Under the Skin: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
by Alina Cohen
If you choose to read Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, here are a few of the indelible images with which you’ll be presented: A lopped off braid, swallowed slowly by its owner’s roommate; a girl bathing in just salt, begging to go to soccer practice; and a grocery store with only fake food and empty boxes. As a counterbalance to the disorienting nature of her prose, Kleeman begins her story with a stripped down, simple set-up: The city has no name and her characters are designated via letters (A, B, and C), dehumanizing them to the point of structural shell. The story, in essence, is about a woman, her roommate, and her boyfriend, and the triangulation of their relationships that could easily transpire anywhere. A is a young woman who works as a proofreader and lives in an apartment with B, a woman who resembles her. A has a boyfriend, C, with whom things don’t seem quite right. A watches a lot of commercials and spends a lot of time being hungry and not eating. These are characters and roles with which a certain subset of readers will easily be able to identify: the jealous friend or lover, the floundering postgraduate, the millennial seeking meaning.
The power of Kleeman’s language lies partially in her descriptions, the way she dissects ordinary activities. Kleeman endows elements of contemporary life with new, strange ideas: a roommate conflict becomes a searing challenge to a woman’s identity, the simple act of cleansing takes on insidious dimensions, and a supermarket adopts a sinister agenda. Kleeman asks her readers to reconsider the mundane activities that comprise their daily lives and the strangeness inherent within. Using the terminology of both destruction and sexuality, Kleeman asks the reader to reconsider the act of eating:
“I dug a cool finger under its skin until I felt cool flesh, then I rooted that finger around and around,” she writes about the manner in which A eats an orange. “The rind tore with a soft, cottony sound, the peel one smooth, blunt piece trailing off the fist of the fruit…My hand ripped a wad of pulp and pushed it through the space between my lips. Juice crawled down the side of my palm.”
Kissing, too, receives the special Kleeman treatment. She writes, “A mouth was a means into a person, but it also offered one of the neatest ways out. Whatever entered that slick passage immediately began pushing through to the other side, emerging unrecognizable and many steps removed from itself… What this meant was… when he kissed me a part of him worked blindly to undo my body. When I put my own mouth on him, the material in my body sized up the material in his, checked to see if it was food or something other, something indigestible that would never truly penetrate.” Again, Kleeman mixes the language of sexuality and destruction, suggesting how intertwined and interrelated the two might in fact be.
There’s a hypnotic quality to her writing, a deep meditation on human activity that moves the writing forward more than shifting characters into different surroundings and circumstances. The plot takes off about two thirds of the way into the book, after A fights with both B and C. She becomes wrapped up in a cult that starves and dehumanizes its members, promoting conformity and a certain colorlessness. But by this point, the reader may not care what happens next; the novel’s suspense derives from the surprises in Kleeman’s language, not in her plot. It’s a strength of the author’s prose that eating an orange or kissing a boyfriend can become a major, thought-provoking action within the novel. Readers will trust Kleeman to take them somewhere new, strange, and surprising, wherever that may be.
by Alexandra Kleeman