Monday 22 January 2018

Brilliant first novel wallows in bodily angst

Fiction: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Alexandra Kleeman, Fourth Estate, €18.00

Brilliant debut: Alexandra Kleeman
Brilliant debut: Alexandra Kleeman
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Philly Malicka

Alexandra Kleeman's absurd and brilliant debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is driven by the unsettling fear that, deep down, all humans are interchangeable.

When the heroine, known only as "A", studies her boyfriend, "C", she says: "I couldn't help but see him as a casing stuffed full of thready strands of DNA, just a few miles of letters in a shell. I thought about the parts of my saliva that were merging with his in his mouth."

Just as A, a proofreader of magazines, develops concerns about intermingling her DNA with her boyfriend's, she also starts to be haunted by her own parallel helix, her flatmate B. "If you reduced each of us to a list of adjectives, we'd come out as nearly equivalent," A observes, with unease.

Before long, B is pasting her face in A's lurid makeup and encroaching on every element of A's identity. When B returns home, offering her severed plait as a gift, A begins to freak out. Without her hair, B resembles A far too closely. So A responds by eating it.

What follows is a process of spectacular physical and psychological destruction. Rapidly, A's relationship with her boyfriend, a fan of watching pornography during sex ("thickening the moment by laying fantasy upon reality upon fantasy") breaks down. She begins to stalk him outside his house and grows obsessed with consuming Kandy Kakes - a dessert entirely made of chemicals.

This is not a book for the squeamish or flinching reader. It wallows in the squidgy darkness just under the skin. I began reading it while on a train eating a Scotch egg, which became increasingly hard to swallow.

Although Kleeman is a New Yorker, her novel is set in a nameless, dystopian American town. It could be anywhere, which makes A's journey eerily ubiquitous, through a nation that has failed to confront its ills. A wild range of themes are engorged, distorted and satirised in the most bogglingly intelligent way: body image, obesity, consumerism, memory, the mass media, religion and race. Kleeman's writing may be funny, but there is also a lot of fear. In her imagined world, the rot has spread.

About halfway in, A is drawn into a dystopian church called "The Eaters" - a symposium of society's ills - which starves its members, seeking to purge them of "darkness". A is picked up outside a Wally's Supermarket: "I felt the thinness of the fibre binding me to myself... I let them blank me out."

The church members throw a white sheet over their heads to look like ghosts, or Klansmen. They preach that the "quickest route to self-improvement is self-subtraction", causing A to try to dismantle her memory and identity to become "a person who wasn't".

The sect is vividly drawn and its psychology is cleverly layered, but this section is less enjoyable than the previous scenes in the supermarket or those that show A's interaction with B and C. Those scenes were more subtly warped, whereas the world of The Eaters drifts so far into fantasy that it lessens its potential to disturb.

Zadie Smith has said that Kleeman's prose "points to the future", and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine exalts in inventive, visceral language, particularly about all things bodily. In Wally's supermarket, A encounters coolers of veal, "a tremble of vulvar pink, the colour of an innocent child's gums". Characters swallow "wetly" and her spots, covered in concealer are "putty coloured".

Kleeman deepens our intimacy with A's body, embedding us in her eyeballs and saliva right until the end. For a while, we, too, have a body like hers, and the journey into her existence is nightmarish. But ultimately Kleeman releases A (and, by extension, her readers). She wrenches herself free of the cult and meets Chris, a worker from Wally's. Craftily, she persuades him to lose his foam "Wallyhead", the supermarket uniform, and start a normal life with her: "I could make use of him, as normal people made use of other normal people - for love, for sex, for someone to care about your thoughts." It's almost touching, then A decides to call him "C" - the name of her ex-boyfriend.

This emphasis in the final pages on interchangeability is laboured, as if Kleeman (inset) can't resist hammering home her message about the fluidity of identity. But then, her entire book binge-delivers itself, ramming its concerns down our throats in overstuffed mouthfuls. It is a credit to her curious talent that we aren't left feeling too full.


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