I FIRST HEARD about Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, on Instagram. A cool girl I follow had snapped a picture of the cover, and I knew from the font alone that I had to read it — thick serifed orange letters against a purple background with a smooth ’70s vibe. There is a barely perceptible pair of bony legs in the background, a hint of the novel’s obsession with what it means to have a body. “Is it true that we are more or less the same on the inside?” asks Kleeman as the novel begins. Her prose is as seductive as the book’s cover and title; her writing is fluid and cerebral. Kleeman has a gift for illuminating strangeness and beauty and the complexity of consciousness, a 21st-century Gertrude Stein. Like Stein, who studied psychology at Harvard under William James, Kleeman is interested in the intersections between poetry and cognitive science (she focused on this relationship while pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric at Berkeley before receiving her MFA in Fiction at Columbia). Her self-aware, unsatisfied narrator, A, lives with her roommate, B, who needs A more than A needs B. B is needy and not healthy; she asks A to prepare her snacks so she doesn’t get the “edible smell” on her hands. A’s boyfriend, C, is a jolly if aloof man who likes to watch endless TV, particularly the show Are You My Partner? Commercials play a big role in the story: surreal ads for inner- and outer-beauty products, and for a snack cake on which a Trix rabbit-like cat cannot ever seem to get his paws. Eventually, the world of ads merges into A’s reality, and A becomes part of a strange cult obsessed with the snack cakes, as she is asked to forget her previous life.
I was introduced to Kleeman first through images, then through her novel, and then in person. From following her on Instagram, I knew she had just returned from the south of France. We met for coffee in Brooklyn and discussed her writing, as well as her thoughts on TV, beauty, and food.
CLAIRE LUCHETTE: So, you recently returned from France, right?
ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN: Yes! It was great. I was doing a [writing] residency in the south. I was only with three other people, one of whom was divorced and clashing with his ex-wife about their kids, so he left, which left just me and this nice couple. The best part was that it was still teeming with life: lizards and bugs coming out of all the cracks. That is really comforting, because it makes you feel like if all the grocery stores shut down, and the food economy collapsed, there would still be stuff to eat.
What were you working on while you were there?
I was working on a short story for a collection that is coming out Halloween, 2016. I am excited, because my first short stories were all very surreal, and then last year I wrote one in which there was a person who had a first name. She also has a job, and she drinks coffee when she wants! It was a revelation: I could stuff all this detail in there and then take it out if I want, but I do not have to have control over every aspect of this universe.
Do you write stories in one go, or how do you usually approach them?
They usually happen all in one go. I weirdly begin with an idea of what my first scene will look like, and then I have a vision of the last scene, and it becomes an arduous process of working through the middle and figuring out how to get there. For one story, I knew I wanted to end with the main character seeing a huge pile of bloody nurses’ costumes and feeling a great sense of relief. Like: “Oh, exactly what I was looking for.”
Ever since I was young, when I watched a horror movie, the scenes would stick with me for a long time. I knew that if I were a person in a horror movie, I would find some place to crawl into and hide for 24 hours or two days or whatever. I would hope to make it through by becoming completely passive, so in this particular story, when she finds the bloody nurses’ costumes, she happens to be wearing a nurse costume and knows it will be good camouflage.
Writing the novel was really different, though. With a short story, you just have to make a little universe that lasts for however long: 10, 8, 15 pages. The plot and character fibers do not need to live a long life. For the novel, I knew I wanted to be more deeply embedded in the narrative than I was with short stories. In stories, I have a little experimental set-up, my plaything, and I can stand away and get lost in the process.
Did the character of A come to you fully formed, or did you need to piece her together?
Sometimes I think part of being a writer is that you kind of have to be no one. You have all these experiences, but some of them are contradictory. You are not a complete character on your own, but if you pull stuff out of yourself you can have a complete character. I took the part of me that was the most sensitive, and I asked what it would be like to be the most raw version of myself, in a world that is actually pushing in on me. I wanted to strip away some of the extraneous stuff, so I specifically didn’t give A a family. Otherwise, it would be too much information to handle.
You give such a full sense of what her life has been like, and how she navigates it, without any specific details, like family, as you mentioned. How did you avoid the thick passages of backstory and context of so many novels and still offer such a rich character?
I have always felt total blockage when I have tried to build a character with a full life. It just seemed like too much, maybe because I do not feel like one of those characters, myself. My defining moments would not make sense to anyone else. If anyone asks what my childhood was like, I would choose a small weird thing.
Well then, what small, weird thing would you talk about to give an idea of your childhood?
I spent a lot of time alone. My parents were professors and so were working hard at high-stress careers, and I’ve only recently realized that the most tumultuous times in my childhood lined up with when they were trying to get tenure. I didn’t really know that when I was a kid.
Anyway, I spent a lot of time crawling around on the ground. We lived in New Jersey, and we had this big empty unfinished basement with ugly short black carpeting. It seemed like this civilized, built space — but then the outside was always creeping into it. There were clumps of unidentifiable dirt and bugs that found their way in. I have always been interested in what the world we have built is like, and how it differs from the world in which we originated, biologically, and how they interact.
