Feministing Reads: You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

“It’s bad luck to compare hands.” This is what the nurse Alma tells her patient, the actress Elizabeth Vogler, after she grabs her hand at the start of Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona. The visual irony is that the camera has already compared their hands  moments earlier for us, panning down Alma’s back to reveal her nervous clasped fingers; and, from Elizabeth’s anxious face to her hands cutting an apple. From this early parallel between the private body of the nurse and the public body of the actress, the film’s dance of psychic identity theft unfolds. “Is it possible,” Alma soon asks Elizabeth, “to be one and the same person at the same time? I mean, two people?”

Alexandra Kleeman’s flawlessly weird debut novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine (Harper Collins) opens with a similar question of likeness: “Is it true,” her protagonist “A” asks the reader, “that we are more or less the same on the inside?” “I don’t mean psychologically,” she adds. “The heart from my body could be lifted and placed in yours.”

kleemanLike Bergman, Kleeman wonders how our psychological acts of transference, the way we lose ourselves through caring for another, might be represented in the body physically—which is to say, visually. “It’s no surprise,” A foreshadows, “that we care most for our surfaces: they alone distinguish us from one another and are so fragile, the thickness of paper.” The thinness of our surfaces is what makes them so easy to stretch, erase, dissolve and Kleeman renders these sculptural physics on the page effortlessly.

The dissolution of a precarious identity dominates the dreamlike plot: A worries that she bears an eerie resemblance to her best friend and roommate B. Every day, B seems to look like A more and more in face, in shoe size, in shape, in needs. Already they have a lot in common: neither woman eats much, besides conjoined orange popsicles “more like a color than a food” and together they watch TV in their house, or sometimes in their neighbor’s through their window. To a stranger at the supermarket, they would look like twins.

Soon B begins to haunt A—at least according to A. Every time A visits her boyfriend C, B waits for her eagerly. When she returns home, A feels trapped by B’s careful gaze. “Under her scrutiny,” A explains, “I felt the weight of my own presence constantly and grew tired, irritated by myself, trying to postpone reentering the construct of my life.” A tries not to make noise, not to leave her room, not to eat. She wants to “dilute” herself.

But even as A is frightened by her own erosion, she also seems to find it a tiny bit comforting, even alluring. Like good students of psychoanalysis, we realize with trepidation that A’s greatest fear is also, perversely, her deepest desire. “She was cut to my shape and size like a trapdoor,” A writes of B’s skeletal body, “similar enough that I could imagine myself into her, different enough to make that fantasy a form of escape.”

A’s wish to escape soon deepens into a desire to disappear completely. “I felt corseted in skin. I wanted to turn myself violently inside out.” She eventually finds a way to do so by joining a cult that promises to turn her into a “ghost” through starvation. In A’s new bedroom at the cult’s sterile corporate headquarters is a mirror whose allegorical function would be cloying if it wasn’t so perfect. The mirror’s reflection “turned out to be a to-scale painting of the curtains, so that you stood in front of it expecting to see yourself, and instead you saw Nobody.”

What does a disappearing woman want? The woman who vanishes has no doubt heard the critique that she is taking up too much space. Her appetite—for sex, for a career, for food, often for all three—is “too much.” She is told to do more and ask for less: the paradox is she is also supposed to do it “all.” “To disappear,” the writer Elizabeth Greenwood reflected in Al Jazeera America, “is to put oneself first, while women have been socially conditioned from time immemorial to put themselves last.” Greenwood understands the woman who vanishes as needing to escape from this century’s constant demands that she help and self-help—perform emotional labor on behalf of others while also improving herself.

When A realizes B has started to “resemble me more than I resembled myself,” she wonders to what extent she’s ever been truly present.

A woman’s body never really belongs to herself. As an infant, my body was my mother’s, a detachable extension of her own, a digestive passage clamped and unclamped from her body. My parents would watch over it, watch over what went in and out of it, and as I grew up I would be expected to carry on their watching by myself. Then there was sex, and a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. I had kept myself free of these things only through clumsy accident and luck. At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it.

In the course of A’s disappearing act, Kleeman presents one of the most startling satires of contemporary femininity: a woman who knows herself to be the guard to her own panopticon, watching herself be watched. In this looping, doubled gaze, A’s insecurities are constantly reflected back to her by mirrors, dreams, surreal commercials on TV. We can have a body like hers, because it is never quite hers to begin with. Inhabiting a public body marked by the fantasies of consumerism, A’s porous self spits out and absorbs the exaggerated marketing schemes shouted at her from the supermarket, the cult, and especially the television.

The strangest of the novel’s giddy, hyper-real streams of commercials is its Itchy and Scratchy-esque advertisement campaign for Kandy Kakes. A recalls their plots fondly and these ads punctuate her episodic life first as comic interludes, later as dark mirrors.

In any given Kandy Kake commercial, the starving Kandy Kat expends boundless energy in the hopeless pursuit of the fluffy, plastic-derived yet edible Kakes. The delicious Kakes taunt and thwart him endlessly, despite his desperate efforts. The flat cat chasing his three-dimensional object of desire always ends up debased, debilitated, destroyed. His eyes bulge, ribs throb, fur disintegrates, body explodes. He is perpetually dying, forever resurrected. At the finale of each bottomless chase, the ads present the idea that unlike the cartoon Kandy Kat, the Kandy Kakes are made of “Real Stuff.”

Oddly enough, one could summarize the novel’s strain of realism with the same words A uses to describe her tasty Kandy Kakes: “Maybe not natural stuff, but definitely genuine three-dimensional material from our physical universe that was similar to us in ways that it might not be to bodies from a cartoon world.” A’s world, in other words, is not quite unreal, but it’s not reality exactly either. Like a smart adult cartoon, every scene is visceral, depressing, exhilarating. Reading A’s story you find yourself “experiencing something,” as Kleeman once wrote of Philip K. Dick, “that feels like it could tear you in half.”

It makes sense that Kleeman originally “envisioned half the novel being told from the perspective of a cartoon cat!,” as she put it in a Q and A. In a way, it still is. Kleeman reveals that on the inside A is no different than the novel’s cartoon leitmotif—a mascot striving for an impossible food made of no food, for a body with no parts. A has always already been cartooned: an interchangeable, immaterial form, upon which innumerable acts of violence can be wrought and self-inflicted. Hers is a flexible body, constantly made to work—in the service of reproduction, emotion, sex. As with so many female figures on TV, she appears elastic, a plastic.

No wonder A only understands that she is starving herself to death when she sees her pale, tangled form on a television screen, twisted back at herself. When she grasps her own mediated image, the reality of hunger finally seizes her body. It’s the same logic as when a cartoon body runs off a cliff. At first the roadrunner keeps running on nothing. The laws of gravity, in these fictions, don’t apply. Until suddenly the roadrunner realizes that he is floating and, shocked by this troubling insight, falls. Only in this moment of recognition does the body again gain its weight.


Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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