She’s been hailed by the New York Times as “one of the wise young women of our generation”; Ben Marcus called her “one of the sharpest and smartest young writers” around, “ambitious, promising, brilliant”; and Vanity Fair described her as a “future superstar”. These are just a handful of the accolades heaped on American author Alexandra Kleeman following the publication of her strange but brilliant debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. The book features a protagonist known only as A who’s obsessed with cartoon commercials advertising Kandy Kakes (a chocolate-covered Twinkie-esque snack), which star a cartoon cat called Kandy Kat. A lives with her flatmate, B, who seems to be becoming creepily more and more like A every day. A’s boyfriend, C, doesn’t seem to register that there’s a problem, but as the novel progresses, things become weirder and weirder as A is caught up in a cult that proselytises “bright” eating and is hoarding the country’s Kandy Kakes supplies. The novel became something of an instant cult classic when it appeared in the States last year – Vogue specifically described it as “Fight Club for girls” – Kleeman’s skewering of contemporary society’s obsession with consumerism, commodification and conformity striking a chord with her audience. It’s taken a while to be published here in the UK though – enough time has passed for her to have already published her follow-up, a collection of short stories called Intimations in the States – so when we sit down for this interview the first thing I want to know is whether it’s weird to have to go back to thinking about the novel again now.
AK: It is a little funny, because what I’m getting asked about now often has to do with the political situation in America. As you know, women’s rights are something that thread through the book a bit. But I definitely wrote it in a place of relative calm and security. So to be here and to think about what this book says about America right now, it’s a bit like whiplash: it was going in one direction and now suddenly there’s this whole world of things to look at through the lens of the book.
The driving fear of the book is the sense that although you exist in the known world, it’s not so difficult to fall into a gap between two known places, and then be lost to the people who know you, and to you yourself in a certain way.”
LS: So has having to consider the novel again forced you to rethink what you wrote in light of this new context?
One thing that I was writing about in the book that I think has materialised with this last election was I’ve been really interested in what’s visible and what’s invisible in America. I’ve always been fascinated by, in modern times, how you can go on a website and check to see whether your brand of contact lens solution is in stock in a Walmart in, you know, rural Indiana or something like that. And you can know with certainty and with faith that that bottle of contact lens cleaning solution exists there. You can track all these things; you can track, you know, planes, you can track people with their phones, so much is surveyed and surveilled, but there’s also so much space in between. And we don’t really have a good way of rendering that space visible. The biggest shock about the election was finding out that our methods of polling and visualising people we are not in daily contact with are just so flawed; that we don’t actually know our country the way that we think we know it.
The driving fear of the book is the sense that although you exist in the known world, it’s not so difficult to fall into a gap between two known places, and then be sort of lost to the people who know you, and to you yourself in a certain way. In an age when so much is known and quantifiable and trackable, those spaces in between are very, very interesting to me.
We experienced a similar thing here in the UK with the Brexit vote. Many of us didn’t believe that people would vote to leave the EU; we couldn’t understand how someone could think that way. And then of course we got a huge shock when it actually happened and we realised that we didn’t really understand the majority of the country.
You really can live in a world where everyone you know feels roughly the same way about things as you do, where certain positions are inconceivable. Like you cannot imagine anyone saying some of things that were said in this last election. But suddenly you have to confront and ingest and somehow absorb these statements that just feel viscerally bad going through your body.
Something that troubled me after Brexit was the amount of people who were just unwilling to even comprehend that people had voted the way they did. I found myself in a really strange position where I was both angry that people had voted to leave, but I was also angry at the amount of hatred and disgust that people like myself were spewing towards the leavers, all of whom we were now assuming were ill-educated or driven by racism. And many were, and I’m not going to make excuses for that, but this inability to even try and understand where others might have been coming from when they cast their vote, what made them feel so disenfranchised that they wanted to make their mark in whatever way they could, that I found troubling. Because you’re right: what we need to do with that information is ingest it, in order than we can then process it and do something about it. You can’t just block it out and not take it in because that’s when you get these great divisions between people.
Right, yes. Though I totally understand that impulse too, to take the body of people who voted, in that case for Brexit, or in our case for Trump, and group them all together and assume that you cannot speak to them because, you know, people on the fringe who are sort of being pushed into the centre here are unreachable in a lot of ways. I still think you have to try to speak to the best version of those sentiments though; speak to a person who honestly has issues with feeling economically left out, feeling like the issues that the Democratic Party are running with are not the issues that have anything to do with their own lives in their own situation. Otherwise we just sort of secede from the nation as a whole while remaining technically part of it.
We really are cord cutters and laptop users and piraters; we sort of slice up the world and take from it only what we want to see. But what fascinates me about TV is the fact that you can’t do that.”
