Alexandra Kleeman has written the scariest and funniest book about body image. It’s also about consumer culture and our obsessions with “reality” television. You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine is about so many strange and often disturbing things, but it’s actually about how you feel. Yes, you, inside of your body and inside of your own perception. We know that sounds heavy, but once Kleeman draws the curtain and you view the eerily familiar world she’s created, you’re going to want to browse around for a bit.
You could call it horror, but that’s because there’s a cult that worships the purification of diet plans. You could call it dystopic, but that’s only because there’s a spat of strange disappearances and ethically-bankrupt reality shows ruling the psyches of the land. And you could call it suspense, but that’s only because our main character, a young woman known simply as A who works as a copy editor and leads an otherwise unremarkable life, is growing ever more paranoid that her seemingly disturbed roommate, B, is slowly morphing into her twin. You could call it romance, but A can’t mine much sentimentality or even a thoughtful bit of advice from her boyfriend, an aloof gent known as C, as he shrugs off her panic over B’s mimicry.
Oh, and maybe there’s a romance of unrequited love, because A certainly starts coveting an extraordinary, highly modified, lab-wrought, shrink-wrapped dessert known as “Kandy Kakes.” Does she have to join the cult, though, just to get a taste?
Here’s the scary part: you’ll feel like you’ve been in this world before. You’ll feel as though these unconscious thoughts—about food, about your face, about your inner-workings—have raced through your nervous brain before. People have started talking about “21st Century Literature,” something more agile, more strange, adapted to a post-social-media existence and ever-more cerebral when it comes to existential quandaries. We think Kleeman’s debut presents a prime example.
Paste: Parts of this book reminded me of John Carpenter’s They Live in terms of a narrative that implored me to drop scales from my own eyes, in a way. What did you want to instill in your readers with this story? ?
Kleeman: I definitely wanted to make people really feel their modern contemporary world differently, to feel it as a deformative pressure. Deformation is not necessarily bad. You love someone…and they deform you. They talk to you in a certain way and ask you certain questions and respond to your questions differently and they become different. But, to actually notice the changes that are happening within the world that you live in, daily, and believing in the fixity of the person you see every day in the mirror who is pretty much the same, day after day… You know, now that you mention They Live, I’ve never seen it all the way through but there was a period, years ago, that I feel every other time I was near a television, which wasn’t often, [They Live] was showing… I remember the alien faces and the billboard and the guy wearing the sunglasses and I remember thinking, those are really cool sunglasses! I wish I had a pair. [Laughs]. That’s the complete opposite message and the wrong takeaway …
Paste: The trickiest exercise in constructing this story seemed to be coating surrealism with believability. Joke products that a reader could conceivably find one day on the shelf of a store, or the joke-stores you erected as stand-ins for our real world modern megastores. How did you sculpt this sincere, yet still satirical surrealism? ?
Kleeman: It was tough to find the DNA for this book. A lot of the surreal writing that I love is really dreamlike. Like Murakami. He uses the real world and its pretty recognizable, but its populated by these strange visitors or it has these underground spaces. I was always really compelled by that. I thought that the reality we live in actually has some very strange elements to it, so I could work on converting those into a visible world. And I wasn’t trying to write this book at a desk or in a library but out, sitting in the parking lots of a Target at 1 a.m., seeing this big, empty, dark, occasionally populated space, seeing people go in and imagining what they could be there for.
Paste: This book makes the reader hyper-aware of their own body. As they read about transformations or about commercials for cosmetics, they see their own arm, their face. You get us thinking about our organs.
Kleeman: You have so many goals when you’re writing something. One of them for me was to bring into focus a lot of the daily aspects of having a body that we totally gloss over. It’s easy to make them transparent, but it’s really very strange, you know?
Paste: To have, as you write in the book at one point: a responsibility to your body, not even in a survival sense but truly in a cosmetic sense.
Kleeman: Yes, totally. That has much to do with why I wanted to make this novel in the first-person, because I feel like there’s something about hearing the pronoun “I” that compels you through, instantly. “I” is the word everyone uses to refer to themselves. On the one hand it points to a specific person but its also this blank space that you can insert yourself into, it’s a chute into empathy. I thought of it as a type of hypnosis; telling someone what they’re doing down to the most minute detail. What you pick up with your hand, what do you see, what does it feel like, what does it smell like or taste like, and trying to make that as vivid as possible. ??
