by Jane Gayduk
Sitting beside a lager the size of her head and an equally large coffee cup, Alexandra Kleeman spoke slowly and deliberately, describing things in their most biological form — an ode, perhaps, to her academic background in science. Her CV reads like that of a tenured professor, but after nearly a decade of non-stop education, teaching jobs, and loads of accolades, Kleeman is finally ready to unleash something that is strictly her own. Her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which arrives on August 25th — and has already received acclaim from The Paris Review, Publishers Weekly and Awl pal Emily Gould — is a story about a nameless character, “A,” who loses herself both literally and figuratively, much to the horror of no one, in a town where people disappear with amazing regularity. Over drinks, we talked about gender dynamics, the role of advertising, and how difficult it is to write something worth reading.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, by Alexandra Kleeman, will be published August 25th. You can buy it wherever capitalism allows you to obtain books:
You said in a previous profile that “sometimes you go for weeks without writing successfully and you don’t feel like a writer anymore.” How do you get over that slump?
A lot of the time you don’t get over it, so when something comes out, whether it’s an article or a short story or the final novel, I often read it over and I’m like, “Wow, this reads like it was written kind of in order by someone who was just sitting at a computer and thinking.” But there was really so much angst behind it and so much lost time where maybe the other conditions are right. Like, you’re awake and you’re alert and you’re in a good mood and you can write that first part of the scene that you had in mind, but then you hit this impassable wall, where it’s like what I thought should happen next is not good enough to happen next — it doesn’t do everything I hoped it would, now I’ve written negative words, I’ve gone backwards, and I have to figure out how to write the better thing which I couldn’t figure out after thinking about it for weeks. There’s a lot of that. But the best thing that’s developed in the last couple years when I’ve been working is I’ve just experienced that panic contour so many times that I know in the end I will find it. And it might be one day or two days three weeks of trying to work things out, but I will find my way through the narrative problem into something that I think makes the story better — good enough.
How did you to get to this point of relative serenity?
That’s developed over time. Part of it is just trial and error. You’ve found that after struggling it did ultimately result in something. It lets you accept the struggle as just a natural part of the process. And the other thing is I’m just more patient with myself now, because I know also that when you push down on the gas pedal you get this burst of adrenaline and urgency and anxiety. That can help, but more often it’s just a distraction. It’s better to wait and consider and don’t feel bad about things you have to delete because you don’t know how many deleted pages there are in your favorite books.
What’s it like for you as young writer in the current publishing landscape? Is it hard to get your work out there?
I think that it’s hard because MFA programs are expanding so much and they’re producing so many people with degrees and manuscripts in fairy polished condition, so there’s this bottle-necking thing that happens. On the other hand, maybe it’s partially ineffective [in NY], but you’ve got a really great tight-knit literary community and when someone releases a book, you hear about it — it feels like something is happening. It feels exciting and supportive. I don’t know what it means in reality, but when you do get a book out there, I think there’s at least a particular group of readers who are really excited to get at it.
Why did you decide to pursue a PhD on top of extensive schooling and an MFA?
Both my parents are professors and I never really saw people do any other jobs, so I didn’t really know how to want a different kind of job. Once I got into school, I had a lot of interests I felt I could be emotionally committed to — and that I was emotionally committed to. When I was in my last year of college, I made a deal with myself that to do everything I wanted to do I’d have to take two paths, and have to do one first, then the other. So I told myself I’d do the PhD, then before writing my dissertation I’d do an MFA and finish my novel in that time period, then go back to the other thing. But it’s proven a lot harder than I thought to switch — especially because when you write fiction, the more you know, in some way, the more flattened out and narrow your story becomes. You end up writing the thing that you could think of at the beginning, and that’s rarely the best thing you could think of. So I try to go in now thinking of a problem that really moves me and trying to find my less automatic, reflexive solution to it.
In the novel, I noticed a lot of gender dynamics at play. For instance, it seems like most of the men refuse to confront any problems, choosing instead to subvert or run away.
It is based a little on personal experience. I find that men in general are much less conditioned to look self-reflexively at themselves and search for problems that need to be fixed, and I feel like women are trained in the idea of self-improvement and in figuring out the exact ratio of blame that she should accept, or taking on [blame] to save face or something. So I wanted to create a dynamic like that too. I understand, though, that a problem doesn’t exist unless you believe it does, especially for really subjective issues and you could go through life very happily or more happily like that.
Throughout the novel, every time A [the narrator] comes to C [her boyfriend] with a problem, his first instinct is to invalidate everything she feels.
So I’ve talked about this with some people, but is C a good boyfriend or a bad boyfriend? For me, it’s really hard to tell. Obviously he’s wrong for [A] but he is trying to do something. He’s not like a passive drone but maybe the heart of it is that relationships with people are mostly deforming — even though the ideal relationship as we talk about it is, you’re exactly you and they’re exactly them and they respect who you are and you respect who they are. But just naturally by being with someone, what you do is a little bit modified, and modified more and more if you’re with a person who is strongly themselves. So instead of us giving a value to how C is, I just say he’s always working to shape her into another peaceable citizen, like himself, which is what he thinks is right. And for her, that’s a total betrayal of how she relates to the world.
