You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of Intimations, a short story collection, and the novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, which was awarded the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. In 2020, she was awarded the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize.
Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Conjunctions, and Guernica, among others, and other writing has appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, VOGUE, Tin House, n+1, and The Guardian. Her work has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf, Djerassi, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Headlands Center for the Arts.
Born in 1986 in Berkeley, California, she was raised in Colorado and lives in Staten Island with her husband, the writer Alex Gilvarry. She is an Assistant Professor at the New School and her second novel, Something New Under the Sun, is forthcoming from Hogarth Press.
I opened the refrigerator and saw nothing but a pile of stripped oranges, a pyramid of them, all the pale yellow color of rind. They would be so easy to eat—pre- peeled, unarmored. The little gouges in their rinds matched the diameter of B’s fingernails exactly.
But for some reason oranges now filled me with dread. I had never noticed it before the pamphlet had pointed it out, but there was something dark about oranges, seeded through their sweet, watery flesh like a poison.
With a product like Kandy Kakes, the ingredients are spelled out for you on the wrapper—every part accounted for, its caloric and nutritional content tabulated. But what sorts of ingredients went into a piece of fruit? An orange wasn’t a type of food so much as another entity, looking out for its own interests, secretive and sealed, hiding its insides from the outside world.
I looked around for the peels, but they were all gone, vanished down B’s throat.
–Excerpt from You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (HarperCollins)
CORINNE GOULD: Your writing has been compared to giants such as George Saunders, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon, whose works interrogate capitalism and consumption. I can see a strong comparison, and yet one of the most striking facets of You Too Can Have a Body like Mine is the undeniably female experience you capture. In understanding her own body and its evolution, our narrator, A, says:
“A woman’s body never really belongs to herself….a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. I had kept myself free of these things only through clumsy accident and luck. At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it.”
What considerations did you have as you crafted portrait of the female experience, and what are your hopes for connecting with a male audience?
ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN: I feel like there’s been an ongoing conversation about how women write differently from men, how they think differently, perceive differently, reason differently—this is sometimes in the service of creating a space of authority from which women can speak, but I think it can inadvertently marginalize women, exoticize their experience and offer male audiences a way out of engaging with the work. Personally, I’ve never felt especially feminine internally, and it’s only when I’m asked to relate my way of being to one category or another that I can see the patchwork of traits within me as a gendered patchwork. What I wanted to do in the novel, though, was to create a portrait of the female experience in terms of the pressures and compulsions hefted on a woman by the outside world—the pressure to keep yourself in mint condition, to improve on yourself, to please, to check yourself continuously for error. We’re growing toward some smooth, faceless form, like an egg. However different each of our internal experiences of womanhood might be, I believe that this basic tension is shared. We define ourselves in relation to this pressure: we internalize it, or orient ourselves against or aslant.
At the same time, I think of our bodies as complex empathy machines for modeling the experiences of others—and literature is one of the most effective means for transmitting the perspective of one person to another. I’m thinking of one of my favorite novels, The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett, where the narrator convinces you for a while that he is a small, luminous thing trapped in a jar, lighting up a menu outside a pub. He makes you feel viscerally the boredom, the bodily stiffness, the—it’s a grand feat of empathy, made possible by the openness of the first-person “I.” I believe that empathy makes male and female experiences commensurable, and I think a male audience has the hardware to identify with the book in the same way as a female reader might. I’m hoping that a male reader can step into the blank space of the “I” and feel the pressures closing in on my narrator as if they were their own.
CG: One of the things that is so arresting about your novel is the absolute strangeness of the story world. Literary dystopia is now ubiquitous among American bestsellers, making the genre crowded and stale. One of the things that sets You Too Can Have a Body like Mine apart is the emphasis on internal and relational conflict. Rather than an oppressive government serving as the villainous entity, television commercials for Kandy Kakes, celebrity-endorsed fliers for veal cutlets, and the enticing pamphlets of the Church of the Conjoined Eaters cult draw the characters into their habitual destruction (seemingly) by their own volition. Can you speak to what it means for the damaging and cyclical behaviors to be products of choice?
