I’ve started off the year with an exceptionally strong crop of books and Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine did not let me down in that respect. Also, grab me a Krispy Kreme, ‘cause this book made me HUNGRY!
Beyond calling this literary fiction, it’s a strangely unclassifiable novel, and yes, it is a novel, just in case you were misled by the title into thinking it was just another déclassé motivational workout guidebook by some celebrity with an awesome bod that you’ll obviously never imitate. It couldn’t be further from that, but we’ll get there, hold on a minute!
Even Amazon had trouble with this categorization (though I don’t know how they go about choosing these categories. Hopefully not based on their customer’s input, that’s all I can say…) putting it, a bit laughably in my opinion, in the “psychological thriller” category. Amazon UK is better, but still off the mark, calling it “Women’s Literary Fiction” which is perhaps a discussion best left for another day. Take that, Amazon analytical data, though people browsing for this ‘type’ of book might have a bit of trouble doing so.
Main character A has a best friend and roommate B and a boyfriend C. Her life seems pretty stable but as we learn more about her, she becomes unglued—B is basically her double and is looking and acting more like her everyday. C is more interested in TV and the breaking point of their relationship ends up being a dating reality show called That’s My Partner! that A dislikes and vows that she’d never be a participant on. The book is broken into three sections which chronicle A’s journey to find herself, or find the people who used to live across the street, or find Kandy Kakes. What is it that A really wants? I'm still not sure I know.
One of A’s constant worries in the first section of the book is how similar she is to B. They look very similar, everyone says they are the same person, in fact, A seems to be the only person that can’t see it. A is almost suspicious, worried that B is jealous and wants to take over her life, but all I saw was A slowly destroying herself. It was as though throughout the first two sections, B is finding herself and becoming more like A, A is devolving and almost becoming more like B used to be—only eating popsicles, avoiding going out, and eventually stalking her boyfriend obsessively, even though she never seemed that attached to him in the first place.
Obviously body image plays into this book, but it wasn't in the obvious ways that I expected. A is starving herself—ghosting herself—long before the third section of the book that I won’t give away here, but is it an attempt to erase herself from her life? To stop participating? To differentiate herself from the other consumers around her? Bodies also felt very alienated in this book, always being divided or looked at only as parts of the whole.
Take the game show, That’s My Partner! In the first round, couples are asked to identify their loved one based on magnified features—one eye, one shoulder, one kneecap, stuff like that. Would you recognize your boyfriend based on photos of men’s elbows? Your wife? Your child? You think now that of course you could, right? But give it a moment. We rely so much on faces and the whole of the person—could you really recognize just that one little part detached from the rest? And what if you were sure and you picked someone else’s ankle? How would that feel? How would your fiancé feel knowing you hadn't chosen the photo of her earlobe? How well do we really know the people who we think we know so intimately, and how well can you possibly know someone? Would you even recognize your own body parts out of the lineup? I think that would be the real challenge.
So then you have to think about how well you know your own body, which is a stand in for the entirety of your being. I just start wondering, who am I, really?
And we haven’t even gotten to Wally’s (the grocery store that is purposefully unhelpful to its patrons to make them buy more) or the Kandy Kakes or the veal or the disappearing dads or the cults yet! I’ll probably leave some of that for you to sort out on your own.
There is a very Kafkaesque feel to the structure and characters of this book. They are all at once very aware of the state of the world around them and then completely lost in it and totally invisible to themselves at the same time. People (not critics—who generally loved this book) who criticized this book tended to do so on the (thin, in my opinion) basis of the verbosity of the language that they felt was overwritten, or the plot that they felt strung along into nothing, or some version of frustration or confusion at the characters lack of action. Man oh man, I wish I could write each and every one of those people a personal letter to help them understand and talk them through the value and purpose and intention that I saw in all that, though I guess there are some people that are just bound to not get it. One man’s cut of veal is not for everyone, I suppose.
But I felt that all of those aforementioned elements are such a Kafka throwback. Kafka is a very tight writer, no words wasted, but he certainly can get you tangled in his sentences and in his, at times, extremely frustrating plots and strange character motivations, but these elements only further his purpose and this book reminded me especially of The Trial. In that narrative, poor Josef K. is just trying to understand the system even as it is constantly changing around him and eventually he realizes that the only way out is to give in and accept the structure and the full weight of the consequences, even though he should be blameless. A is going through her own sort of trial, one placed on her by herself, though I would argue by way of society’s media infiltration, and she does the same thing—realizes the only way out is in. Whether or not she’s right is the rest of the story.
Lastly, I'll bring up the motif of Kandy Kakes, these nasty sounding cake snacks that come up over and over again throughout the book. I pictured them sort of like those Hostess chocolate cupcakes with the white icing twirled down the middle—ugh—they sound so gross. My mother never let me have snacks like that and I can’t say I ever wanted them (thanks, mom!). When the nuclear apocalypse comes, my bet for the last surviving remnants on Earth: cockroaches and Twinkies.
In any case, Kandy Kakes are important to A first because their commercials feature a very sad and deprived Kandy Kat, who, in Wile E. Coyote fashion, concocts crazy schemes to feed his starving belly with Kakes. But the sentient Kakes always outsmart him or are somehow incompatible with his 2D cartoon body. It is mildly distressing for A and strangely makes her crave Kandy Kakes. I think she is taking on the Kat as a persona of sorts, perhaps just to have something to chase after—she wants to have something to want that badly. The Kakes come to serve a more diabolical purpose later on, but to whet your whistle, how can you argue with logic like this:
"With a product like Kandy Kakes, the ingredients are spelled out for you on the wrapper—every part accounted for, its caloric and nutritional content tabulated. But what sorts of ingredients went into a piece of fruit? An orange wasn't a type of food so much as another entity, looking out for its own interests, secretive and sealed, hiding its insides from the outside world” (139).
This novel is a smorgasbord of literary deprivation and starvation. I couldn't get enough.
Kleeman has such interesting ideas and this was only her debut novel! I can’t wait to see where she’ll go from here.
Get your copy (out in paperback on April 28, 2016):
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Brush up on Kafka: The Trial
Find out more about Alexandra Kleeman:
Find out more about the publisher, Harper Books (HarperCollins)
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.