Abject All American: Thoughts on Reading You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
Originally published at www.fluxweekly.com in December 2015
In her debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Alexandra Kleeman is concerned with bodies: insides and outsides, their boundaries, the morphing and doubling of bodies, disembodiment, the consumption of one body by another, the consumption of a body by consumerism.
The title is a joke, an infomercial claim. Your body can be like my body. Or your body can BE my body. Or, a more Rodney Dangerfield kind of “have” (Take my wife. Have my body.)
I imagine a film adaptation beginning with an extreme close-up of a gall-bladder inside a body, like a scene from House, M.D. that shows the exact moment an artery clogs or a synapse fails to fire. The camera zooms out through the internal organs while a voiceover speaks the first lines of the book:
Is it true that we are more or less the same on the inside? I don’t mean psychologically. I’m thinking of the vital organs, the stomach, heart, lungs, liver: of their placement and function, and the way that a surgeon making the cuts thinks not of my body in particular but of a general body, depicted in cross section on some page of a medical school textbook. The heart of my body could be lifted and placed in yours, and this portion of myself that I had incubated would live on, pushing foreign blood through foreign channels. In the right container, it might never know the difference.
The city setting of the story is a sketch — driveways, highways, apartment complexes, palm trees. The real environment is television, a glowing backdrop that is more furniture than wallpaper. Throughout the book the main character, A, describes unsettling TV programs and uncanny commercials for Gilliam-esque beauty products. Most centrally are a series of commercials for Kandy Kakes which are part Itchy & Scratchy and part Don Hertzfeldt.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is about the first-person A. (I only know she is called A by the synopsis on the book flap; she is never referred to by that name or any other in the text itself.) A is afraid that her roommate B is trying to become her and replace her. A starts to lose her self, and is drawn to a cult called the Church of the Conjoined Eater, whose practices involve separating a seemingly arbitrary LIGHT and DARK in order to achieve the goal of becoming their ghosts.
It is little surprise to me that Kleeman is completing a PhD in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, as You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a case study for Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, Freud’s theory of the uncanny, and even Linda Williams’ work on body genres.
The abject, according to Kristeva is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” Shit, piss, blood, semen, vomit are abject, the inside of the body on the outside, a collapse of boundaries. In a key scene early on, B cuts her hair to the same length as A’s and gives A the severed braid. Detached from B’s head it is abjected: “I couldn’t tell whether the thing I saw in my hands was dense or light, dry or moist. In my hands the braid lay soft and motile, limp and invertebrate.” It is interstitial, rebelling against categorization, threatening wholeness. A’s attempt to rectify this is a particularly (and pleasurably) nauseating passage. (Re-reading Kristeva I did a doubletake at her description of the abject as a “twisted braid of affects and thoughts” — is Kleeman messing with us?)
A suffers from “a dangerous blurriness” in her life, a difficulty creating boundaries and distinctions, or sometimes creating distinctions where there should be none. In an early scene, A puts on makeup in the mirror but does not recognize herself. Later, she better recognizes herself in the face of another person, as she applies makeup to B. At one point she mistakes B for her own mirror image.
Faces are everywhere in the book. One of my favorite passages reads:
Sometimes a face could be so simple: even a couple of dark spots on a lighter surface or a dark oval in the distance might be a face. An electrical socket could be a face, a mailbox or a couple of punctuation marks could congeal suddenly into something with an expression. Our faces, on the other hand, were made of hundreds of different parts, each separate and tenuous and capable of being ugly, each part waiting for a product designed to isolate and act upon it. Every time I looked at my face I seemed to find another piece to it, floating there next to or underneath or inside the others, all the parts together but impossible to connect.
Kleeman creates a brilliant contrast between pareidolia, the mind’s tendency to create patterns where there are none (like the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast) with the way one can stare at one’s face in the mirror until it comes apart into disparate pieces.
A’s body is taken apart by her boyfriend in his sexts: “…the body that emerged from his description seemed to have only three or four parts, linked hazily by what I would assume was more body. Talking about my body in any way took me apart.”
Bodies are taken apart again watching porn while she has sex with her boyfriend, C, at his insistence:
Their genitals appeared first attached to their bodies and so small that you could cover them with a fingertip, then grew large enough to fill the entire screen. The oversize organs that were being pictured now had no body attached and therefore were bodies in themselves. Hairless and smooth, they lapped like faces with rudimentary mouths, speaking in a language that lay outside of my hearing.
(An instructive digression to Linda Williams’ writing on “meat shots” in pornography: Williams categorizes a “meat shot” as “a close-up of penetration that shows that hard-core sexual activity is taking place,” which progresses the narrative but does not offer the visual satisfaction or narrative closure of a “money shot,” ejaculation. Layers, here, of abjection.)
A notes that the prepositions of dirty talk “up, deep, down, farther, through” are oriented around the stomach, “the center of digestion.”
“Food loathing,” writes Kristeva,” is perhaps the most archaic form of abjection.” She memorably describes, “When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk…I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach.” From the eyes to the stomach, the center of digestion.
The Kandy Kakes from the commercials are a point around which the plot sometimes pivots. When A does not get what she wants out of her (insufferable) boyfriend, she turns her wanting into an appetite for Kandy Kakes. Part 2 of the book sets her in the Kafka-esque supermarket chain Wally’s, looking for the snack. Her quest to satisfy her hunger for Kandy Kakes is what leads her to the cult.
“Food becomes abject,” Kristeva again, “only if it is a border between two distinct entities or territories. A boundary between nature and culture, between the human and the non-human.” The Kandy Kakes are described as being made of plastic, yet all natural. The Conjoined Eaters consider them to be a “Bright” food. When A finally gets to eat one, the description is simultaneously mouth-watering and revolting.
Consumption is a looming theme in the book, both the feeding of oneself, consuming food for nutrition, and the all-American consumerism that feeds on you. Commercials tell women, in the book and without, that they need to buy makeup to create their faces. The beauty industry sells faces, poreless skin. But I’m reminded of the scene in Mrs. Doubtfire in which Robin Williams, taken by surprise without his old-woman-faced prosthetics, smashes his face into a cake, coating it with frosting that looks like a thick skin-care facial mask. His womanness isn’t questioned. A woman doesn’t need a face at all.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a work of brilliance. Take it apart, like A’s anatomy, and it is made up of masterfully crafted sentences and jaw-dropping paragraphs. Taken as a whole, it is as ineffably beautiful and alive as shadows moving across the planes of a face.