The Familiar Is An Extreme: An Interview With Alexandra Kleeman, Author Of You Too Can Have A Body…
Set in a world where the virtue of a snack food is its shelf-life — preservative free, because its biologically derived ingredients are destroyed and replaced with a sugar inspired by plastics, to repel vermin — Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, puts the white noise of everyday living, like junk food advertisements and female beauty rituals, under a microscope until they appear new and strange.
We talked about writing on the Internet, female beauty treatments, and what it means to take risks in writing.
(An excerpt from You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, with an introduction by Cal Morgan, is this week’s featured story on Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.)
Adalena Kavanagh: In a recent profile you talked about how you got your start writing in high school. You joked, “I was pretty big in the Asian-American web log community.” Increasingly, those who have grown up with the Internet being their first writing platform and community are publishing books. What was your experience within those forums? How did those spaces shape or inform your future writing?
Alexandra Kleeman: I started my blog when I was fourteen, and I did it without very much understanding of how public the internet would become, or what it meant to put your full (fairly unique) name out in a space that strangers could search. I had total strangers from all over the world writing to me to tell me something I said was funny or poignant or idiotic, it was a continual surprise — and when I look back now I see how exposed I was, how easily the world could get to me. But coming to it with that sort of openness and naiveté meant that I was able to write publicly, but not particularly self-consciously — I was too young to doubt whether I had anything of value to say, whether I was making a good impression, or cultivating the right audience. It let me write without expectation — something which is harder and harder to do as you get older and sacrifice more to make time for writing. When I’m stressed out or intimidated by the writing career I’m embedded in, I try to remember what I knew then: You write to others in order to write to others, not because anything specific will result from it.
Kavanagh: You were in a rock band in college. I’m always interested in writers who engage in other art forms. What do you get from music that you don’t from writing and vice versa?
And what music has on writing…is that it’s so easy to make an utterance, and less clear when you’re uttering that you’re uttering the wrong thing.
Kleeman: When I was in college, writing seemed less like a craft or career and more like one territory within thing-making that bled into all the others. I took a class taught by Thalia Field, “The Foreign Home,” that was for writers but prohibited making traditional text-on-paper pieces. First I was making these “black boxes,” painted cardboard structures lit from the inside with small lights and full of internal corners, found objects, drawings, and peepholes. It was incredibly stressful! Visual artists are more intuitively at home with the physical world, they make the practical work of material-gathering and assembly look easy, which it should be. I was always worrying about getting the exact right materials, joining them the exact way, making the object I had diagrammed, not wasting the material I had gathered — which is an impossible way to do creative work! What writing and music have in common is that their materiality is so plentiful, so renewable. And what music has on writing (at least for someone coming to it as a foreigner) is that it’s so easy to make an utterance, and less clear when you’re uttering that you’re uttering the wrong thing. I was making spoken-word pieces where I looped my voice over my voice in real time, added singing and some scripted speaking, and I played vocal-ish non-verbal counterpoints with a musical saw.
The band, which was a three-part synth-pop band called Triangle Forest, was a double escape, from the strain of working with words and the strain of working alone — it was wonderful to be able to hand over two-thirds of the song to people you trust and work at it together, listening and adjusting. It was fun, having co-responsibility for a thing, and fun playing shows together in all kinds of weird places. Our first was in a dive bar called the Safari Lounge that burned down a few years ago, known for its erotic-photo-hunt machine and the gigantic albino boa constrictor in the glass tank right next to it. Our best show was in a huge, warehouse filled with art and light installations where the proprietor, Zane, got so into the music that he took a lead pole to his own water pipes and flooded the place, ending the whole night around 3 a.m. Playing allowed me to be collaborative and spontaneous and fun, things which I hardly ever was when writing.
Writing begins from the particulate and the discrete, you build until vitality and fluidity emerge — but you have to begin with the individual units, each of which has too much meaning, not enough meaning, not the right meaning. I’m most suited to being a writer, but it lets me indulge my worst, most reflexive way of being in the world, which is driven by getting a sentence “right” rather than taking a risk with it.
Kavanagh: You said, “I’m most suited to being a writer, but it lets me indulge my worst, most reflexive way of being in the world, which is driven by getting a sentence ‘right’ rather than taking a risk with it.” In what ways are you hoping to take risks with your writing? How do you want to challenge and or play with literary conventions?
