Eat or Be Eaten

Alexandra Kleeman’s debut may be our best novel about the weirdness of being female in a culture that is obsessed with women’s bodies.

Illustration by Ed Luce.

Illustration by Ed Luce

Secret, the leading American women’s deodorant brand, has sold its product in scents that include Hawaii Citrus Breeze, Coconut Splash, So Very Summerberry, Pretty ’n Peach, Mystic Melon, Cherry Mischief, Truth or Pear, and Vanilla Chai.

The idea that you might want your armpits to smell edible (to want to eat the stuff you rub on your armpits?) is at once fantastic and repulsive. It’s also perfectly representative of the disorienting synesthesia at work in much beauty marketing, where colors and nice smells and enticing textures and deliciousness tend to collapse into a single cynosure of desire. The advertising truism is that sex—a pretty woman plus a product—sells, regardless of whether the target consumer wants the woman or wants to be her or both. But in selling supplies for the maintenance of the female body, there’s often another kind of confused hunger at play: Do you want to eat or be eaten?

This is the fertile territory staked out by Alexandra Kleeman in her excellent first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Sprinkled with detailed summaries of invented advertisements, the book describes a consumer landscape just on the far side of plausible. In one ad, a fluffy white dove flies out of a jar and into the mouth of a beautiful woman, who gulps it down with amazement and delight. “Most beauty creams stop at the epidermal level,” says a voiceover. “Only one beauty cream attacks signs of aging and damage from the inside and out … Trust TruBeauty. We know that true beauty begins on the inside.” TruBeauty is an edible face cream. It contains vitamins, moisturizers, and antioxidants; it looks—of course it does!—like yogurt.

We observe this world through the eyes of “A,” a not-quite-happy young woman who works as a proofreader and lives in a suburban apartment. A has a roommate, B. “If you reduced each of us to a list of adjectives, we’d come out nearly equivalent,” A concedes: both are small, pale, and dark-haired. But B is a difficult roommate. She skulks around the house drinking lemon-flavored vodka and resenting A’s absences. She requires constant attention. In the mornings, A tries to lurk in her bedroom as silently as possible to avoid attracting B’s notice:

She couldn’t assume that I’d be conscious this early in the morning, but that wouldn’t stop her from checking every five or ten minutes, pausing to listen for the sounds of someone wakeful. Then sometimes she’d sit herself near the door, ear against the doorjamb, and talk toward me as though we were having a normal conversation. She’d talk toward me until I responded.

B wants A to fix her snacks (B hates getting “that edible smell” on her hands) and give her makeovers; together, they sit on their roof and eat popsicles (B’s favorite—“more like a color than a food,” A explains) while B drowns ants in the drippings. Increasingly, A worries that B is plotting some kind of attempt to steal A’s identity. As their lack of actual names suggests, this doesn’t seem totally unlikely.

Sometimes A evades B by hanging out with C, her highly normal boyfriend, a “happy camper” who excels at watching TV and talking A out of her anxieties. A and C have sex while C watches porn—but not, as A first thinks, because he wants to emulate the activities depicted. He’s just “thickening the moment by laying fantasy on reality on fantasy,” fortifying life with a little extra flesh. On screen, the close-up genitals become “faces with rudimentary mouths,” lapping at one another in a way that reminds A of jellyfish in a nature documentary.

The story turns surreal in concrete, deadpan terms—A brings the same wary gaze to televised nightmares (say, a woman in a skincare ad peeling off her own face) and to the growing number of “weird events” in the world around her. Like when her across-the-street neighbors drape themselves in white sheets, get in their car, and drive away forever. Or when B cuts off her own hair and presents A with the severed braid. “What does it feel like?” C asks when A tells him. Weird, says A; kind of scary, like B was trying to trade places with her or something. “I meant how does it feel to hold,” C says. “The hair.”

Throughout this all runs the grim plight of Kandy Kat, the Kandy Kakes mascot, who stars in TV commercials that A spends a lot of time watching and thinking about. The Kake itself is a Hostess hallucination—a complexly layered structure incorporating “Choco shrapnel,” three layers of caramel and chocolate, and a “top-secret ‘Kandy Kore’ ”—and Kandy Kat is a cartoon masochist in the Wile E. Coyote tradition. He pursues the Kakes tirelessly only to fail in ever more terrible ways.

Soon A herself develops a craving for Kandy Kakes, which eventually leads her to the Church of Conjoined Eaters. The Church and its propaganda allow Kleeman to skewer the conflation of food, morality, and worth—think of “sinful” desserts, piously organic produce, and the pseudoscientific quest for purity. She takes this tendency to its logical extreme, imagining a belief system dedicated to the absolute division of “Dark” and “Bright” foods. All edibles are either “good for you or they work ceaselessly to destroy you from within,” as one follower puts it.

Author Alexandra Kleeman.

Photo courtesy Arturo Olmos

Kleeman reported on “fruitarians” for n+1 last year, and she’s good at capturing the beatific zeal of the orthorexic. Her genius in A Body Like Mine is to extrapolate new varieties of magical nutrition. At work, A copyedits a magazine called New Age Plastics, dedicated to the “the spiritual uses and properties of different kinds of plastic.” (E.g., an interview with “an entrepreneur in Nevada who sold home-brew polystyrene tea that he claimed cured arthritis, imbuing the drinker’s joints with all the fantastic resilience of this light, durable plastic.”) Kandy Kakes, likewise, are rendered more pure by their synthetic nature: They’re so processed as to contain nothing once living and so can never contain anything dead.

In the book’s final third, A descends into the bowels of the cult, and her story becomes more mechanical as Kleeman goes through the motions of a conspiracy plot: The church becomes a generically Pynchonish, many-tentacled monster whose symbols and influence turn out to be just about everywhere once A starts looking. Much more effectively unsettling are the quietly unhinged antics of B; the bland, blank imperturbability of C; and the phantasmagoric sensory detail that Kleeman imagines. (I kept picturing the story as a painting by Philip Guston—those white-hooded figures in cars; cartoon bodies poised between ominous and comic; thick, queasy pinks the color of candy or ground beef.)

Kleeman describes things like the sensation of deliberately swallowing a wad of human hair. She describes the odor of “wet, aggregate femininity” produced by too many beauty products smelled all at once, an odor “like a person but not like any person in particular.” She describes wandering into the bathroom to “see if there was anything going on with my face.” You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is one of the best books I’ve read about what it feels like to have a body: the mystery of its unseen innards, the ongoing project of its appearance, the meaty fact of its movement through the world. Specifically, it’s a book about having a female body, although this goes largely undiscussed. Here’s one of the few occasions when Kleeman is more explicit:

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 into 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.

Women’s bodies are so often seen through the lens of sex: as objects of desire, as subjects claiming their own right to desire and be desired, as some combination of the above. (Think of almost any memoir or novel about women described as “honest” or “fearless” or “unapologetic.”) And while Kleeman doesn’t ignore sex, she sets it aside as a governing principle. The female body: What to do with it? You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a story about realizing you’re hungry and trying to find out what for.

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. Harper.

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