AK: I think it’s interesting that so many dystopian novels put a governmental entity at the center of the problem—it seems like an almost nostalgic fear, the stuff of classic post-war dystopias like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. They’re clear, authoritarian, and never as slippery as I feel a real dystopia would be. In this novel I wanted to depict a decentralized dystopia, a dystopia of choice that arises from being forced to choose between two inadequate options.
Choice is not the same thing as agency, though it can feel like it is when orchestrated correctly: you can choose to buy an Vitamin Water instead of a Coke and feel good about yourself thinking that the water will be better for you, but there are 33 grams of sugar in a Vitamin Water, and the company is still owned by Coca Cola. Choosing is part of our national identity (and we believe that we have more access to choices than other countries, hence those “In Soviet Russia” jokes—“In Soviet Russia, Coke drinks you!”), but there are so many decoy alternatives and false opposites that it’s difficult to escape that thing that you tried not to choose.
What sort of agency is there for someone who is choosing not to choose? Choosing an unnamed option, I suppose, leaving (as A does) for an entirely “other” place. But the “other” place she chooses is based on the same principles, and all they believe is that they can help you choose better—which just goes to show that in a land of ideology you can flee as far as you’re able and still be right at home.
CG: Choice is definitely different in an America of linked mega-corporations and calculated advertising. In that vein, I would love to know more about your decision to publish with one of the biggest corporate publishers. What was your experience selecting the best fit for you and for this title?
AK: Before I started attending an MFA program in New York, I didn’t know much about the world of corporate publishing—my college reading involved a lot of experimental and small press authors, grad school just added more deceased writers to my reading list. I follow what’s released by major publishers and small presses, and I love them both—and because people in both camps are passionate about language and books, and devoted to an art form that ultimately takes a lot of time and careful attention and is not exactly poised to take over the world, I feel that it’s fair to love the large presses and the DIY operations alike. Ultimately, the selection process was about finding my best fit in the editor who took me on, Barry Harbaugh—a fantastic editor who I had corresponded with, sporadically, for years. You publish, ultimately, through the help of other people rather than the muscle of any corporation.
CG: The narrator has strained relationships with her roommate B, her boyfriend C, her Conjoined Eater partner assignment Anna, and her own body and identity. In considering the female relationships in this novel, we see obsession, jealousy, hatred, fear, and insecurity in various acts of emotional and physical violence. What kinds of behaviors and industries do you hope readers reflect on while considering the influence of consumerism and advertising on intragroup violence between the women of your novel?
AK: I sometimes think the rhetoric of beauty advertisements falls into two categories: A) use this to be more like yourself or B) use this to be more like someone else. Either way, being becomes something to aspire to and maintain rather than a gift, a given. It’s natural, then, to start thinking of beauty as a vulnerable material, something to compete over, a resource you need to hoard. I hope that readers reflect on the degree to which their desires originate within themselves, and the degree to which they are absorbed from the surroundings— from ads and images, and from the people you know. I hope that they reflect on their own practices of self-care, and ask themselves which aspects make them feel genuinely well, and which only feel like they should.
CG: The consideration of self-care is an extremely relevant takeaway from this novel. Can you tell us about your own creative self-care? Are there any writerly habits or rituals while preparing to write?
AK: When I’m working I tend to be very bad at self-care. I forget to eat or I eat the same thing for days until I’m sick of it. One ritual that I think is good for me, or at least not harmful, is I make a lot of broth, mostly from beef marrow or oxtail. It cooks slowly while I write slowly, we parallel each other. For a while I was reading a lot of paleo blogs on how to cook your bone broths to maximize nutrient extraction—apple cider vinegar added at the beginning is supposed to help draw out nutrients. It’s funny how you can be skeptical about most food fads, but when the right one comes along you believe in it without a second thought.
