We live in the era of ‘alternative facts,’ and whether we chose to acknowledge it or not, it’s a blade that cuts both ways. The Trump administration coined the now infamous phrase, in January, by way of the intrepidly conniving Kellyanne Conway, to explain away all the mistruths that would be served up to the American people in the subsequent months.
So it seemed like a good time to talk to Alexandra Kleeman, author of 2015’s You Too Can Have Body Like Mine and last year’s short story collection, Intimations. Earlier this year, Kleeman had the courage to take on the New York Times and its decision to hire Bret Stephens. “To normalize Stephens’s science denialism,” she wrote, “is to normalize the willful negation and distortion of facts that the Times supposedly resists.”
In June, we talked about the role of truth in our current post-truth world, satire and art as tools of protest, and protesting Bret Stephens.
The Rumpus: Is You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine a work of satire?
Alexandra Kleeman: I have mixed feelings about satire—it can be a really wonderful tool for showing the inherent absurdity of a situation, but I think that there is also something one-sided about it, something strident. When I was writing, I really felt clear that I wanted to depict or amp up the absurdity of American consumer culture, but I also wanted to retain the part of it that is alluring, that I feel myself drawn to as an American and as a consumer myself. There’s something crass about the sheer amount of goods that are available for purchase at a Walmart, something so unnecessary about it—wasteful, bloated, but also sublime.
Walmart has ceilings as high as a cathedral and a kind of cathedral-like structure that reflects the abundance that we have access to. Abundance is not something you can sneer at, and I’m legitimately amazed by all the choices you find there. It’s a piece of infinity. As much as I want people to laugh at the absurdity of it all, I also want them to feel the in awe of it—which I think is as much a part of our present existence as the grotesquerie.
Rumpus: Speaking of grotesquerie, when you were writing this in 2013, could you ever have imagined that Donald Trump, with his titular suite of products ranging from reality television formats to books to hotels and clothing, would become President of the United States of America?
Kleeman: I feel like no one really saw that coming. I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but before a Trump presidency was even a possibility, I watched The Apprentice and I was a fan of it because I’d never really worked a normal career job. So to see people competing on these tasks—doing these branding and marketing exercises—was exotic to me. Each episode was a transmission from another planet. I enjoyed the sort of cartoon-like caricature of a boss personality that he adopted, too. I could never have imagined that safely-contained televisual power would ever spill over into the actual world, but I think we’re in strange times right now where what’s really happening is more satirical that the satire we could have imagined and even prepared for.
Now I think the question has become, “How are we going to respond to this absurdity?” Are we going to try to restore our country to the condition it was in before, or we going to try to imagine something better? Is there room for Utopian thought or are we going to all default to realism, because the hyper-real and the real have just collided and now they are indistinguishable from one another?
Rumpus: Which is your way forward?
Kleeman: I think a lot of my time over the last several months has been taken up trying to figure out how am I going to adapt, because my old modes of political engagement were obviously inadequate. I felt You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine was political at the time; I think it’s still political, but now it really feels like a peacetime book to me. I’m thinking of Christian Lorentzen’s essay on literature of the Obama era, with its focus on authenticity and identity and the small ethics of everyday life. It feels like a luxury to think about those things now.
Rumpus: It’s a privilege to worry about the everyday—the internal or the hyperlocal—rather than the looming global threats.
Kleeman: We had the privilege of introspection. And now we feel there’s no time to introspect, that introspection is a luxury, and that slows our ability to understand the new crisis we’re in. As I was thinking about this stuff, my friend Tom Krell sent me an essay called “We Are All Very Anxious” by a British activist group called Plan C. In broad terms, it says that each political moment is defined by an oppressive affect that keeps people from marshaling an effective political response to the conditions that are making them unhappy. For example, earlier in the 20th century, that affect was physical misery; people worked difficult jobs that were hard on their bodies. They were underpaid. Their livelihood left no room for them to be individuals and their misery kept them from having enough energy to fight for what they needed.
The solution to that was collective organization, labor unions—the sort of anger that you can conjure more effectively when you’re with other people. When you feel that way in private, that anger has a tendency to fizzle out into dismay. Once that affect was created to counteract the oppressive affect, people were able to create local change.
But our present political situation is dominated by anxiety and affect. You feel that something is wrong, but you also feel that you’re unable to act, or don’t know how. You need to understand more about the situation in order not to be surprised and harmed by it, but our current relationships to the media is one of excess. We can spend all day waiting for more information, and that information often does come, but it doesn’t provoke a decisive burst of action that would partially discharge that anxiety and offer us a sense that we had acted upon our own situation. So we feel doubly helpless, unable to affect our political conditions and unable to affect our own psychological state.
Even though we need to stay informed, we also have to learn to act in a state of unsurety and precarity and feel like that action counts, even though it may not change the situation in a decisive way. It’s a way of reclaiming our own agency.
Rumpus: You have been an outspoken critic of the New York Times for hiring Bret Stephens, formerly of the Wall Street Journal. How did you decide to write and engage other authors in an open letter to the Times protesting his hiring?
Kleeman: I wanted to have people who value the Times the way I did, who had written for the Times like I did, people who felt that had a stake in it. We felt that we really need the Times to tell us what was going on, in this country that was hard to recognize. I drafted a version of the letter, outlining why Bret Stephens’s views were not just conservative views, but extreme and destructive use of thought.
It was amazing to see how great things came together after that. A writer with a legal background rewrote portions so that they were tighter and more fit for publication in the opinion pages. He added the language calling for rigorous fact-checking of Stephens’s columns. Another collaborator came in—a friend who works for the National Research Defense Council—and changed some of the terminology to make it effective. Another person softened the plea at the end. You really had a collaborative document that was evolving incredibly quickly, and even though I had it signed only by the thirty or so people who had explicitly asked to be involved, I could’ve collected hundreds of signatures. We sent it out and received a message back right away from the public editor’s assistant saying the public editor would be responding to in the column that came later.
Her column was really disappointing. It contained a sarcastic aside about how many of the readers who had written in and threatened to cancel their subscriptions had not followed through. Canceling my subscription was something I specifically didn’t want to threaten because you don’t threaten someone who is in your community. You try to work with them. You try to compromise, but you hope that by earnestly expressing yourself they will hear your views and take it to heart at least.
Rumpus: Did it make you question what’s important to them?
Kleeman: That column made it clear that we were customers, not community members.