So much of it seems to be to do with a lack of communication, people within bubbles only speaking to like-minded people within the same bubble. Thinking about this in the context of your novel is really interesting though, because a lot of what we’re talking about is obviously related to how people are using social media and the internet and what information is available and who you are reaching via those outlets. And yet as I read You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine I was very aware that these methods of communication are by and large absent from the novel. Your characters are living in a world without the internet, or one in which they don’t use it. Instead it’s television that takes centre stage – with an emphasis on commercials and reality TV shows. I’d love to hear more about why you chose to focus on TV, but firstly, was it a conscious decision to omit the internet and social media?
Well, yes, on the one hand I think that if I included the internet and social media, the book would have been twice as long! There would have been an overwhelming amount of description of that medium because the texture of the internet and the texture of social media, the things that it wants to call out from you as a user and the effects it creates, are really different from TV. TV is of more aesthetic interest to me, partially because in my daily world and with the people that I spend time with, TV as a sort of monolithic entity that I knew when I was a child doesn’t really exist anymore.
You know, we really are cord cutters and laptop users and piraters; we sort of slice up the world and take from it only what we want to see. But what fascinates me about TV is the fact that you can’t do that. Maybe you can have some sort of service that allows you to fast-forward through commercials, but you still have to be physically there fast-forwarding through the commercials so you still see them and you still take in something of what they want you to know, whether you want to take it in or not.
It’s more authoritarian, but I also think it’s much more compelling to me emotionally. After I moved away from home I didn’t watch TV for years, and when I started watching it again – the first time I had access to a TV in my home was because my roommate brought it in – I was just amazed at how easy it was to watch. It was easier than doing anything else. It was such an interesting feeling, like it sort of exempted you from needing to react to what it was showing to you or from needing to make conscious decisions about what you wanted to see because there was always something new happening, and that newness refreshed whatever sort of flagging feelings you were having about what you’d been watching before. It’s just made to be consumed, and I found it so intense and so powerful.
The other thing about TV is that even though traditional TV isn’t the driving force in the world I’m in, everyone binges, everyone watches basically the same shows, everyone talks about TV. TV as a client’s portal that is on for a good part of a day is alive in places like where my parents live. My dad, for example, watches I think the most TV of anyone you’ll find. He watches probably six to eight hours a night.
That seems like a huge amount to me.
Yes. He’s a college professor but he watches shows I’ve never heard of; he watches shows that are objectively quite bad and he finds something in them. When I walk around my neighbourhood there I see blue lights on in all the living rooms.
Is that to do with the fact that it’s an older generation of people still watching it so religiously? Their viewing habits haven’t evolved or adapted in line with new technology?
Yes, but I also think that it’s still a cultural phenomenon in less urban places. For example, in the city I think that we treat our homes as places where we go to escape from noise and stimuli. We want them to be calm, clean, spare, peaceful places. But if you’re surrounded by space, there’s something intimidating about that. In Colorado, where I’m from, the sky is so big, especially if you’re not pointing towards the mountains, it feels super real, super detailed, super large, super empty. There are different clouds in every portion of the sky and the weather is sort of an amalgamation of different kinds of weather at all times. I don’t know how to best put it, but it’s like to look around this big western sky and see storm clouds over in one section of it, some totally different cirrus formations in another section, and then just plain blue skies in another place, you can’t say what the weather is. You can’t say it’s a sunny day because you have this grey area over there; you can’t say that it’s a grey day because you have this blue area. There’s too much of it.
It sounds overwhelming.
It is overwhelming.
And also somewhat incomprehensible?
Yes, yes. It’s in excess. The space there is sort of in excess of what you can make sense of. It makes you feel small. And I think that in that sort of a setting, you want your home to be a space full of human light and stuff that’s showing itself to you and beaming itself directly into your head. I don’t know a better way to put it.
The New York Times published a bunch of maps connected to a study that correlated TV viewing habits with who you voted for in the election. And the show that correlated most strongly to voting for Trump was Duck Dynasty.”
I understand what you’re saying. We’re all familiar with the image of a lonely individual, living alone, who keeps the TV on simply in order to have some company, another voice or voices, in their home. TV has changed though, so many people I know – myself included – stream TV programmes via the internet rather than sitting down and channel surfing. As such, reading the scenes in the novel where the characters are watching TV was an oddly nostalgic experience, it reminded me of how I watched TV as a child.
