SEPTEMBER 13, 2016
The much-rehearsed contention that art improves on nature, rooted in classical and neoclassical aesthetics, takes a new and intriguing form in Alexandra Kleeman’s debut story collection. Here, a man adopts a wild youth and tries to drive the savagery out of him through the art of dance. A father attempts to build a house free of weather, only to learn that what is controlled finds new systems of chaos. Lobsters turn on humans in a gory, beachside massacre. Intimations casts a philosophical eye on the short story; collections are rarely so cerebrally interlinked, with ideas — instead of character, setting, voice — as the driving connection between stories. Kleeman constantly references Platonic form: as an obstacle, a flaw, a desire for purity and a grasping to understand difference. What, these stories make us ask, is an ideal form? How can one transcend the body, and what is the role of art in this transcendence? What is natural, in the throes of environments marked by commodity and capital? Can one remain independent, autonomous when introduced to the new demands of a relationship, of being two, whether as a lover or a mother? “But he was taking up so much space in me now,” one narrator bemoans. In another story, a new mother inhabits her own wrong form; looking much younger than her actual age, she is “always being mistaken for a foreigner.” Without her bestowing of constant speech upon the child, she realizes that “her daughter would essentially remain an animal.” This new being offers up a blank slate, one where “she could still attach herself to a whole life, pure and complete, in the form of her innocent, silent daughter.”
On the one hand, these characters hunger for an existence unmarked by culture, by language, one almost primitive. Yet, on the other, they have a drive toward bodily transcendence, an almost divine refinement. The dialectic navigating these two desires is where Kleeman is savviest. “The Dancing-Master” exposes the narrator’s clear motive to shape his pupil (who seems, as the story progresses, more and more like a captive) into a refined being through the form of dance. After taking on a wild boy — Victor Tallon — who has wandered into town, the dancing-master organizes an event to demonstrate to the populace his pupil’s progress and acculturation. There, in the midst of the choreography, Victor “bends before a bramble of eyes convened to witness the degree to which bodily form may supplant a long history of mental formlessness.” However, appearance, and the performance, isn’t the master’s only concern; he seeks an ideal, a dance that is refined enough to dignify even the most savage of creatures. Much to his disappointment, Victor — appearing more animal than human — is fixated on his chew toys, and though he mimes the steps, he is only able to maintain his concentration by mouthing small lozenges while he dances, disgusting his tutor. “By starving themselves of ready satisfactions,” the master declares of his students, “they stir their appetite for finer substance.”
His tutelage is brilliantly tedious and self-indulgent: “Once, I performed an exquisite series of balancés for his benefit, to which he responded by gnawing on my headpiece while I was occupied.” What becomes most charming is the grand delusion in his belief that he can imbue the boy with grace. “There is no other like you,” he says to the boy. “No other that may demonstrate to the world the civilizing power of art.” Even when Victor fails, his master holds on to his belief in art. Describing a difficult future ahead, full of people who will “strive to destroy and slander our accomplishments,” the master tells him that “you will always be my garden: a shard of wildness bent into order, a geometric humility carved into the world, and adding to its beauty.” But such belief in his system, in the transformative power of dance, is challenged by a local philosopher, Portesquieu: “Portesquieu would claim that this is impossible, that a body cultivated in the wild assumes the essence of wildness, turns swampy and will not admit of the growth of more refined habits.” The performance begins successfully — “It is as I imagined” — the master observes with glee, but ultimately, the philosopher is right. It ends tragically, as an act of crude, animalistic violence occurs mid-dance for all his peers to witness.
The master’s sense of control, however unreliable, stands out in a collection whose stories so frequently begin with narrators thrown into unusual circumstances outside of their own control. Often, these characters are women, and often, they are in the control of men. The first story, “Fairy Tale,” presents a narrator in a room full of men she doesn’t know claiming to be her fiancés, her boyfriends, her lovers. She is forced to choose one, but she makes the wrong decision; the man she chooses at random reveals that, though he does indeed love her, he has been sent to kill her.