So tell me about your interest with food and hunger. Some of the novel’s most interesting passages center around eating. Why did you shape the narrative around these scenes?
A few years ago, I became very interested in eating. Maybe because I was in a graduate program and was supposed to be reading all the time, and the thing I did instead of read was eat. Coming to it from the perspective of having just read a bunch of texts, eating seemed extra weird and physical — all these weird textures, and the squishiness, lightness, flavors. Eating food was sensorarily defamiliarized at that time in my life. I enjoyed how I was supposedly striving for all these little abstract things I was suppose to want, but when hunger crept in, it was so simple: you knew what it was when you were feeling it. Except for the times when I didn’t eat, times when I was very stressed out or worried about other things, and then I would feel something come over my body and would not know what it was. Then later on, I would realize, “Oh, that was hunger, and for some reason you’re not recognizing it; that’s a major problem with your survivability!” [Laughs]
I was interested in my connection to this one well-formed, clear instinct and then I wondered what other desires I have that are analogous to hunger, but are instilled in me from the outside.
So, for example, I had not watched TV for many years, and then at some point, I realized I wasn’t doing anything to relax, so I started watching again. One of the first things I watched was The Bachelor. I was amazed that I could sit there and watch people’s emotions, whether faked or real, happening in front of me. It made me feel connected to the world, but not as a participant, rather as if I were a ghost or something. I loved how hooking up to TV at that time created these immediate feelings in my body, like excitement, admiration, desire, weirdness.
Is TV different from other forms of entertainment?
I think so, yeah. It is hard to read if you are tired, but you can watch a lot of TV if you are tired. TV seems to ask nothing of you, but it actually asks for a lot in terms of response — your body gives to it what it asks for, really quickly, and it can be intense.
So you were in a PhD program, yes?
Yes, I was in a PhD program. I majored in creative writing and cognitive science as an undergrad, and what I wanted to study in graduate school was how the brain processes language, especially in relation to experimental poetry. The texts people use when studying language and cognitive science are very controlled: they use the simplest sentences, and they monitor every word for its frequency in everyday use, so every sentence is supposed to be as common as another, and they are the most boring sentences — they can tell you nothing about what it is like to read something that really challenges you. If I finish that project, it will be in a different form, probably a looser and hopefully more readable form.
And then you worked on this novel while you were in Columbia’s MFA program. Let’s talk about the ending, without giving anything away. Do you think it is a hopeful ending?
One thing I was interested in is character change: sometimes I feel like I have not changed at all, as a person, but I really want to. I wanted to explore a character who could change completely —so A, for example, might in the beginning find repugnant some things that would be acceptable to her by the end. I think it is a happy ending; she has a new attitude and might do really well with it, but everything she might inhabit with her new attitude would be toxic to the person she used to be. The novel asks, are these things still a problem, if they no longer bother you?
When I conceived this novel, I was feeling hemmed in by my gender and by the number of things I felt I was supposed to do to care for myself as a person of that gender. We exist in a time when we have watched the number of self-improvement technologies proliferate exponentially. Lengthening your lashes was not something anyone felt they needed to do, and now it is just one of those things you have to decide to do or not to do. You have to take a stance on something that was completely irrelevant at some point before.
I was dismayed by how much time I was being asked to spend deciding about myself. Now I have accepted my tastes, and I know what I find ridiculous. I didn’t know I could reactivate the melanin in my skin cells!
That makes me think of the scenes in which these ridiculous ads expose A to all the problems she didn’t know she could solve about herself. Each commercial is really vivid; did you start to pay attention to weird ads when you started watching TV again?
Yes. Watching commercials made me daydream about other commercials, and it was like dreaming while I was awake. I find them really interesting, especially commercials that border on surreality, that begin normally and then have some weird aspect, like people with strange, extreme desires for stuff, that no person actually has, and they exist in a space where that much desire for a product is implausible, but also plausible, really serious and earnest at the same time. I find these things to be powerful, and I wanted to play with that power.
In what way do all of these developments in beauty and technology also make life better, so much so that we rationalize away the potentially toxic impacts they have on us?
Technology changes us. It changes our minds, and we become dependent on and addicted to it. My phone, for example — I always tell my boyfriend that after him, my phone is my best friend. [Laughs] I have feelings about it when it is away from me.
The novel is also about female relationships — how when two women become close, their personalities overlap, or they start to borrow each other’s personalities. Is that something you have experienced in your own life?
Totally. My boyfriend’s name is Alex, and I had a roommate situation with someone else who was also named Alex. I lived with her for a while, and she and I had a ton of overlap. It was not good. She is an amazing person, but we were really toxic for one another. When you enter into certain kinds of close friendships, you enter a sphere of comparison, and you might start doing things you don’t have to be doing.
Do you think personality is something that, when you’ve reached a certain point in life, it is fully formed and sculpted?
I don’t know. It seems like there are some things that never change, no matter how much you would like them to, but it also seems like there’s this horizon in the future of being old, about which no one I know can tell me anything or give me any information. I suspect it might be different there.