By Carly Taylor
I purchased Alexandra Kleeman’s novel, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” on a whim because a review on the back cover said, “Kleeman has written ‘Fight Club’ for girls.” If this comparison held up at all, I knew I would be delighted by the book. But from its first pages, I knew immediately that it was speaking to me on a different level than anything I’d ever encountered in literature. This book uniquely reflects the bizarre, almost ineffable facets of existing in a body, the unexplainable connectedness of events that unfold in life, and the fragility and mutability of our very conception of self. Kleeman boldly and compellingly suggests that the things we perceive that bind us to reality and to our place in the world are perhaps more malleable than we think. The protagonist “A” seeks to change herself into someone who can be happy in society, and loses herself along the way. I really could not comprehend how this book, Kleeman’s very first novel, achieved such heights, and so I reached out to Kleeman, who spoke with me about the making of this book and her life as a writer and teacher of writing. I was hoping she could shed light on how she went about exploring these amazing mind-body problems in her book, and maybe that would give me some idea of what it takes it write a book at all. Kleeman offered fascinating insights into the ideas she explores through her book and the mind of her protagonist, particularly how these ideas can be applied to writing and living.
Kleeman studied both creative writing and cognitive science as an undergraduate, and this has some bearing on the mind-body problems that she tackles in her novel. After taking a literature class about the ineffable, Kleeman became interested in what the mind allows us to see and the relationship between language and cognition. She worked in a lab that ran experiments with aphasia patients, researching if loss of language means a fundamental change in thought process, or if these things occur in separate systems. She notes, “I really believe that the body is part of our thinking apparatus. I don’t just believe it — I ran experiments on body cognition. When we think of or read the word for ‘hammer,’ the motor resources and the muscles in your hand are doing a little something. They’re modeling the body apparatus of the tool! The way we understand language is a lot more connected to the body than we think it is.”
These results supported her long-standing intuition of the connection between mind and body, and her trouble with the fact this connection is not consistently experienced. “I always felt like this seamless integration of my body and mind was the goal, and [that it] was something that seem[ed] to be promised to me by all these images of exercise, meditation or people who are behaving on TV as though they’re perfectly one with their bodies, but I’m always surprised by my body.” The character A spends a lot of time watching and thinking about TV, and she encounters many figures in advertisements, news and game shows who seem more empathetic and more real than she, as well as the people in her life. This aggravates her paranoia that her body is a foreign, mysterious entity that she needs to take control over and make one with her mind. Advertisements, from facial cream to probiotic yogurt, promise a direct link between the things we consume and what we become, a concept that drives the novel.
Kleeman’s novel brings out this idea that our consumption is always changing and shaping us and juxtaposes it with our fixed sense of self and continuity of experience. Her book asks whether the idea of an identity and self is a fact of reality, a desire we have, a goal to strive for, or all of these at once. We generally experience our identity as a fixed entity, yet we are dynamic organisms that are constantly open to being influenced by our environment, from what we eat to what we read. Kleeman, even as she’s writing, thinks about the influence everything has on her and by extension her project — where she writes, what she eats, what she reads. For this book, she enjoyed writing in Wendy’s or the coffee shops in Safeways. “I think there’s something nice about writing in a place where you aren’t expected to be writing and the way that you can kind of go ignored in a place like a grocery store or a fast food chain.”
I think this contributed to the sense of “anywhereness” that her book exudes and enables it to get at the heart of something messed up lurking below the surface of America, which arises at the intersection between ubiquitous consumerism and our inescapable susceptibility to influences as living, dynamic organisms.
We consume books and media like we consume food, and Kleeman is acutely aware that when she is reading while writing, “Anything could make a difference. The book you least expect is probably what is going to reroute your project.” While writing this novel, Kleeman was most surprised by how much she connected with the writings of medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum, who studies mystic women’s bodies, religiosity and its relationship to food. “There was just so much that I connected to on a really emotional level about ways in which female mystics would abstain from food as a way of separating themselves from the world and the evil in it, and the way that different patterns of eating reformed your connection to different parts of the world or the afterworld, whatever you want to call it.” The food she does and does not eat become the lynchpin for A aiming to purge herself of the badness and connect with the goodness in the world. “The belief that we can steer who we become and where we end up through eating is very alive now and maybe even more widespread, and our choices about what we eat become very much a part of how we see ourselves in the world and in capitalism.” From vegetarianism and veganism to fad diets and cleanses, we see so many instances of utilizing eating to take control of our lives and represent what we believe in, for ourselves and for the world. But under the surface of these actions, there lies a strange question for Kleeman — “Can you only eat the good part of the world?”
