Losing Our Religion: Consumerism in the Spotlight
Review: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
As someone perpetually behind the latest trend, often by several years, it’s no surprise that I’m finding You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine six years after its release. And I didn’t go into it with reasonable expectations, either. I’ve recently discovered — again, years late — a very good and wonderfully nerdy book podcast that is rapidly flooding my TBR shelf with books published roughly between 2014 and 2016. In its archives, somewhere around mid-2015, the podcasters start, and do not stop, gushing about Alexandra Kleeman’s debut. Given a forthcoming second novel in August 2021, now seemed as good a time as any to catch up.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is profoundly weird. A sampling of bizarre plot points include: the protagonist consuming a braid of human hair; a family donning white sheets and disappearing without a trace, effectively “ghosting themselves”; a supermarket chain that perpetually moves its stock to disorient customers; a celebrity spokesperson (in the vein of Subway’s Jared Fogle) who achieves notoriety for shoplifting astronomical supplies of veal; a disorder, Disappearing Dad Disorder, that afflicts only suburban white males. The novel’s actual plot — its arc versus its points — is far more difficult to describe.
The novel is divided into three sections. In the first, readers are introduced to the protagonist, A, who lives with a roommate, B. B physically resembles A, and is intent on pushing that resemblance to its breaking point — she wants to become A because she believes doing so means she will never have to be alone with herself. A, understandably disturbed by B’s efforts, begins spending increasing amounts of time in the abandoned house next door, whose inhabitants have succumbed to “ghosting.” When she’s not squatting at the neighbor’s, A is spending time with her boyfriend, C, who dumps her in the second section (although the more accurate term might be “ghosted”) because A refuses to appear with him as a contestant on a reality dating show. In the wake of the breakup, A begins stalking C, hoping to change his mind. When loitering on his doorstep proves unsuccessful, A meanders around her nondescript city, visiting supermarkets, and attempting to purchase a crowbar to break into C’s apartment. During one such shopping trip, A is abducted by (or voluntarily joins, depending on your outlook), a cult that indoctrinates its members to believe Kandy Kakes, fictional junk food akin to Twinkies, are the only food items safe for consumption. A’s time living at the cult’s compound and undergoing cult brainwashing constitutes the final section.
Weirdness is a bit like humor; it is extremely idiosyncratic, such that if it’s not exactly your particular brand of weird, it just isn’t going to work for you.
A lot of classic cult content is like this. If, for example, you were born after 1985, I can almost guarantee you know someone who believes (probably aggressively) that the Cohen brothers are geniuses and The Big Lebowski is the greatest movie ever made. And, paradoxically, you also know someone who is (probably passive aggressively) rolling their eyes at anyone donning that now-iconic cardigan favored by The Dude.
I have to imagine YTCHABLM is something like the Big Lebowski of literary fiction: it either works for you or it doesn’t. It has a number of rave reviews, as well as its fair share of what-the-fucks. The New York Times called Kleeman “brilliant,” and compared her to Edgar Allen Poe and Thomas Pynchon in the same breath. The Los Angeles Review of Books drew similar comparisons to Don DeLillo, Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, and William Gibson — heavyweights by any measuring stick. On the other hand, a few perspicacious reviewers noted major flaws in the novel’s critical components. Brett Josef Grubisic at The Rumpus, for example, described A as “an emotionally flatlined Carry Bradshaw,” and Natasha Lewis, writing for The New Republic, concluded that all of Kleeman’s characters “appear barely alive — affectless, disengaged, lethargic.”
My assessment veers closer to Grubisic and Lewis’ than the major outlets.
If it isn’t obvious from the synopsis, it’s hard to read YTCHABLM as anything other than a searing takedown of almost every element of modern culture.
But as much as I appreciate social commentary, commentary without character is, to borrow Grubisic’s term, “aggravating.” Throughout the first section of the novel, A is so consistently affectless, I was convinced it was clinical (if you’ve read My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonist shares a comparably empty emotional interior). But then, in the second section, A is so distraught by C’s disappearance from her life that she resorts to something only human beings capable of emotional intensity resort to — namely: desperate measures. In the context of her personality, the stalking (and the associated search for a crowbar) make absolutely no sense. The personalities of B and C similarly lack emotional resonance; they read more like character outlines than actual characters. Of course, given her refusal to bequeath her characters with even the most basic of identifiers — like names — it’s very likely that Kleeman intended to divorce readers from emotional landscapes that might distract from the novel’s Big Ideas. The result, intended or not, is that A, B, and C are little more than set pieces for a satire about the evils of commercial culture. I am convinced Kleeman is both intelligent and inventive (I absolutely loved her spin on “ghosting”) — but flat characters are my literary equivalent of a death knell. I’ll happily read an erudite essay on rampant consumerism, but if you’re going to write a conceptual novel, no amount of intelligence will substitute for well-developed characterization.
All of that said, I can see why YTCHABLM is prime material for a cult following. If I were to set aside my personal desire for a seamless narrative arc or characters with personalities, I might love this book. As is, I found the reading experience more grueling than interesting (though I recommend Kleeman for fans of both Moshfegh and Mona Awad).
And, for the record: I wouldn’t be caught dead in anything even vaguely resembling that idiotic cardigan — I’m in the eye rolling camp.
Rating: 2 stars
There’s a kind of pressure that your own life muscles onto you, to do something just like you would do, to behave just like yourself. We had both gotten so used to me being stronger, reasonable, and having the resources to yield that I yielded by default. The idea of my own strength making me the weaker one.
If you are a person, you are supposed to want to be a better person. Better people had a surplus of themselves that they were willing to give away, something that they could separate out and detach. In me the portions only separated, pulling apart and waiting there for something to happen. I could see what it was that I could give B, but I couldn’t really give it. In fact, I wanted to keep it for myself, to take it and run. All around me, people were giving feelings and help to one another all the time, as if it were the only thing to do. I watched these exchanges like a dead thing, a thing sealed off perfectly, a room with no holes in or out.
Wanting things was a substitute for wanting people, one of the best possible substitutes.
Loving someone was no guarantee of how they would treat you. All it did was raise the stakes.
… living wasn’t a matter of right or wrong or ethics or self-expression. There was no better way to live, or worse. It was all terrible, and you had to do it constantly.
Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.