One of my big goals is to eat larger and more elaborate breakfasts: I usually get up, make a piece of toast, and start answering e-mails and reading things on the internet. By the time I’ve eaten the toast I’m no longer desperately hungry and I’m too deep in whatever I’m doing to make eggs, spoon out yogurt, etc. I usually work ineffectively until about 6 or 7pm, when everyone leaves work and stops sending
e-mails. Then I cook dinner and spend time with my partner until he goes to sleep. After that, the world is completely quiet and I can actually write things. When I do this I get this sneaky feeling that I’m living a double dose of life: a daytime life and an extra one while everyone is sleeping. Both are
pretty uneventful, though.
CG: Food and eating are crucial elements of this novel. Days pass where A and B eat only popsicles or oranges, the regulated consumption of “pure foods” and Kandy Kakes in the Church of Conjoined Eaters, and the detailed description of A vengefully choking down the cut braid of B— these descriptions felt deeply reminiscent of and triggering for disordered eating behaviors. Was obsessive and dangerous consumption something you specifically wanted to explore in the novel, or did bingeing, starvation, and vomiting come secondarily in your writing process as the vehicles to probe themes of avoidance and control in intensely physical character narration? Can you elaborate on the process of conveying an experience that is so tremendously visceral?
AK: When I was doing research for this novel, I oddly didn’t spend much time reading about eating disorders—I read a lot on the history of the food industry in America, and on the way that societies in different time periods manifested their own fears about food safety and nutrition. I also read a lot of writing about medieval women mystics, mostly the work of Caroline Walker Bynum. I was struck by how female mystics modified their relationship to God and to the spiritual world by controlling and restricting what they ate—though it might look like anorexia, you could see it instead as a way of modifying or controlling their relationship to the world.
The way my characters eat reflects their ability to engage with the world around them, or to refuse that engagement. Eating the right things with the right attitude is key to staying happy and satiated, like C chomping down gross hot dogs in the Laundromat—because A is unwilling to engage with the world in that way, she’s hungry and isolated. Eating the wrong things, on the other hand, is alienating—like A choking down the length of B’s severed braid, which essentially ends their friendship. It’s essential to choose the right foods—but with the origins and meanings of our modern food so obscure, it can feel impossible to “eat right,” and safer to eat nothing instead.
CG: You received your MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and have earned grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Santa Fe Art Institute. Currently completing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, you are clearly not a stranger to hard work and scholarship. Can you tell us how the intersection of creative writing and academia, along with your interest in cognitive sciences have guided your writing process?
AK: In academia, you do better if you think more, and think better, and that’s a satisfyingly simple way to go about things. What’s tricky about writing, I think, is that it’s very helpful to think up to a certain point, and then unhelpful to think past that point, and it’s always unclear what that point is. It’s possible to think of a completely sensible, meaningful plot, to design characters and research them minutely, to calibrate everything with great aesthetic precision. But then you’ll never surprise yourself! You’ll make approximately what you had planned out, no more, and what’s exciting about writing is the idea that you could make something that’s of your mind, but which more closely resembles the world in its obscurity and extension. I love academia, I love information, I love taking it in and letting it change me—but as I write more, my goal is to know less.
CG: I have no fear that you will continue to execute great aesthetic precision as you write more and know less. What is next for you?
AK: I’m working on stories for my forthcoming short story collection, Intimations
—it comes out in 2016 from Harper. I’ve been writing reported pieces, which are a great way to interact with people and look at things and not be alone sitting in a room all the time. And I’m starting the exploratory work for the next novel— reading about natural disasters, burnt-out movie stars, and the history of plastic. When you’re neck deep in writing a long work, you sometimes wonder if you’ll ever be hungry for a project again: I’m so happy that, as it turns out, I am very very hungry.
Originally published with Late Night Library on August 17, 2015.