Kleeman sees a dark underside to the notion that we can shape ourselves and become “good” through consumption: “Some weirder facet of the American Dream is you can become anything you want, but you also can just become anything, even things you don’t want.” Her novel takes a terrifying turn as we watch a person, on the postmodern quest of shaping themselves into someone who is happy and satisfied in society, go missing, and not even realize it herself. Kleeman deals with the question, “If you were unhappy in your life and in society, and you change into the person who could be happy in your life and in society, would that be a completely different person experiencing that feeling? Would you actually satisfy the first unhappy person or not?”
From these thoughts, the image that sparked Kleeman’s novel was born. “The very first thing I thought of was this image of a person walking around a sphere and time is passing, and by the time they come back to the same point, they’re no longer the same person.” More than many writers she knows, Kleeman likes to start from an abstract idea or feeling and create characters, situations and products to capture them, rather than beginning from a storyline. Her writing mindset is mostly, “I’m going to play this novel like a video game. I situate myself, I know what’s around me, and then I try always taking the weirder turn of the two turns.”
This speaks absolutely to the adventure that is reading this novel. This book begins so rooted in the mundane parts of life that it possesses a certain eeriness I previously thought was inarticulable. Kleeman says, “I was motivated to write about so many of the things that I felt were part of my life, but were on the fringes, the periphery of what was supposed to belong in a book.” As the novel progresses, it travels so radically far away from where it began in what is so believable. This is why the novel terrified me — we watch A go missing, and yet we are with her every step of the way; we feel like we ourselves have gone missing.
A, like her creator, is very attuned to the bizarre occurrences that unfold everywhere in her nondescript suburb and on TV. The details she picks up on converge around her beautifully and make us think more deeply about the connections we see in our world. “This sense that things are connected in the world is both objectively true in the world a lot of the time and also a very powerful emotional and psychological need. I want to build these worlds that sort of reflect the interconnectedness that I think I see and the weird clusters of connections you stumble on in real life,” Kleeman says. She has a vivid imagination and eye for weaving together fiction that is Vonnegut-esque, but Kleeman sees her creation of connected worlds still as a pale reflection of what happens in real life: “The connections you see in the real world are so much more unexpected than the ones that exist in fiction, so I try to just capture that feeling.”
Through learning how this book came to be, I hoped I would know something more about what it takes to be writer. But as Kleeman hilariously pointed out during our conversation, “We understand so little about what it takes to write a book. It’s only when a book comes out that we try to figure out, oh, what did it take to make this one? Maybe those are the rules.” Kleeman is now working on her second novel, which she enigmatically tells me is about a group of struggling filmmakers in Los Angeles and “fake water,” and in writing this, she says, she has completely discarded her own rules by which she wrote her first novel. “In this book I’m writing now, I feel like a completely different person. I know where I want to get to, and I did a detailed outline of the first half of the book, and I began writing it like every chapter has three sections and nine pages each in it. It seems very mathematical and sort of arbitrary. It’s so different from the muddle I was in!” Kleeman sees this process of “shaking things up” as a reflection of dynamism inherent in the world and thus necessary for successful writing. Like Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice— ” Even if Kleeman went back to write in same Safeway coffee shop, the world has changed and she has changed, and so she would not be able to write the same way. Since we can’t repeat our successes even if we want to, we might as well embrace this and strive to change our process deliberately.
Kleeman teaches creative writing at the New School in New York and writes fiction professionally, but I am still a freshman with less clue what I want to do now than I did at the beginning of the year. I feel the pressure to commit to something; perhaps I’ll never even have the hope to be any good at it. But Kleeman doesn’t think this is the case at all — she sees a lot more flexibility and mobility in life than what the neoliberal workplace reflects, especially when it comes to writing. “You can be working on a book when it doesn’t look to the outside world like you’re working on a book. If you’re just noticing things and picking them up, that’s a huge part of the labor. I really feel that if you feel in yourself that you want to write, you should nurse that feeling and believe in it, and give yourself room to work on it even when you’re ostensibly doing something else.” Kleeman’s novel showed me that because we are so open to transformation by our environment, we are a lot more connected to everything else than we think. It is an empowering revelation to know that we are always changing whether we want to or not, we cannot become one thing forever, and we can become anything at anytime.
Contact Carly Taylor at carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu.