We met the novelist to talk about Philip K. Dick, roommate dynamics, and gender in paranoid, postmodern-y works.
Author Alexandra Kleeman texted to say she'd be a few minutes late to our meeting at the Lodge in Williamsburg for wings night. She was getting some Aspirin for a sore back, she explained, when she sat down. She was just coming off six days bed rest at a convent in Washington State as part of her research for an article on the topic. It turns out that bed rest really isn't good for you, at all. Especially not if you're pregnant, which is the only time it's still prescribed.
"I never knew what a big part of your mood is feeling like you have the potential to move around," Kleeman, who is an occasional VICE contributor, told me. "When you get up for your 15 minutes a day, your body is not charged with energy. It feels like you're dipping into reserves to walk around."
The difficulty of possessing a contemporary female form is the subject of her first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which she began while attending the Columbia MFA program. In it, the narrator A begins in a stable place – cooking for her possessive, lemon vodka-swilling roommate B; watching Shark Week with her upbeat and patient boyfriend C. Then she joins a cult and ends up on a dating show called That's My Partner! It's kinda tough to summarise, as you can maybe tell.
Anyway, we had a good talk about Philip K. Dick, why she understands the appeal of Scientology, writing dystopian sci-fi as a woman, and the intensity of female friendships.
VICE: Where did the book start? Did you want to address consumerism, roommate stuff?
Alexandra Kleeman: What I really wanted to do at the beginning was try and create a character who loses herself in another identity so it was going to be half A, half a portion told from [the book's snack mascot] Kandy Kat's perspective, until they would loop around and turn into one another. I imagined a cartoon world that was deeper and more fleshed out than our world, so there'd be a lot more detail in the scenes and more emotions describing the cartoon characters than the real-life characters, and that still sounds like an interesting project to me, but I didn't know what I was trying to say at that point.
I'm trying to think of what that would look like just because this book is so spartan in its tone and descriptions.
I think it was easier to turn all the gears when I stripped the situation down to only the important moving parts. I always think about Philip K. Dick, who I love, how he always pulls these narrative inversions and part of that is using this very functional science-fiction writer prose. If there's too much going on ornamentally you wouldn't be able to track what's going on. Like, imagine if his women characters had full-blown internal monologues that you had to drop into! It'd be hard.
Then how did you come to the third act with the cult? It gets sort of plotty. It struck me as so different, like you were discovering it yourself.
I wanted to get the main character really lost, to have her fall out of her life into the other place. As I was thinking about a claustrophobic psychological situation, I was wondering what kind of information could feel like a genuine solution. There is no solution, but sometimes an advertisement or a religion or a philosophical thing presents itself and you're like, "Oh, yeah. Everything makes sense in a new way now," even though it's just a rehashing.
I started writing the cult by trying to write a pamphlet that I thought would be really startling and alienating and also make all the weird pressures in the earlier part fit together in a new way. I wanted to make it like a funhouse mirror of what had come before so a lot of the same logics are at work, but they make different things good and different things bad. They take a situation we've seen before, but then they read it as, "No, you're not crazy – that person's an impostor!"
'I think there's a lot that hasn't been written about in those sorts of postmodern dystopian books by men. I mean, obviously, the female experience, for one.' —Alexandra Kleeman
Are you at all religious?
I was raised very carefully without any kind of religion. My dad's an ancient Chinese religion professor. That made me want to not know anything about the field he was already an authority on, but I did start getting more into religion through cults. My dad, he hates Scientology, right? Who doesn't? So he'll download pirated versions of their secret valuable texts and he'll email them to me be like, "These texts are worth $100,000." Reading those texts was really compelling in that I could see how someone could read them and feel a chance happening in their body and feel a change happening in how they perceived the world. They give you a lot of procedures on how to show you that your mind is growing. Like, "Imagine a wall. Hold the wall in your mind. Now the wall is green. Do you see it's green? Do you see how you made it green?"
I was always interested in the idea, in cognitive science, that mental representations are stored bodily structures too. So when you hear the word hammer, you activate all the knowledge about what a hammer is used for and what it looks like you. You prime the muscles in your hand that will operate a hammer and have [operated one] before. That's actually what I worked on when I was an undergrad. I worked in a cog-sci lab. I did a weird experiment trying to test that. Basically, if your arm is actually involved in your remembering the word hammer, doing a conflicting motion that has nothing to do with hammering will slow down your recollection of the word hammer.
So if you're doing a sawing motion, you don't remember the word hammer as well?
It takes you like a millisecond longer.
Your cult seems so trenchant in that way.
I wanted to explore the possibility that you could be living in a situation where the place where you leave and the place you go to are functionally the same. There's no elsewhere in this world, and the place that looks like it's free of capitalism turns out to be just a stop in the system, it's where they package the goods. And also where they create readymade consumer base for Kandy Kakes that otherwise wouldn't necessarily sell, because they're disgusting.
I like how you don't dwell on that, the way maybe an 80s author would have, or a Don DeLillo or Dick would have. It seems like these fun paranoid, conspiracy, systems-y, postmodern-y books are so often written by men. And I don't know what my question is, except... why did you feel compelled to write one as a woman? Something like that?
I think you can ask, "Why did you feel compelled to write one as a woman?"
That feels patronising, though.
I think there's a lot that hasn't been written about in those sorts of postmodern dystopian books by men. I mean, obviously, the female experience, for one. I'd say a lot of those books are about a male psyche, not a male psyche, but the political subject in America at the time. But I think the body is kind of secondary. I think part of the kind of dystopian state that we live in that it is loveable and hatable at the same time. And the way that it shapes us physically. I think we're much more aware of problems in the food production industry now, and those are things that like weren't really on the visible horizon back then.
Those books were mostly about concerns about freedom, what's happening to freedom. I feel like, in our time, our concern is less about what's happening. We never believed that we were ever so free that freedom could be impinged upon in a meaningful way. But is our quality of life [the same] as we are being told it is? Is our identity our own, or how dependent is it on other people in terms of media feeding into us? I think that [Don DeLillo's] White Noise has this in it, but it was important to me to make sure [the argument of the book] is not just that monoculture or generalisation of culture makes us less individualistic. There's a weird way in that it produces a sense of home distributed throughout the world that can be a very positive or comforting feeling. We live in a really ambivalent state about this, so I really wanted it to be horrifying but also a little enticing.
In that way I thought you did roommate dynamics very well.
Even in your experience?
To be honest, no. More with girls, ones I've witnessed sleeping over at my girlfriends'. A and B's relationship did seem uniquely female.
I think there's something really intense about it. I was an only child, and I wasn't really used to being around a lot of people. But girls who were always with their friends or with their siblings, I think there are people who really don't like to be alone. So you get put into that kind of situation with a person like that and you have an obligation to their emotional state.
"If it happened, a guy would be like, 'That's weird, I don't want to deal with that.' Which is healthy."
Did you ever have a sort of, what's the movie, Single White Female situation, in college or otherwise?
Most of the female roommate situations I've had, even when they've gone well, they've been a little stressful for me emotionally. Like, someone's watching a Kardashian show. You don't want to watch it, but if you don't watch it, it's like you're saying there's something you don't like about the roommate, or their taste. And so you watch it, and then you're learning all these things about the Kardashians and learning all these things you never wanted to know about them, and it's changing you as a person! I had a roommate who resembled B a little bit. Her name was also Alexandra.
I actually didn't put in a lot of the strangest things about that relationship in the book.
When it was going well, I had this great sense of being accompanied all the time, and I'd go home and the day wouldn't end there. We'd do one thing together then another thing then another thing, but there was no choice about it. You'd come home and go from work zone to her zone.
Anytime you get into a close female friendship it's really interesting and exciting to feel like you've got this person – more than a boyfriend – [with whom] you can just upload and download your consciousness. But I think it can go wrong so often because whenever anything interrupts that flow it's like now the relationship is in peril, and what's going to happen next? Are you going to try to reinsert yourself into that kind of mode – or blow it up?
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Do you think the problem is too much intimacy?
I always get into intense friendships when the other person asks for something from me that's very personal. All of a sudden: We don't know each other very well, but something happened with some guy and [the other person is] very upset. And when they do that, you feel very flattered and very connected.
But I've also had a lot of other girl experiences where a friend will say, "I saw photos of you with another friend on Instagram, but you still like me the most, right?" And then you've got to say yes to maintain the intimacy you're supposed have, and then if you don't maintain it, it can all fall apart all of a sudden. I don't think guys do that. Or if it happened, a guy would be like, "That's weird, I don't want to deal with that." Which is healthy.
Yeah, male friendships don't seem that competitive. Or maybe they are a little, if you're a writer.
Well, writers are just all like open sores.
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You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman is out Thursday, August 25, from HarperCollins.