What does A + B + C add up to in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine? Considering that A, B, and C are key characters in Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, that ersatz equation might seem facetious. It’s not. Throughout the novel, that question surfaces again and again.
Setting it in a “safe neighborhood” in the here-and-now of an alternate reality that’s a few degrees out of synch from our own, Kleeman situates her tale in an American strip mall anyplace. In one of very few references to her years before the present, A says:
I grew up in a place just like this, where the leaves never fall from the trees but cling there crinkled like burnt paper, shriveled and brown in some places but sprouting tender green leaves somewhere else. Here, the flowers bloom all year, and once they bloom they are already close to dying, nicking the mulch beneath with blotches of collapsed red and white. They repeat themselves, blooming and falling and being swept away before they rot, restoring the perfect squares of green that grid this town and the towns beyond. They grow blindly, nursed by an unending stream of water and sunlight. They wither against a uniform background of palms and pines, which are the same every time you look at them.
This poetic description is also atypical for narrator A because most often she’s inside a house staring at white walls or ceilings whose atmospheric “nullness” reflects an enervated community and sense of self. A watches screens too, usually with C, her boyfriend; he prefers TV programming about sharks or else DVDs, “heaps of horror and comedy and porn.” When she can stomach spending time with her troubled roommate, B, who is “catastrophically” thin and normally consumes lemon-scented vodka and red, pink, or orange Popsicles, A and B watch and discuss TV commercials.
Before, during, and after these tense interactions, A watches or recalls in detail more TV, in the form of commercials about Kandy Kakes—a Hostess Cupcake-like food product with a shelf-life of three decades—rejuvenating skin products by Fluvia cosmetics, and Trust TruBeauty, an edible beauty cream. There’s That’s My Partner! too, a game show (its distant ancestor would be The Newlywed Game) whose contestants are contractually obligated to break up if they lose. She’s also captivated by a news item and later media sensation who ‘rescues’ veal by stealing it in packaged shape. On occasion A wanders the aisles of Wally’s, a big box outlet, which has a corporate strategy of keeping desired products out of reach—thanks to inventory that’s rearranged on a strict routine—so that consumers are forced to wander aisles and make extra purchases. Eerie, Musak-malevolent, and fluorescent-lit, that backdrop showcases Kellman’s Pop wit.
When not worrying about her withering connection to C (which is easily her most pressing mental activity; picture an emotionally flatlined Carry Bradshaw stuck in dystopian dullness) or fretting that B’s deranged imitation of her style and look may signal both B’s imbalance and her desire to take over A’s whole existence, A is never far from a virtual mirror or her own navel. In the background: mysterious events. Newscasts speak of Disappearing Dad Disorder, reporting stories of comfortable, middle class guys who vanish without explanation; and, right across the street, an otherwise ordinary family abandon their home, walking away from it while donning white sheets, like Halloween ghosts. The insidious and satiric dystopian elements of Kleeman’s story are inventive and will appeal to readers of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.
Across two of the novel’s three sections, these intriguing moments loom in the background, outside world events so far as A is concerned. Author and character exhibit far greater interest in documenting the nuances of A’s crises of identity and existence. Given A’s intellectual paralysis, limited range of emotions (from anxiety and worry to total recall about specific product commercials), limited topics of reflection (B and C, basically), and overwhelming and profoundly uninteresting narcissism, the novel’s nearly 200 pages of blank affect, paranoid rambling, and banal questioning of a tenuous romantic relationship make for challenging and intermittently aggravating reading. There’s not enough complexity or personality in A’s interiority to make her adequately compelling, and as a wreck she’s too passive and insular to fully command attention. Further, if Kellman desires that we view A as a kind of Dora-esque case-study or a generational representative, she needs to provide greater reality-grounded cultural analysis for this stunted figure to add up.
Thankfully, in the third and final section, Kleeman drops A in a weird, lively, and marginally coherent breakneck plot. She’s taken by van to an indoctrination center of a new Manichean Christian sect, the United Church of the Conjoined Eater, which has ties to the ghost costumes, veal, Disappearing Dad Disorder, Kandy Kakes, Wally’s, Fluvia Cosmetics, and That’s My Partner! Seeking the light, UCCE’s ridiculous literalism (it bans chicken, for instance, because it has dark meat) provides doses of levity while providing A with something tangible to define herself against. Though short-lived, A’s involvement with the Church gives the novel some momentum and helps it become briefly, captivatingly unique.