Right, yeah. You’re still watching TV, but it’s a very different experience. TV is shaped so differently when, you know, you click on the show you want to see and then they show you only two or three commercials, and a lot of them are ones you’ve seen before. But I do think there’s still a TV life going on in America; it’s just that it’s difficult to see because it happens in private in people’s homes. Specifically in the homes of people we don’t know and who we will never meet. Not that long ago the New York Times published a bunch of maps connected to a study that correlated TV viewing habits with who you voted for in the election. And the show that correlated most strongly to voting for Trump was Duck Dynasty.
It’s a reality show about a family whose family business is making duck calls for hunting ducks.
It sounds like a pretty niche market. I’m surprised it’s that popular.
I know no one who watches it because it’s not in the demographic of the kind of people I hang out with, but that it’s hugely popular.
So TV is a way of accessing people and voices outside of the bubble? When you’re on the internet or social media you’ve curated the medium you’re using according to your tastes, preferences, opinions and beliefs. You’re listening to voices you want to listen to, those of like-minded people.
And something about TV resists that?
The internet exists whether you want it to or not, but you can have your own version of it shown to you. But when it comes to TV, there’s always something that is not for you but you still have to find a way to digest it.
So did you watch a lot of TV in the run-up to writing the novel or while you were writing it? Did you find yourself watching certain shows for inspiration?
I’d say I was watching the most TV before I started writing the book and while I was in grad school. I was living alone in California and I was pretty lonely and when I first moved there I only knew to read books for entertainment, so I was reading books for school and then I was reading books to unwind from school. I was going slowly nuts. So to have TV in my living space and to have it almost sort of like a roommate or companion, projecting sound and presence, even if it’s sort of a false presence, was really intoxicating. By the time I was writing this book though, I was living in New York again where I was sort of watching laptop TV, so I was just remembering the real thing.
Could you tell me a bit about the genesis of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. It’s such an arresting first novel.
What I wrote when I was studying creative writing in college was mostly poetry and experimental essays. I wrote these essays that had some story elements to them. But I never felt like I had the body of skills needed to write a long-sustained piece of fiction, because that required creating people and manoeuvring them and making them do things that both advance the plot and create a sense of reality for their lives and for the world that they were operating in. That just seemed like too much; I felt like I didn’t understand people well enough to do something like that. It was always a zone of writing that really intimidated me. I thought that, you know, I would just work at the more imaginative end of essaying.
But then I started reading Robert Coover, who’s my favourite postmodern fiction writer, and he had these wonderfully imaginative stories, they felt a little bit like plays sometimes. They felt like the author was making things happen in this way I hadn’t seen before; he would make a character do something and then he would just sort of take it back. Like in ‘The Babysitter’, that story begins with a babysitter at home alone, someone knocks on the window and then it can go in many different directions. And the story actually takes all those directions and then steps back from them once it taken them: restart, refresh. It’s like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ where you take every choice; or a hypertext, but printed on paper. That was really exciting to me, I was like, “Oh, you can have events happen without making them capital ‘E’ Events that command traditional authority.” But I still wouldn’t have started this novel if I hadn’t had this idea. The idea was what made me want to grow the skills to write the thing.
Originally when I thought of this novel – and it still feels to me like the same idea, but maybe it sounds different to you – I had someone tell me once that there are only two types of stories in the world: there’s someone leaves home, and there’s a stranger comes to town. And I thought, what if those two stories were one? I had this vision of a person walking around a sphere, and over the course of their walk they change, and so when they return to the same spot they started from they’re a different person. That would be both of those stories at once. I was fascinated with trying to make a character become the type of person that would once have frightened them, or alienated them. And to do that I had to really make characters, make time happen, make action happen.
I was interested in making A’s life create a hunger. The descriptions of her life were the scaffolding, but you want more movement, more colour. And by contrast what she sees on TV seems so full.”
And am I right in thinking that your original idea was to set some of the narrative within a cartoon world?
Yes. I wanted my narrator, A, to actually become Kandy Kat. I thought it would be really interesting to write sort of a present-day world in a flattened, more attenuated style, spare, more minimalistic, and have a really psychologically detailed cartoon world, really materialise a sort of consciousness for this hungry cartoon mascot.
That sounds complicated but fascinating.
Maybe it’s something for the future.
It makes sense that the descriptions of the commercials are so detailed. Like bursts of colour in what’s otherwise quite a stripped back, pared down portrait of reality.
I think I was interested in making A’s life create a hunger. The descriptions of her life, they were the sort of scaffolding, but you want something more; you want more movement, more colour, more emotional material. And by contrast what she sees on TV seems so full of that stuff, and full of it to an extent that you can’t even tell sometimes what you’re feeling because multiple feelings sort of war in her as she watches Kandy Kat go through his struggles. Yeah, so the sparseness of it, it’s meant to be unsatisfying.
