Friday 28 July 2017

Startling debut offers plenty to chew over

Fiction: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Alexandra Kleeman, HarperCollins, pbk, 283 pages, €18.45

Astonishing: Alexandra Kleeman's book unfolds like a fever dream
Astonishing: Alexandra Kleeman's book unfolds like a fever dream
Alexandra Kleeman's You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

Meadhbh McGrath

The narrator of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a woman identified only as A. A lives with her friend B and is dating a man referred to as C. Kleeman uses these hollow ciphers to suggest that all people are essentially interchangeable, crafting a haunting and unforgettable portrait of contemporary life.

A and B look alike: both are pale, petite and dark-haired. "If you reduced each of us to a list of adjectives, we'd come out nearly equivalent," A admits, while C urges her to "think of yourself as a franchise". But B is a demanding flatmate, in need of round-the-clock attention.

When A is not at her job as a proofreader, she spends her days aimlessly flicking through the TV channels and eating Popsicles with B - "more like colour than food", so they can burn the calories "just by eating them with vigour".

A begins to fear that she is being robbed of her identity, as she watches B take on more and more of her personality and physical appearance. In one terrifically unsettling scene, B cuts off her long hair and gives the lopped braid to A, after speculating: "I think things would be better if I looked more like you… It would be like you were still here, so I wouldn't really be alone. Or maybe it would be like I wasn't there as much, so I'd only feel partly as lonely."

The characters live in the suburbs of an unidentified American city where "there was nothing you could complain about without sounding crazy". They pass their time in a series of generic spaces - bland apartment complexes, monotonous office cubicles and identical branches of the supermarket chain Wally's.

Kleeman's astonishing debut unfolds like a fever dream as the world around A comes unstuck. Growing increasingly anxious, she turns to C, with whom she consumes a constant, numbing stream of television.

Stagnant in front of the TV, A keeps track of the deeply bizarre ads for Kandy Kake bars, in which Kandy Kat is denied a taste of the chocolate-coated treats and becomes trapped in a string of ridiculous scenarios in the style of Wile E Coyote, in tireless pursuit of his beloved snack.

At its core, the novel is a study of hunger and consumption, in various forms. The most stirring writing is found in Kleeman's descriptions of how her characters eat, or yearn for sustenance. In one passage, she writes: "I felt a smothered hunger beating out from the unseen places inside my body. I felt corseted in skin. I wanted to turn myself violently inside out. I wanted to throw myself into the outside and begin tearing off chunks of it for food."

A spends most of her days watching ads for, and thinking about, beauty products and processed food - her account of the hot dogs sold at the local laundromat, with "the texture of knuckles", is particularly memorable. Edging a couple of degrees away from realism, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine offers a biting post-modern satire on the contemporary beauty and dieting industries, 'clean' living and aspirational lifestyle movements that pressure women to scrutinise their lives and bodies in excruciating detail.

It is particularly effective tackling the cosmetics industry. In one of the TV ads A describes, a model opens a jar of an edible face cream called TruBeauty to find a fluffy white dove that flies into her throat. "Only one beauty cream attacks signs of ageing and damage from the inside and out," the voiceover soothes. "We know that true beauty begins on the inside."

It reads like a body horror, capturing the bewildering experience of inhabiting a body so vividly that you feel uneasy in your own skin. In that way, it's unlike anything I've read before - Kleeman's voice is distinctly her own, at once savage and fragile.

In the latter third of the novel, the plot begins to drift, as A finds herself drawn to the Church of the Conjoined Eaters, a cult whose members dress like ghosts with sheets over their heads and subsist on Kandy Kakes, based on the belief that all foods can be split into 'Dark' and 'Bright': they are either "good for you or they work ceaselessly to destroy you from within". Inside the cult, A's diminishing sense of self shrinks even more: "I looked forward to fully becoming my own ghost, which I had been told would resemble nothing and would look uniquely like itself."

Kleeman remains confident in the surrealism of her vision right through to the final page. She has constructed a challenging, startling novel for the present moment, and I look forward to what Kleeman comes up with next.

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