When Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine released last year, I was lucky enough to be able to interview her on BookTrib. The buzz around her new book was palpable and it was unlike anything that I’d read before. The debut earned her comparisons to several literary heavy hitters like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine was eerie, unsettling, whimsical and surreal.
The aimlessness of the characters and their existential angst at times made me feel like I was swimming through several dreams at once, with ultra-violet advertisements dancing in the background with Kandy Kakes and late night infomercials for anti-aging creams. Events as mundane as a sticky orange popsicle flood melting onto an army of unsuspecting ants was a truly vivid and visceral experience for me as a reader.
Now in Kleeman’s new collection of short stories, Intimations (Harper, September 13, 2016) is a testament to her skills as a short story writer. Made up of 12 absurdist tales, Kleeman attempts to pick apart the meaning of life and better understand life in its various stages. The book is divided into three sections: birth, life and death. The stories range from what happens when you forget who you are, lobsters attack humans, and an apocalypse presents itself as a day when people, places and objects begin to disappear, one by one.
For me, the standout story in Intimations is “Fake Blood.” Maybe it’s my affinity for gory costume parties but Kleeman’s delivery in this one is spot on. If you’ve ever been stared at during a social gathering, you’ll relate to the main character’s situation. It’s a story where insecurities and fears are perfectly communicated. A girl shows up at a party dressed in a costume covered in fake blood. She soon realizes that she mixed up her information and this indeed was not meant to be a costume party. It’s your own worst nightmare coming true.
Many of the partygoers believe she’s covered in real blood, which makes for a very awkward experience; others like party guest Andrew realize that she is covered in fake blood and he takes the time to admire her skill in creating the perfect potion for fake blood: “Six pints of karo syrup at room temperature, three ounces of red food coloring, nondairy creamer for opacity, arrowroot powder for texture, blue food coloring for depth, a bit of honey for the complexion, and vanilla extract to improve the scent.” It’s delightful details like these that are so beautifully articulated that you can’t help but read on. When a man is found in the next room face down on the floor with an ax in his back, blood pooling around him, everyone thinks that they are in a murder mystery game and that it’s all a hoax. But is it? Kleeman will transport you to a haunting new realm in each story, where the line between the ordinary and extraordinary blurs.
Read below for an excerpt from Intimations Part III: “Fake Blood.”
It was some sort of banquet hall or ballroom, windowless and arrayed with candles, and containing thirty or forty people who turned toward me, staring. They stared at me as though they hoped they could fix me through staring, or at least stare me away. I felt a stickiness move across my skin, and because I could not shut their eyes, I shut my own.
When I opened them, I was still standing in a large room with many other people. Nothing in the situation had changed or would change, however much I wished for it, and that seemed unbearable in a way that I supposed I would be
bearing anyhow. There were small, delicate cakes and little heaps of berries. There were balloons floating up against the ceiling and wilting on the ground, colored shapes lying still in the dim and festive light.
I had arrived in costume, but it was not a costume party. Just a normal party, they said.
I looked down at my body as if for the first time. It seemed impossible to get an accurate view of myself without a mirror or camera, something on the outside to look in. From the perspective of my eyes, my shoulders and torso were huge. My legs began in knees, short and stubby, then suddenly there were shoes and it was all done. I was dressed entirely in white: a short white vinyl dress and white stockings; short white gloves and white heels. I had on a hat with a red cross at the front, and I was covered in fake blood.
I had come dressed as a sexy nurse: the blood was mostly incidental, mostly a way to keep from getting mixed up with the other sexy nurses that inevitably turn up at costume parties. But this was a normal party, and as such the blood was now a real liability. It was perhaps the one factor that made it truly unimaginable for me to blend in with the elegant people that fluttered around nearby, laughing lightly and staring at me like I was covered in blood, which I was.
“Is there someplace I could stow my coat?” I asked.
The thing was to behave as normally as possible, more normally than was possible, in order to balance out the blood. All the attention in the room was pooling at my feet, and I needed something big and alarming to draw it away from me, or conversely, something very ordinary to mask it. I went over to the table to find something to hold in my hands. Empty plastic cups measured out the emptiness in
neat rows, waiting to be filled or moved or restacked. These objects were pieces, building up toward a whole I could not at all recognize.
“A little bit of detergent and ammonia, that’s what I would use,” said a woman’s voice from behind me, whispered harshly. It appeared some people were having trouble telling the fake blood from real, and this might account for the coagulation of fear in the space surrounding me. I mixed alcohol, juice, and ice until it approximated the right color, and then I tried to figure out a way to stand. The light was strange in there, and it seemed conceivable that I could find a place and position that would render the bloodstains invisible, camouflaged, like a dappled shadow falling on the surface of grass.
But my movements in and out of the shadowy areas of the room, covered in blood as I was, made the other partygoers nervous. My dress gave off a loud and plasticky sound when I shifted even slightly, and there was the tendency of my costume toward drippage. The other guests hunched in toward one another as I wriggled in the corners, trying to cancel out the stains. “You just can’t hide something like that,” a man’s voice said with audible disgust, coming from someplace I was unable to see.
The way things were, all I could do was make the situation worse.
There are times when any amount of being within the world is like rubbing bare skin against sandpaper, when any form of motion is a kind of abrasion, leaving you raw and pink and vulnerable to the next thing. At these times, I prefer to close my eyes and be still, still like the cups or candles or crackers on the table, nerveless and open. I closed my eyes and tried to think of the thing furthest from my situation. I imagined a meadow and I populated it with sunlight, a small and rustic fence trailing toward the horizon, a little family of ducks and a couple of grazing sheep, a green and verdant field studded with small white flowers, possibly clover blossoms. But before I knew it, blood was everywhere, though the sheep continued to munch along idyllically, tearing at the reddened tufts with small, calm movements and very white teeth.