You take on some really huge topics in the book: the female body; the beauty industry; eating disorders; hunger in a variety of shapes and forms, literal and figurative; commercialisation; commodification; consumer culture. Do you think they’re things you’re going to revisit again in future work? Are they topics that still interest you?
Absolutely. And I think that the core topic that I feel like I’ll be working on all my life is this interest in the natural and the artificial. Like what parts of our lives can be considered organic and instinctual and real in a deeper way, and what parts are later additions, things that we actively try to integrate into our lives or artificialities that we’ve naturalised psychologically but still sort of exert friction on us.
The thing I’m working on next is an ecological novel. It’s about the water crisis in the near future and a form of synthetic water. I’m thinking about what’s unnatural in the most ordinary ways that we use, consume and think of resources. It’s probably not natural to think of resources at all because I view thinking as a thing that is not natural. Like any sort of way of conceiving of the environment seems like it’s bound to be at odds with the environment. Obviously there are ways that are friendlier to the environment; there are ways that keep us more in touch with our surroundings and ways that distance us from our surroundings. So I’m interested in looking at that.
Have you already begun writing?
Yeah, I’m working on it. It’s sort of sad how much more anxious I am when I am writing fiction than when I am writing non-fiction or when I’m just in an editing phase or a teaching phase or a talking-to-other-people phase. Like it really winds me up, but I’m ready to enter that space.
Well, I can imagine it’s daunting. Not least because this novel, and your short stories too, have a very particular, distinctive style. It will be interesting to see how much of that style is carried over into this new work.
It’s also part of the fun for me. I’m going to figure out something about who I am. I’ll be able to work out which things were features of writing the first novel, and which are more permanent.
Will you be revisiting the subject of female friendship again?
Yes, I mean I’m always going to be interested in that. I think that female friendship is so interesting because females are so much more attuned. They’re turned out towards other people, they notice so much, and they’re affected by so much, or at least that’s how I feel about myself. Even very successful and very enjoyable interactions contain all of these micro shifts in presentation and power. But I’d like to re-approach it from a different angle, less of the genre angle, less of the Single White Female angle. What fascinates me about female friendships now is the very long-term friendship. The fact that two people can remain friends over decades while they essentially change into different people. People still find something in common, right? Or negotiate their own change in a way that maintains stability.
But what I’m perhaps most interested in is still this idea of a female or feminine grotesque. Like what types of behaviour are considered transgressive from a woman. I’m interested in trainwreck celebrity figures and why their behaviour is considered gross and off-putting when if it’s a partying young man acting the same way, that’s fine.
Did you read Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck?
I did, yes, I’m really interested in how we as a public are so hungry for the sordid details of these women’s lives.
We want to read about them, or watch them, but at the same time we vilify them for their behaviour.
We’re hungering for them in a way that one hungers for things that are not fully human, right? We dehumanise them with our hunger.
Are there any particular fiction authors that you look to for inspiration? You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine made me think of Beckett.
I think that it was Beckett who did a lot toward making me want to write. I felt that it was amazing how he created instant empathy. You don’t really need most of the things we think of, you don’t need to create a rounded character to create empathy for that character. He taps instantly into something very human by just creating an active centre that is in pain. It doesn’t really matter how his characters got there or how they’re going to get out, but you care that that being is in pain.
A book that really inspired me recently was Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear. She was always an influence because she does dreamlike so incredibly well, with this perfectly light hand and so much grace. There’s a sort of fuzzy, blank, shifting quality to her work. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is told by three successive generations of polar bears who all start a writing practice for themselves. It sounds a little silly, and when you read it there are these moments of silliness, but they shift into a really compelling allegorical discussion of immigration and of the state of being at odds with your societal expectations. Like whether you’re an animal expected to be a human, or whether you are a human expected to live under an authoritarian rule. It crosses all of those boundaries in a really interesting way, and it’s humorous and light in a way that I feel a lot of literature I read now does not allow itself to be. It does whimsy in a serious way, and that fascinated me because it’s a little bit of a departure from her previous books. It’s a book that is serious and also having a lot of fun, and that stunned me, I was like, “Oh, you can have fun when you write.” I had a lot of fun writing You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, especially the commercials and the pamphlets and the other documents that exist in this novel, but here I just felt like I perceived Tawada’s freeness in a way that was something of a revelation to me because I’m always so anxious when I write. I do not feel free.
Alexandra Kleeman is a Staten Island-based writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the winner of the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize. Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Conjunctions and Guernica, and her essays and reportage have appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, n+1 and the Guardian. You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine is out now from Fourth Estate.
Author portrait © Graham Webster
Lucy Scholes is a contributing editor to Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer, BBC Culture and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the BFI, and hosts the monthly Bitch Lit book group at Waterstones Gower Street.