Think of Alexandra Kleeman as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in. Her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper Collins; August 25, 2015), is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on women’s body image, consumerism and conformity.
Our narrator, known only as A, lives in a shared suburban apartment. She and her roommate, B, are physically similar and emotionally dependent, egging each other on to paranoia and anorexia. They eat nothing but popsicles and oranges. A’s boyfriend, C, has a penchant for watching porn and mansplaining. A obsesses over every aspect of her body – whether her eyesight, makeup, posture, sexuality or perpetual hunger – and wonders if C could really tell the difference between her and B if they were on That’s My Partner!, an awful game show that forces contestants to distinguish their partner’s body parts from decoys. “A woman’s body never really belongs to herself,” A frets.
Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. A describes TV commercials in great detail, especially the saga of Kandy Kat, a Wile E. Coyote-like cartoon figure whose single-minded devotion to Kandy Kakes always ends in disappointment. Along with the ironic talk-show story of Michael, who bought all a supermarket’s veal in an attempt to save calves – thereby drumming up artificial demand and ensuring more died – these ads depict a society addicted to false values.
The plot grows increasingly bizarre. When her neighbors, dressed like Halloween ghosts in white sheets, abandon their house, A starts investigating two recent phenomena: Disappearing Dad Disorder and the Church of the Conjoined Eater. Members of this cult wear sheets to mask their individuality and vow to “unremember” their past, all while adhering to a sanctioned diet. In this dystopian setup, burnt-out dads and everyday narcissists try to escape themselves, but find that self-abnegation is equally soul-destroying.
A, too, joins the Conjoined Eaters, and all the novel’s disparate elements – the labyrinthine Wally’s supermarkets, the ubiquitous Kandy Kakes, the creepy game show, the body dysmorphia and the identity crises – come together for a truly surreal finale. Indeed, there’s a nightmarish, Kafkaesque quality to much of the novel, with people and objects recombining in the unpredictable manner of dreams. As it happens, the Library of Congress has a rather more mundane explanation for A’s issues: one of their classifications for the book is “Obsessive-compulsive disorder—Fiction.”
Like Sarai Walker’s Dietland, this novel bulldozes body issues under a bold, feminist satire that addresses the perennial question of inner versus outer beauty. “Maybe that was the secret to happiness,” A muses, “being free of the responsibility of yourself.” What if the opposite is true? In a culture of self-alienation where we buy things we don’t need, have no idea where food comes from and desperately keep up the façade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. Don’t miss her incredible debut.