Cults, Foam Heads And Other Weird Things Thrive In 'Body Like Mine'

Cults, Foam Heads And Other Weird Things Thrive In 'Body Like Mine'

3:12pm Aug 27, 2015
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
Emily Bogle / NPR

No one has ever written about having a body the way Alexandra Kleeman does.

Not about having a girl body or a boy body (though both Kleeman and her Kleeman-esque protagonist, A, are women, so girl bodies are more heavily featured), and not a young body or an old body. And not necessarily about the things that one might do with said body (her characters spend an awful lot of time sitting very still, eating Popsicles, watching TV), or how said body is perceived by others (because while sitting very still, her character-bodies are mostly alone, or in the tiny orbits of boyfriends, roommates, grocery store clerks, etc.)

No, Kleeman writes about the having of a body. The wearing of it. The awful, dark grossness of it and the miraculousness of it. In her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, she writes like a gonzo journalist embedded in skin, discovering things like hair and saliva and eyeballs for the very first time.

"Inside a body there is no Light," she writes. "A massed wetness pressing in on itself, shapes thrust against each other with no sense of where they are. They break in the crowding, come unmade. You put your hand to your stomach and press into the softness, trying to listen with your fingers for what's gone wrong. Anything could be inside."

Anything. Though, again, it's mostly Popsicles. And oranges.

Kleeman's novel is the story of A — a young woman in a suburb where "there was nothing you could complain about without sounding crazy" — her roommate (B) and her boyfriend (C). A has a job as a proofreader. She is obsessed with television (particularly the commercials), and her roommate has a habit of biting people who annoy her.

It's all so simple. Except that the world is coming unstuck around A in a way that you might call "magical realism" if you've never exited the safe preserve of literary fiction, but is really more in the vein of New Weird (think China Mieville or Jeff VanderMeer) because it involves a normal world not heightened by inexplicable occurrences, but broken by them.

In A's world, dads disappear in broad daylight and show up again months later and hundreds of miles away, confused and dehydrated but dressed in freshly bought clothes. Television commercials (which make up such a fundamental part of the novel that they are almost a second, horrifying storyline) are haunting. Grocery store employees all wear giant foam heads to look like the brand's mascot. A's neighbors vanish one day — a whole family walking out of the house under white sheets with holes cut out for their eyes like Charlie Brown on Halloween, and driving off, leaving the door open, their dinner still on the table, and a message spray-painted onto their garage: "HE WHO SITS NEXT TO ME, MAY WE EAT AS ONE."

The words — done in dripping cherry red, of course — bleed into the plot as A becomes increasingly convinced that something is going wrong (with her, with everyone, with the world at large). Her roommate is trying to become her. Her boyfriend disappears. A is starving all the time but seems incapable of ever actually eating. A cult, The Church of the Conjoined Eater, takes her in and puts her to work. Body Like Mine begins as a navel gaze, a searing inner catalog of mushy biology, and becomes a takedown — chilly in its precision — of beauty standards, face creams (you'll never see another moisturizer commercial the same way again), junk food, reality TV, love, hunger, closeness, human connection.

And Kleeman owns all of it. Her voice is brutal and fragile at the same time. Her eye for the absurdity of normalness is so sharp that the book puts you into a bubble of weird you won't be able to shake off for hours.

"Outside my bedroom window the streetlights came on, spilling yellow light into the darkening blue. Breath quaked my body...I heard the floorboards creak as [B] took another step toward me, contaminating my presence with her own. Everything she did seemed calculated to push me into the future.

"Said the voice to my far right, almost out of the range of peripheral vision: 'Are you okay? Is something wrong? Do you want to eat popsicles?' "

But no, A eats hair instead. B's hair — a long braid of it cut off and presented by B, like a present or a threat. This is just the beginning of the end of things for A.

And things only get stranger from here.

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