I’ve never felt scared of death. When people ask if I’m scared of death I say no. When I attempted to scratch at my wrists in fifth grade, I did not feel scared. I remember my father’s befuddled face: Did you know you could have DIED?
But I’ve always felt scared of the lead-up to death. Death, once I hit it, I imagine to be a sweet release—when there’s nothing to be done about it, I can relax. What I fear is the part when I don’t know if there’s anything to be done, the part when I’m trying to figure out whether to hold on or not.
Reading Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine is like staggering through this anxious interstitial space where you’re not sure if you’re about to die. The book is about a relationship between a city-dwelling young woman, A, her roommate, B, and her boyfriend, C, with whom she mostly watches television and has silent sex as pornography lopes on in the background. Like many close female friends, A and B begin to look alike, diet together, and encourage each other to avoid calories. Like the most skillful postmodernists, Kleeman takes these “normal” contemporary tendencies and stretches them just a bit past what we know.
A freelance copy editor who passes her days trudging between her apartment, her bare cubicle, and her boyfriend’s couch, A is fairly placid at first, only slightly irritated by how clingy B is. As the book progresses and we become more familiar with A’s long naps and the TV commercials she loves—in which the character Kandy Kat is interminably attempting to eat Kandy Kakes but failing—A’s connection to her own reality gets shaky. “When I considered myself, the account was much hazier,” A reflects as she looks down at the space her body recently occupied on C’s couch. “I could barely remember my part having been there since I saw it so rarely over the course of action… I could feel the part thinking already about the next time it would be filled.” A relies on her rather blank sex with C—one of the few physical activities in the book—to make her full and alive in her body.
Kleeman peeks in on her characters during their most dissociated and terrifying moments, when they are waiting aloofly to feel alive, when they begin to lose themselves to the images others have of them. A imagines herself in a porn film, then feels nothing, then feels blank and exhausted by the way others perceive her, what others need from her.
What Kleeman hits on masterfully here is self-erosion. A and B erode each other and then A, tired of (literally) putting on her face, begins to disappear herself, first by sleeping and then by covering herself in a white sheet. It’s extreme because it is extreme. In order to have a stable identity, people must actually do things, take actions that feed that identity. When all A and B are doing is avoiding calories, avoiding desires, they starve themselves into pure image. What’s left is image alone, the usual makeup, a feedback loop, what others see of them, a curated social media presence, a Pinterest style, etc.
There’s a gendered nature to the stuckness that A descends into. After giving B a makeover in the style she makes up her own face, A begins to believe B is stealing her personality, and goes on a rampage against the makeup itself, snapping eyeliner pencils and smearing multi-colored liquids around B’s room. In the realm of female competition, the book gets dark. I think of the poet Alice Notley, in her poem At Night the States:
aren’t they beautiful enough
in a way that does not
beg to wring
something from a dry (wet)
Call my name
Is there a way to be something, to be beautiful, to be named without taking it away from someone else? How can one be named without giving something away? And can a person be anything without someone looking at them? As B whines to A early on in the novel, “I’m less when nobody’s around.” A body—I would hazard, a female-gendered body specifically—is not good enough: B puts on makeup to be.
As she senses B’s neediness, A begins to seal herself off for self-protection.
All around me, people were giving feelings and help to one another all the time, as if it were the only thing to do. And I watched these exchanges like a dead thing, a thing sealed off perfectly, a room with no holes in or out.
These “holes in or out” are the same holes as those that allow A and B to stay just barely alive by consuming popsicles—popsicles that require, they estimate, more calories to eat them than they contain.
This math is familiar to me. I know the math of not quite wanting to die but not wanting to be more than I should—not eating more than I should. Most women today know this math well. And we are flattened by it, the need to stay small enough not to be accused of overdoing it. For A, small becomes invisible. She gets drawn in to a mysterious cult that involves physically covering these holes and clearing out one’s sense of self. Initially she gets thinner and more relaxed.
I feel just like a child again, safe in the understanding that anything that were to happen to me would be someone else’s responsibility. Maybe that was the secret to happiness, I thought, being free of the responsibility of yourself. I look at the window, where my ghost face looks back at me, just a whitish-black outline on a black surface—free of my chin, which was too pointy; free of my nose, which was too lumpy.
Here I think of Emily Dickinson (“A Death blow is a Life blow to Some”) in her poem 816, and I relate. I have craved this, the relaxing of one’s image, to relax from trying so hard to be yourself, to keep yourself alive. It’s like starving, a relief from the need to be a special and active human. I’ve always hated it when people quote Mary Oliver to me, that gnawing, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? Sorry, Mary, sorry every yoga teacher I’ve ever had, but it’s so much pressure.
As A relaxes and attempts to delete her constructed self, Kleeman shows us the stuckness of this flattened perfection. Her characters are told they should be unique and special, told they should fit in, told they should have enough of themselves to go around, told they should be buying makeup, skin-perfecting lotions, or other beauty products to make themselves more, told they should be taking in negative calories. They get jammed in between these competing imperatives. They get jammed into starvation. They have no energy to participate because they are jammed trying to erase themselves.
Kleeman brings us not only to the extreme of the logic of eating disorders, but to the ambivalence of consumer consciousness and the yearning to let go. A searches a constantly shifting store for the thing she needs, her body moving listlessly through the store, unattached to meaning until it is purchasing something, putting something onto itself. What do you need to acquire to stay yourself? the novel asks. Who would you be if you didn’t acquire anything?
According to the employees in Wally’s, the grocery store A frequents, “Consumers are Creators.” Consumers are meant to derive tremendous meaning and creativity from their shopping experience. At Wally’s, we follow A’s attempt to purchase, for example, a crowbar to break into C’s apartment. Instead, she is directed to a newly engineered fruit called a peapple by a masked grocery store employee who asks her about her “product circumstances” and, when she asks when Kandy Kakes will be restocked, responds, “Are those really the only questions you long to have answered?” A is both constantly encouraged to consume and constantly blocked from consuming exactly the thing she wants. And thus it feels inevitable when A is drawn in by a group that gives her permission to stop her consumer behavior entirely, to belong only by erasing the personality she’s built up.
She stops at the edge of completely erasing herself, at the edge of death, when she realizes she wants to relax, not to die. She gets close to an edge where being authentic and dying are almost necessarily the same. Kleeman’s book is deeply disturbing precisely because its characters are not quite dead: they remove themselves from life and from one another, but they hang on.
Fully participating in being alive means taking whatever comes, even the failed and gross stuff. By the end of Kleeman’s novel, A is slowly gaining the capacity to take it in: “It was all terrible, and you had to do it constantly. I bore down, I tore in.” Even the drama of chewing, of participation, of gnawing on an imperfect world: “Life was everywhere, inescapable, imperative.”
I recognize this imperfection. It is a large part of what has allowed me to heal from eating disorders and stay healthy day by day: being good enough. Failing often at what I think others want from me. Kleeman’s book reminds us: you, too, can have a failure like mine.
Leora Fridman is the author of My Fault, forthcoming from Cleveland State University Press. With Kelin Loe, she edits Spoke Too Soon: A Journal of the Longer. Her recent poems, reviews, and essays can be found in places like VIDA, Dusie, Sixth Finch and Dreginald. http://leorafridman.com/