An abstract danger, fear, and strangeness underlies almost every male character in this book. This abstraction is not because the fear isn’t warranted — the man wanting to kill the woman who has chosen him, a hotel employee leading a woman on a dangerous motorbike journey away from her fiancé in a foreign country — but because it comes without motive. Random acts of aggression — verbal and physical — occur time and time again. Women are alienated from their surroundings, being forced into relationships of which they don’t know the origins, only to find that the narratives are being dictated to them by men who seem to appear from nowhere. The women do not often seem to be responsible for being placed in these eerie situations, and how they get out of them also lacks motive. In the title story, a woman finds herself with an odd, aloof man in a room with no exits. Forced into miming the proper roles of a relationship with him, she ends up being handed a baby, for which she is then responsible. In “Fake Blood,” the narrator arrives to a normal party dressed in costume, only to find that the guests are being murdered, and, again, there is no way out of the building. The inability to escape begins to act as a type of deus ex machina — our characters don’t decide to stay in one place; they are made to.
These women are so often acted upon — “And as he leaned in to kiss me, my eye saw his open mouth grow larger and larger until it seemed it could swallow me whole”; men who “claimed to have feelings not exactly for me, but at me” — that their lack of control recalls the lack of aesthetic control seen with Victor. The lack of action allows for an intense dramatic interiority throughout the stories. Drawn-out sections of summary expose the fascinating and unusual inner lives of the narrators. Almost all of the women are interested in taxonomy and are marked by a genuine curiosity, a desire to uncover appearances to get at what lies beneath. “Why these things and not others?” the narrator asks of her surroundings on the very first page. They piece together their own existence in the world, on the page itself.
While hesitation and indecision are consistent themes, when mixed with the fabulist, surreal terms of many of the settings, the stories risk seeming whimsically thin, willfully strange. Kleeman’s clear ability to conjure the bizarre along with her obvious intellect can obscure her craft at times, as in “Hylomorphosis” (drawing from Aristotle’s theory, hylomorphism, that being is made of matter and form). The story offers sections of proofs for the existence of angels, and their appearance is imagined vividly — smart, in theory, as it elaborates the obsession with form, yet the language appears gestural and indulgent.
When Kleeman’s gift for delving into other worlds merges with characters marked by action, however, the stories excel, as in the final story in the collection, “You, Disappearing.” Among the deluge of apocalyptic stories in contemporary fiction, this one is exceptional in its vision. This apocalypse is a “polite and quirky,” one that works slowly through the disappearance of objects, pets, and people, and its form — second-person — is almost necessitated, as the narrator writes to a man she has left behind, hoping to preempt the inevitable disappearing by fleeing instead. “I didn’t want to be around when you forgot me,” she explains. The address to a specific you has the effect of filling in a memory, as memories, too, are quietly vanishing. This story refreshingly begins with a character making a decision: after losing her cat, she is supposed to follow emergency procedure which, in this case, is dialing a hotline number for the Bureau of Disappearances, to report the “sudden absence of an animal.” Instead, though, she dials her ex, an apparently frequent habit. “But recently I hadn’t been allowing myself any callbacks,” she writes. “I was getting more afraid of the day when you wouldn’t pick up.” A significant fear in any relationship, but even more striking when one may literally cease to exist, and, of course, the second person acts as an epistle of persistence written by someone whose world is shrinking piece by piece. “I’m still here” resounds in each word. Surrounded by seagulls on the pier in Chicago, the narrator approaches the abandoned Ferris wheel, attempting to make the stationary red chairs swing by herself — a terribly beautiful and lonesome image: “They were made to survive, even in a fading world that was unthinking itself faster than we could fill it back up with our trash.”
The story ends describing a woman in Lincoln, Nebraska, who has made a business from the apocalypse’s new deficit. Through the medium of her well, she communicates with “the other side,” so that lost loved ones can whisper up to those still existing. Only, though, she can hear the messages:
She wished we could hear their voices as she did, how happy they are, how they miss us. She said that everything that disappeared from our side went over to theirs, where they kept living normal lives, waiting for the things still lingering with us to join them, and make the world whole once more.
So ends Intimations, with what may be the Nebraska woman’s predatory or delusional hope for a world that can be made whole, a nature that can, indeed, be improved on. Yet its suggestiveness survives without cynicism, as if saying that the world was once whole isn’t so ludicrous after all. It’s hard to know quite how to read it, but there is pleasure in that difficulty. In another story, a character feels “that all her life she would be moving from positions of perceived danger to positions of perceived safety without ever knowing which impressions were correct.” These stories tell us that we’re at the mercy of these impressions, even though we may try to control our danger, our safety. Kleeman thrives in this space between.