A young woman known to us only as “A” harbors this obsession. She lives with her roommate, “B,” who is a wannabe version of A, so much so that A goes to great lengths to prevent her boyfriend, “C,” from ever spending any time with B. A and B’s relationship is equal parts fanatical infatuation and competitive paranoia. They remind each other to eat or not eat, to stop invading each other’s spaces or not, to change the television channel, which is always on.
A walks great expanses through an endless and nameless suburbia meant for cars, condos, and businesses, whose buildings have no actual features to distinguish themselves from one another. Grocery and big box stores with their surrounding parking lots dominate the terrain of A, B, and C. Readers are given no dates and no place names, no governments and no cities — only brands and checkout lines. The shopping centers and the products sold within them are given more physical muscle and character than the characters themselves:
Every Wally’s had a similar feel inside, the interminable rows of smooth color that began to break apart as you got closer to them, dissolving into little squares of identical logos. But the stores had a special trick to them, an organizing concept based on years of statistical data about purchasing preferences, the drift habits of purposeless customers: they were designed to baffle. The most sought-after items — candy bars, sandwich meat, milk — were placed in the most inaccessible parts of the store, not next to one another, but in separate and distant locations that were rotated every one, two, or three weeks in accordance with an obscure schedule developed by top management. Because the things you wanted most were constantly on the move, you couldn’t trust muscle memory to guide you back to them.
The question of how to escape that which we buy drives this novel, which becomes almost a tribute to a dead world of Styrofoam and cereal mascots, but with the caveat that these things may not really be dead.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this eulogy is the strange admiration it generates in readers for our more connected present — that maybe, despite moral panics to the contrary, social media and smartphones and Kardashian Twitter feeds are not as bad as this mass-media, economic dystopia of post-Cold War capitalism. Technophobia rarely takes into account past horrors, yet we were pretty good at incinerating cities before nuclear weapons were developed, and we were also pretty good at feeling alone or dejected while Mark Zuckerberg was still in middle school.
In many ways, the world Kleeman has created is an anachronism, a particular extremity of late ’90s–early ’00s broadcast consumerism unburdened from the technological and demographic forces that would destroy it. Hers is a haunting landscape filled with the ghosts of a television-centric society that the internet has not yet punctured. In our world, a whole new generation has come of age that largely ignores television, more transfixed by Vines and Instagrams than game shows. For the young, commercial breaks are often an archaic annoyance in comparison to personalized content. But in Kleeman’s world, none of this has yet come to pass. Even A’s job, that of copyediting consumer magazines, is part of that pre-millennial pseudo-obsolescence. Yet A, B, and C seem like they are of today, even if it is a different today. The scenery is a possible alternate dimension of our current lives, one where television and suburbia still reign supreme.
A leads a tour for the reader through this infinite sprawl via her musings on franchise patterns, commercials, the degenerating behavior of B, her own insecurities, her eating patterns, and her hunger. A is especially preoccupied with the sensational stories on the local news, like the ones about liberators of packaged meat from megasupermarkets and the scourge of “Disappearing Dad Disorder,” a new phenomenon in which local dads vanish only to reappear months later with amnesia. The children of these missing dads are the only characters with full names. Kleeman uses the completeness of names and specific biographical information as an inverse indicator of prominence within the book. The human beings with whom we get to spend the most time as readers are the ones who do not have names at all, the fullness of their emotional lives making up for this scarcity. Her use of single initials for the names of the main three characters is less a technique to build mystery than a way to emphasize their relationships, as filtered through A’s paranoid mind.
At first, A’s observations and experiences seem as disconnected as shifting television channels, but her story and her thoughts begin to cohere when she makes a discovery. The Disappearing Dads, her local Wally’s, the Kandy Kakes she craves, and the game show C makes her watch that she despises are all the product of a single cult, a consumer-operated church called the New Christian Church of the Conjoined Eater. With its slogan “May We Eat As One,” the church seeks to liberate souls from the burden of having a body, to leave us ultimately formless and therefore free of pain and desire. The most central requirement of joining and advancing in the church is the expunging of personal memories, yet, once A joins the church, she cannot seem to shake the presence of B and C, even when they are not a central part of the narrative. The trio, this alphabetic sequence of characters, cannot be banished from her thoughts even when it could mean salvation.
Despite her drifting and her formlessness, A emerges as more than some nameless cipher for the reader. She is a seeker, a wanderer, and a student of her particular concrete suburbia. The reader willingly follows A throughout the novel, even into this cult, and then into oblivion.
Kleeman does not tell her readers what any of the main characters look like — only how much they might look like each other, or how they fit together. The characters are aware of their own untenability. A ceaselessly worries about her relationship with C, if he might like B better, if the fact that he loves a TV show she hates matters, if they are about to have a fight. A describes not being able to get a physical hold of C during sex, something which he likes to do while playing pornography on the television in the background. Descriptions of their relationship combine A’s emotional fears with her obsessive interest in the nature of bodies and fluids:
A mouth was a means into a person, but it also offered one of the neatest ways out. Whatever entered that slick passage immediately began pushing through to the other side, emerging unrecognizable and many steps removed from itself. A mouth glistened with saliva, ninety-eight percent water and two percent suspended particles, which made it slick, odorous, corrosive. In my saliva and my boyfriend’s rested enzymes that would break carbohydrates into sugars and fats as soon as food touched the inner walls of the oral cavity, read the biology textbook I used in high school, in a section titled “How Do You Eat Meat?” What this meant was: Even if C loved me, even if he cared for me, even if he saw me as an equal and wanted only the best for me in my life, when he kissed me a part of him worked blindly to undo my body. When I put my own mouth on him, the material in my body sized up the material in his, checked to see if it was food or something other, something indigestible that would never truly penetrate.
Kleeman illuminates a formless world with her remarkable talent for describing the qualities of light or taste or boredom with grace, humor, suspense, and even terror. Her prose brims with intelligence and precision. She uses description and wandering meditations on seemingly nonessential subject matter to push the borderless movement of the story. The sparseness of her writing pulls minute details into focus — including those about the narrator’s hunger or how annoying her roommate is or the fight she is about to have with her boyfriend. The thinness and lightness of Kleeman’s descriptions makes each episode both creep and float.
Kleeman’s novel easily draws comparisons to Don DeLillo’s critiques of neoliberal consumer culture as well as the eerier ventures of Thomas Pynchon, but it also seems to be taking up the mantle of dystopists such as J. G. Ballard and William Gibson. Like both of them, Kleeman embraces the corrupting elements in her fictional world. Ballard really did seem to love his highways and cars (and car crashes) as much as they provided fodder for his 20th-century horror show. Yet Kleeman’s dark manifestations of the worst consequences of brand loyalty and consumer habits have a more substantive interiority to them, a sense of gender and fear and emotion so often missing from the more detached and more overtly political works of canonical consumer critique.
Gibson famously suggested that “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The televised infomercial still reaches millions every day. Our past is still alive, is still very much part of our unrecognizable present. We are not evenly distributed. Amazon drones swarming the sky are no more apocalyptic than the never-ending and expanding strip malls that still dominate so much of our country, the same cement empires networked by franchise and corporate headquarters that govern You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. The consequences are less societal than they are personal. No product, technology, or philosophy is able to save A from her discomfort with her own body, not even the attempt to rid oneself of all physical form. A is trapped, by her gender, by her hunger, even by the things that she loves. The machine cannot be beaten, the television cannot be turned off, the strip mall cannot be replaced. Instead, we are left to decide what to eat, and what channel to watch while we are eating.
Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the author of the novel Echo of the Boom.