Also, all the men of the Conjoined Eaters Church are described as fleshy, while the women are bone thin. It’s as if the women are constantly wanting of something and all the men are complacent.
To the culture in the Conjoined Eaters Church, maybe no one thrives in it, but men can continue to dwell in it and women are pushed out. It disagrees with their bodies more than it does with the dominant bodies.
And I was going to add about the earlier question: It’s like the difference between Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti. They’re both about people, approximately the same age, finding their way through life, but in Ben Lerner’s book, all the humor comes from how, when faced with a situation that would make him reconsider who he is, he decides to just fumble and lie his way through it and totally fudge what he actually believes. It’s funny and it’s a different perspective on the challenges that a man of that age could face.
In Sheila Heti, a lot of the challenges are conceptual and they’re thought-based: They’re figuring out how you should be, what kind of decisions you should make as a woman artist of your time and period and age, and reflecting on them almost until it becomes impossible to do them. I think [women are] just trained to think of ourselves differently.
What was the research process like for this novel? Did you look at cult mentalities? Eating disorders?
I didn’t research eating disorders so much as I actually read a lot of things on medieval society and medieval religious society, especially the role of female Christian mystics in the church. They had really, really interesting eating habits that you could say looked like anorexia because it was often this modification of food intake and things like that. But more than being worried about how their body looked, they’re modifying their relationship to the spirit world by eating less. So as they reduce more aesthetically, they’re showing their distance from the cares and pleasures of the world.
That has hints of Buddhism.
Yeah, like a very plain way to live. It was also like eating for meaning rather than eating for all the things that we eat for nowadays: nutrition, pleasure, shaping, sculpting. So I was really interested in that and in creating a cult that thought about food in a similarly spiritual way — but in a way that’s more twisted and twerked into a version of the way we [think of food] as a dominant culture.
I read some great books on the history of food processing and nutrition in America. There’s this great one called Fear of Food that talks about different foods that have become scapegoats for the health problems of the nation and different foods have been the saviors, like I guess yogurt is back now.
I read a lot of reactions to your novel where people warned readers that they may never again want to eat an orange. I actually went to a grocery store halfway through reading the novel with an insatiable craving for oranges.
I was surprised that people reacted that way too. I tried to make oranges strange, but I think they already are strange — not like anything new is being added there. The fact that they’re semi-living beings and have got this whole network of fibers and connectors and vessels actually makes them better food, because they’re living things and you’re a living thing, so they’re commensurable, but I guess I can understand. As a culture, we really like our food passive.
Yeah out of all the things that grossed me out in your novel, oranges did not make the list.
I feel like things are weirder in our food production chain than I can even make up. I wouldn’t invent pink slime, but pink slime exists: It’s a non-fictional entity. Like that stuff grosses me out so much I couldn’t make it up.
Food, advertisements and commercials are a huge topic in your novel. What role do you think advertising has come to play in our culture?
I’ve come at advertising after a period of having boycotted television for several years; up until 2011 or something I never had a TV in my house. And when I came at advertisements from not having seen them for a while, they seemed extra surreal to me. They’re these little pockets of weirdness in a programming world that’s otherwise pretty literal all the time — pretty realistic — but then suddenly you get these characters who so fervently believe in the power of a certain product, they’re so fervently wanting to fix this one problem. You have these weird extreme emotions like jealousies and affections for things that no normal person would, so I find them really interesting and almost beautiful in that way, like surrealist films. You can feel how much money goes into commercials by how swiftly they act on your mind. And they’ve got like a hypnotic quality to the way they present their products. I can feel myself taking on a desire for that thing, or at least like feeling the desire they want me to feel, when I see a beautifully done eye, or make up, or the softness of some cotton fabric bouncing up and down. You want it on this bodily level even though mentally you don’t need that thing at all and you’re a little bit confused about why you’re watching it. So it’s an amazing art form when you look at it.
“Art form” is an interesting way to think of it.
It’s not art, but it borrows a lot from art, and I think the level on which it affects you emotionally is often a similar plane to how you feel drawn in by a sculpture and the texture of a painting or color. They’re making use of all the emotional, sensory things to get you involved. It’s also — in the time in which we live now, we have ideas about the circumstances art should be made in and how it should be captured, packaged and presented, and part of the work of those production mechanisms is to separate art from advertising and popular film. But in the days of Michelangelo or whatever, art could be bankrolled by large organizations for a public or unifying purpose, so I think that Blockbuster movies could be like the cathedrals of now. And you don’t have to love them, but you have to respect how much energy has gone into trying to make them immediately appealing to you.