Paste: One side plot involves our main character, A, feeling this steadily building panic that her seemingly unstable roommate, B, is actively reforming her body’s appearance, its physical shape, to mimic A, to even become her twin. That’s no spoiler. But then A’s boyfriend comforts her with this nonchalant shrug, suggesting she start thinking of herself as a franchise, to consider spreading versions of herself around… That, along with at least half a dozen other moments, made this feel like you were touring the horror genre.?
Kleeman: There’s a logic in the horror genre about doubling. Like, if doubling happens, that means bad things for you. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the woman who resembles the woman who came before her is doomed to die. ‘If you meet your double in the road, kill him,’ I think is what he said.
I wanted to put that logic into conversations with corporate logic, now, which is: the more the better! The more outlets you have, the more people you reach, the more people you can turn into customers. In one sense, it’s that sort of logic, too, that drives someone like Kim Kardashian, putting her unique image and style out there for the purpose of having it captured and replicated by others so that they can become more like her. She’s spread all over the world by allowing her specificity to become co-opted.
Paste: Come to think of it, her Selfie book would fit flawlessly into Body Like Mine’s seemingly surreal world. ?
Kleeman: Yeah, it would! I wish I had thought of that. I think that it would be a great fictional idea.
Paste: What a reality we live in…
Kleeman: Yeah. I mean, when you can find some tutorials for taking better selfies online? Whatever their faces look like, they tend to look mostly the same because they’re shot from above so there are tiny chins with big eyes. There’s something new going on now. We’re relating to our own images of ourselves differently and there’s a way that, read by our earlier logic of what an individual is supposed to be like, it might be a little horrific, I think.
Paste: But people can read this book and find myriad genres, not just horror. By creating joke products or portraying the surrealism of corporate retail outlets or unpacking the unconscious workings of our desire for food or anxieties about our bodies, that’s dipping into social commentary, existentialism, even satire. It all comes back to the self.
Kleeman: What I wanted to talk about was: it’s not just conflicts within the self that drives us, it’s that we’re so open and porous to the environment, people and things presented to us. You can take them all on fully or take them on partially, but it all enters you. You can have conflicts within yourself that don’t actually originate from yourself but come from what you take on from your surroundings. We’re constantly being molded and formed and re-sculpted by what’s around us and if you start zooming in on that and paying attention to the little changes and what you want on a daily basis, then, you consider the question: are you feeling differently about yourself during the act of seeing a commercial? Those parts make the book really funny, somehow. So, these things build and build as very little changes and you become a different person through them.
Paste: That sounds scary. If this is a horror novel, what’s the monster?
Kleeman: Hmmm! Yeah… That’s a good question. First, the book is like a monster movie because of the corporate element, but on a second look it does seem more like a vampire flick because this fear, ultimately, of being so transformed by what you do that you become someone who would be repulsive to you in the past.
Paste: A is in a store trying to find something she really doesn’t need. She finally blurts: “I want something that makes me feel like myself, again,” and she probably doesn’t know exactly what she means by that, even if she feels it…?
Kleeman: Right, she doesn’t know what it means, but she knows she’s supposed to want it. And, then, if you don’t know what you’re like, but you want so much to feel like yourself, what are you going to aim at? I see [the ending] as like the moment before a monster’s rampage. [A]’s decided that whatever it takes, she’s going to be someone, aggressively, in the world. She doesn’t know who that is, but she’s ready to start doing it and kind of bending people to her world the way B might have, earlier in the book.
Paste: That’s a trip! Did you ever take A too far down any rabbit holes to the point where you scared yourself, as you were writing it?
Kleeman: Well, I actually made myself laugh a lot, which is part of how I kept it going. I definitely felt intense pressure while I was writing it to isolate myself. I wanted to get the character lost and I wanted to send her down an alleyway that I had never been down and that I was very afraid of. I spent a lot of times alone, going out only at night and trying to make my regular life as strange as possible, which…was definitely not good [Laughs]. Thankfully, I came out the other side.