Alexandra Kleeman: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
The title comes from a slogan in an ad for the bodybuilder Charles Atlas, whom Kleeman discovered, as a child, while reading through her father’s old comic books. This comment and the title of the book show clearly what this book is about – the issue of bodies, particularly women’s bodies, and how they are seen and expected to be seen in the media.
The story is narrated by an unnamed narrator. She shares an apartment with another woman, known only as B. As she points out, the two are very similar in appearance. They are both petite, pale, and prone to sunburn. We had dark hair, pointy chins, and skinny wrists; we wore size six shoes. If you reduced each of us to a list of adjectives, we’d come out nearly equivalent. However, there is one difference between the two women. B. is fragile, looks underfed and seems to be bulimic. The narrator works as a proofreader, though her job means only that has to see that everything was punctuated, see that words were in a sensical place, but avoid trying to make sense of them.
The narrator’s boyfriend is called C. C. and B. do not get along, so the narrator tries to keep them apart. C.’s view is that people were nuts, even the people who you loved, and that therefore it was fair to keep them at a distance, even fairer the more you felt for them. As a result the couple meet no more than three days a week.
But what makes this book is the focus on the body. We see this early on in a TV advert, where a woman using this new citrus-based facial scrub begins to scratch at the side of her face, discovering that it has edges, shriveled and curling slightly like old paper. Eyeing the camera, she grasps these edges and lifts up on them until she is peeling the whole surface of her face off with a filmy sound like plastic wrap unsticking. Many of her references to these body issues come across as somewhat distasteful. A woman’s body never really belongs to herself the narrator comments, explaining how she goes from being controlled by her parents to becoming a sexual object and worried about pregnancy and disease. Though she does not specifically mention it at this point, it is clear that the media’s view of women’s bodies is a factor. One other area where the two women differ is their hair. B. initially has long hair. However, she cuts off her braid and presents it to the narrator. It hung heavy, but with an active tension, a nervous cord sagging slightly in its middle where there was nothing to support it. The hair had a sad look, naked and lonely, gleaming with oily light. She keeps it but finds it disturbing.
Much of their time is spent with food (mainly eating but also buying and looking) and watching TV. Nearly everything they watch on TV (at least what we see them watching) concerns the body and/or food. The narrator is obsessed with Kandy Kakes. She watches all their adverts which are decidedly unfriendly. They involve a cartoon cat, Kandy Kat, endeavouring to eat one of the Kandy Kakes. However, he cannot, as he is a two-dimensional cartoon cat and they are three-dimensional cakes. The cakes invariably defeat him and even, on one occasion, eat him. We, however, can eat them as they are the real stuff. The narrator becomes so obsessed with them that, when she has a row with her boyfriend, she goes off wandering to find them and stumbles on a new, giant DoubleWally’s (Wally’s is the supermarket chain in her area), determined to find them. Wally’s has a clever way of hiding in-demand items so that customers spend a lot longer looking for them and end up buying other things they did not know that they wanted. Eventually, after a lot of effort, she does find them but all the boxes are empty. This is all connected with the people who live opposite her who dress up as ghosts.
Kleeman gives us some witty examples of the food and body obsession, from her boyfriend’s obsession with sharks to the veal thief. He was concerned with the way animals used for veal were treated but could nothing about it, so he started buying up all the veal in the supermarket. The supermarket ordered more and he could not afford to buy it so he stole it and was, of course, caught. He pleaded that he could not liberate the animals so he was trying to liberate the meat. In other books, this may have been given the satirical treatment but, in this book, Kleeman/the narrator are very sympathetic towards to him. There is the anticancer drug which seems to work very well on half the rats treated, till the narrator laconically reports that the other half died.
There are other plot threads. There is the Disappearing Dad Syndrome. Fathers seem to be disappearing without explanation. They just walk off. Sometimes they are found wandering around towns many miles away wearing freshly laundered clothes similar to the ones they left in. They seem to be in a daze. When questioned they do not seem to be able to give an explanation, saying only Sometimes you’ve just got to be content with things the way they are.
The main plot thread in the second part of the book relates to the the neighbours dressing up as ghosts. They are part of a strange cult called the Conjoined Eaters Church, who like eating Kandy Kakes and they seemed to be linked to a lot of what is going on in this book.
There are numerous examples of Kleeman’s skill at showing the alienation the narrator feels and the strange food issues, from a detailed and fairly repulsive description of her boyfriend’s mouth as he is about to kiss her to the advert of a dove trapped in a beauty cream, struggling to get out and then, when it does get out, entering the mouth of the model and getting stuck there, from the lemon meringue pie flavoured toothpaste to the game show whose final episode involves the contestant entering a dark room with several naked people and trying to find their own partner. Failure to get the right one – and sometimes they even get the wrong sex – means that they have to agree to dissolve the relationship.
This is a superb debut novel from Kleeman, showing clearly how we consumers – and women in particular – are manipulated by the media and the food industry as well as going into the danger of cults and the increasing alienation of many people from the society in which they live. She could have easily slipped into satire and mocked the media, the consumers and the religion but she skilfully avoids doing so, thereby making the whole issue distinctly more disturbing and worrying at the way the world, or least the US, is going.
First published in 2015 by Harper