One of the benefits of being a stuck-up teenager who refused to read anything that wasn’t a Western canon classic was that I missed out on some very hit-or-miss movements in literature. Being involved in honors and AP English, we didn’t get much of a chance to read contemporaryish literature, so as I proceeded further in my English degree, I realized many books of the 90s and 00s were a blank space for me. I slowly realized the value in reading more contemporary novels, but the journey wasn’t without some missteps, namely in the form of literature produced by Generation X. Reading books by Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, and others as a young adult felt embarrassing, mainly because their work had permeated through so much of shared consciousness through movies, video games, and music, to the point where it felt clichéd and trying too hard to be edgy. However, being a middle schooler who loved The Catcher in the Rye, I probably would’ve ate this stuff up if I was introduced to it as a teen.
However, I was more liable as an adult to see through the phoniness of Generation X’s literature. The promises of toppling the branded ownership of the masculine identity seemed pretty promising in the nostalgic glow of the 90s, but nowadays, it feels like a backwards ideology devised to sell indie workout tapes instead of freeing us from the shackles of corporate ownership. Did the literature of Generation X put a nail in the coffin of big business? Considering how many of the writers of subversive texts like Fight Club and Less Than Zero are now darlings of various bestseller lists (on top of the consumerist hellscape we currently occupy), my stance is “no, they actually helped make anti-establishment politics into a market demographic for book publishers.” Ultimately, this development has made me skeptical of most books that claim to speak to the modern condition, but there are always exceptions to the rule.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman is the rapturous debut novel that speaks against the ills of capitalism that you wish you had read earlier. In the novel, Kleeman rails against the forces of consumerism primarily by constructing an exaggerated world bursting with faux television advertisements, sprawling department stores, and religions with their tendrils in every industry. My summary may make it seem like well trodden ground, but Kleeman is so effective in her mission that it is hard to write this book off as a derivative of Generation X oeuvre. This world building ends up painting a bleak picture about the “success” of our late capitalist experiment, but, more importantly, calls attention to our own consumptive habits and how they burrow into our subconscious.
The plot of the novel is fairly simple: the narrator (known only as “A”) lives with her roommate (named “B”) and frequently spends time with her distant boyfriend (alias “C”). Over the course of the novel, A is afraid that B is intentionally trying to make herself look more like A in order to steal C from her. This leads to a very slow descent into a milieu of anxiety and paranoia as the plot intersects with mysterious cults, labyrinthine Wal-Mart surrogates, and reality TV. Despite this description, the book takes a strategically passive tone throughout, mainly as an avenue to depict the powerlessness of the characters. Many set pieces of the novel do not take place in trendy cafes, swanky lofts, or gentrified neighborhoods, but the action occurs in front of televisions, in abandoned schools, or in sprawling department stores. Characters are largely described in terms of their ability to consume. For instance, C is described early on as a “graceful consumer: he could consume without being consumed in turn.” To say this novel is bleak is an understatement.
Further, economic language is utilized to describe the day-to-day of the narrator, producing a disturbingly warped reality. After nearly having a fight with her boyfriend, A shrugs it off as:
“essentially a contemporary problem, a problem of supply and demand. I had to solve it the way other problems of scarcity and desire were being solved: by finding something new to want and pursuing that wanting instead. […] Wanting things was a substitute for wanting people, one of the best possible substitutes.”
The incident boldly spells out the narrator’s self-awareness to the forces of capitalism, but it still doesn’t prevent her from buying and consuming. In another passage, the narrator’s concerns about her roommate imitating her are spun as a positive opportunity to “think of yourself as a franchise, like a Coffee Hole or Wally’s. More outlets mean greater reach,” creating a troubling conclusion to our current fixation on personal branding. Kleeman demonstrates a strong understanding of these consumerist phenomena by saturating the novel with moments that sound like free market prose pieces instead of actual human dialogue.
Of all the characters of the novel, the narrator only finds a friend in Kandy Kat, the mascot of Kandy Kakes cereal, a mysterious food product that is made of Real Stuff (the narrator concedes “Maybe not natural stuff, but definitely genuine three-dimensional material from our physical universe”). Throughout the novel, the advertisements featuring Kandy Kat get more and more perverse, leaving the narrator to focus on his deteriorating body as he fails to consume the cereal he desire the most. Kleeman focuses in on how “his ribs show through” his lab coat as he studies the cereal or how his body “begins a slow crumple inward” as he dies of starvation, which eerily mirrors the narrator’s own physical condition as she stops eating altogether. The scenarios from other advertisements slowly bleed into the real world of the novel, demonstrating how consumerist rhetoric can creep into our minds.
Additionally, Kleeman’s anxiety about consumption ends up producing a very palpable feeling of paranoia throughout the novel. More than anything, this book reminds me of an early Thomas Pynchon novel in its depictions of the frighteningly convenient coincidences that populate the main narrative (don’t worry though, this book is way more focused than any of Pynchon’s). The details surrounding B’s transformation into A’s doppelganger act as the primary tension, defying any sort of reasoned explanation in the narrative. Eventually, two warring (but ultimately similar) cults claiming preaching the truth about the duality of man push their way into the plot, reminding me of The Crying of Lot 49’s battle between Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero. Being someone who has paranoid tendencies, Kleeman undeniably captures the feeling of thinking that the deck is being stacked against you.
In summary, this is easily one of my favorite novels that I have read recently. It’s genuinely as funny as it is bleak, the experimental bent never feels like a chore to read, and it establishes Alexandra Kleeman as a literary voice to look out for. Curiously, reviewers on Goodreads seem to take issue with the novel, claiming it is the product of overly workshopped MFA dribble. I disagree with most of these criticisms, largely because the book manages to speak to me in a way that the Gen X condemnations of consumerism haven’t. If you are invested in reading excellent contemporary literature, I cannot recommend this book enough. Ultimately, Kleeman might not be able to try and execute the perpetrators of capitalist oppression on her own, but she makes a damn good case why everyone should join her.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman, Harper, MSRP: $25.99