Kleeman: That’s a great question — I should clarify that when I say I’m disappointed that I don’t “risk” sentences more, what I mean is I’m reluctant to lose control of them. That I would automatically think of giving up a measure of control as a form of risk-taking says something about my personality.
The world around us is too much: when we try to represent it any other way I think we do it a disservice.
I’ve always felt that the books that affected me the most were the ones that changed my existing notions of what a novel can contain while still remaining vital and alive. In this one, I wanted to widen the scope of my text to include the noisy, ugly, hypercommercialized elements of daily life, things I usually exclude from my fiction. I wanted to let the noise in, to let it eke away at the foregrounding of the characters. I wanted to try to point to the animacy within the inanimate, even if that meant blurring the distinction between the human and the nonhuman. I wanted to work at the edge of including too much rather than too little, the latter generally being the option that makes me feel safer. The world around us is too much: when we try to represent it any other way I think we do it a disservice.
Kavanagh: Your novel engages modern beauty consumption in a way that is familiar, but taken to an extreme, with products like an edible face cream (though women inject botulinum to achieve a wrinkle-less forehead, so we’re not so far away from edible face cream). What in the culture inspired this theme?
What’s struck me most is the way beauty is linked to technological development…
Kleeman: The modern beauty industry fascinates me and I’ve seen it change so much, even since I was a teenager. What’s struck me most is the way beauty is linked to technological development, technologies of representation and technologies of modification, and how this modern way of viewing the material of our bodily selves compels us to maintain and scrutinize ourselves in new ways. The development of HD television exposed wrinkles and blemishes, but also the pancakey texture of traditional foundation — so new types of foundation had to be developed that were sheerer but offered the same coverage. They used light-scattering particles that made the skin look “airbrushed.” Our fantastically detailed televisions taught us to look at ourselves up close, so close that the face practically disappeared and all you saw was a landscape of pores. This went with a renewed interest in shrinking pores, hiding pores, speckling over pores. People were fanatically worried about nearly-invisible skin ducts that had always been there, but that they now believed they could do something about. The face was transformed into a series of small problems, and that makes it much more difficult to have a friendly relationship with your own visage.
I describe a lot of strange beauty products in the novel, but I don’t think they’re so far from the products and treatments we have nowadays — there’s Botox, Juvederm, flash-freezing treatments for eliminating body fat. There’s bee venom and snail mucus and in France I saw a serum that tans you by forcing your skin to produce melanin, as if it had been out in the sun. The familiar is an extreme. We live in interesting days.
Kavanagh: You’re working on a PhD in Rhetoric, and your novel has reoccurring descriptions of advertisements, the ultimate persuasive arguments. How does your work in Rhetoric inform your writing?
Kleeman: The Rhetoric program I went to was unusual, more of a critical theory program. It was rooted in the idea that all discourse is a form of persuasion, subtly reinforcing the structures that give it credibility and power. When you watch a slew of advertisements, something is being sold to you other than the specific products pictured — it’s the idea of wanting, the desire to want. In a sense you’re being convinced of something that is not literally pictured but which is present in every frame — and that’s a bigger deal than whether you end up buying the item that was pictured doing its amazing work on-screen.
Kavanagh: You said, “Our fantastically detailed televisions taught us to look at ourselves up close, so close that the face practically disappeared and all you saw was a landscape of pores.” Your novel examines the quotidian in the same way — what is familiar becomes strange, so strange that I was first convinced that your narrator, A, was a clone. What is it about the quotidian that merits closer, microscopic examination?
But I think there’s value in trying to disrupt how easily and cleanly we perceive our surroundings…
Kleeman: I think it’s natural that we develop something of a callus toward the things we see every day and do every day — as you spend more time with a thing, it’s possible to see it more, but more often you see less of it each time. But I think there’s value in trying to disrupt how easily and cleanly we perceive our surroundings, to slow down the process by which we make our lives fast, clean, and transparent and try to see the friction, effort, clumsiness that goes along with living. Eating is something we do almost without thinking about it, but within that act is the crushing-up of another thing’s life structures with your own teeth, the pre-digestion inside the mouth, the genuine digestion in the stomach, the continual death on a large scale of bacteria living within us that we need in order to get nutrients from food-material. It’s violent and amazing, and looking microscopically at this quotidian activity shows us something about how messy our lives are, whether we perceive it or not.