fill with “vintage water” — her preferred form of payment. “She’s woken up to find lame geese resting, head under wing, in an inch of standing water, remnant of last week’s anemic rain, and baby squirrels trapped and dehydrated, concealing their small bodies under a scattering of dead leaf matter.” Later, a brilliant passage describes Cassidy’s vacant mansion as her telephone rings. First, the narrator focuses on domestic opulence, lyrically describing its waste. Then the narrator wanders outside the house, to the birds, gopher snakes, and other animals that inhabit the surrounding ecosystem: “Every sound is a body moving through the world, a pair of eyes and a small trembling heart.” The chapter ends:
The coyote[’s] […] breath comes calm and even, like that of a sleeping thing — if it’s dying, it doesn’t know. With eyes open and tongue trembling against the bone-white teeth, it stares straight forward, past the variegated grasses, and paddles with its feet, pawing at the air, running in place, running nowhere, as the raptors circle overhead.
What do you call this effect — this dizzying hypostatization of nonhuman experience? It is damning that the closest English verb for it is: “to humanize.” When explaining our environmental tragedy, one could start there.
Something New is not a perfect novel — is there such a thing? — but it would be a mistake to waste words on its flaws, which are merely distracting, never disqualifying. At times, I missed the unabashedly dreamlike nature of Kleeman’s previous work — the Kafkaesque dissonance — but most of the strengths she has displayed thus far are at their finest in Something New. While it is more cinematic than her first two books, it likewise finesses unreality to access reality. Two of its secondary characters, referred to as the Arm and Horseshoe, are probably modeled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (especially as they are portrayed in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead , from which one of the epigraphs is lifted). Like a pair of stoned undergraduates, the Arm and Horseshoe talk in paragraphs of abstraction, beginning conversations with sentences like: “Let me tell you an anecdote about the evolution of consciousness.” They offer some tedious cerebral flexing but also some fun intellectual tennis that doesn’t take itself too seriously, inviting Dostoyevskian insertions of moral philosophy that are washed in the tides of Twitter. As in her first two books, Kleeman demonstrates a loyalty to strangeness; there is an extraterrestrial, anthropological quality to her prose, liberating observations from shorthand.
The drought has not yet reached the East Coast, where Patrick normally lives. While he rides out his midlife crisis in Los Angeles, his wife Alison and their daughter Nora move to Earthbridge, a commune upstate. Earthbridge is designed to facilitate sustainable living, but also ecological grieving. At the beginning of each day, members mourn losses characteristic of the Anthropocene. Alison describes this ritual to Patrick over the phone:
This morning, they finally declared the Thwaites Glacier dead. There are pieces floating around still, but it’s like looking for teeth in the ashes of a fire. […] And then someone does the eulogy. They say something like: “Imagine how this little moth, Philodoria auromagnifica, lived its brief and precious life. Born into the flesh of a single kolea leaf, the plant upon which the destiny of its entire species depends. […] Imagine that it finds another one if its kind in the vast and unbounded air, in the undestroyable, uncontestable largeness of the world, and discovers the joy of life continuing on. How impossible it was that a creature like that should ever exist, how impossible it is that it will never come into existence again. How beautiful its life must have been to witness while it was allowed to live.”
At one point, Alison asks Linden, the leader of these sessions, how she chooses which losses to mourn. “‘I don’t know,’ Linden says finally, sighing. ‘I just try to keep it to three.’” Soon after this exchange, Something New offers one of the most arresting final chapters I have ever read, which I will not endeavor to describe. Instead, I will merely genuflect.
On the phone, Nora tells her father: “There are horses that fled the fire and had to run all the way to the beach, and now they’re trapped down there, with no fresh water to drink. Can you imagine what it’s like to be that thirsty when your body’s that big? It would be a thirst so big I can’t even imagine it.” But Alexandra Kleeman makes a radical choice: she spends a whole novel imagining a thirst that big, inviting readers to imagine alongside her. Something New Under the Sun is a eulogy, a ghost story, and an informed ode to the ways and forms of life destroyed by human appetites. Most of all, it is a masterpiece.
Tess Gunty is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Joyland, No Tokens, and elsewhere.
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