The Buying of the Light: An Eerie Debut on Consumption and Corporeality
Kleeman's You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a powerfully feminine and disturbingly organic contribution to the literature of consumerism.
You Too Can Have a Body Like MinePublisher: HarperCollins
Length: 283 pages
Author: Alexandra Kleeman
Publication date: 2016-08
Consumerism surrounds and defines modern Americans, waging and winning a war on other value systems in favor of shrink-wrapped, sellable solutions to the vagaries of life. Freed from the dangers of nature and with a perch on top of the food chain, most people submit to a much lower place on the supply chain while being bombarded with propaganda in the form of advertising that tries to “naturalize” this patently constructed ideology.
Its most insidious manifestation is when people start to view themselves in the same light as products, as just another hunk of raw material, or at the very least to view their bodies as blank canvases upon which products can be applied. In her excellent and deeply unnerving debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Alexandra Kleeman takes this ideology and distills it into a unique and terrifying narrative voice to explore consumption, identity, hunger, and the utter strangeness of bearing a female body.
The novel’s narrator is A, a wisp of a young woman both mentally and physically, who leads an existence so wraithlike that a slight breeze could uproot it. In a dispassionate deadpan, she describes her generic suburban environs and her major relationships. There’s B, her creepily dependent roommate, whose identity is such a void that she can’t stand being alone, complaining “I’m less when nobody’s around. I do less, I move less, I eat less… it’s like all that time just happens without me.”
A and B share vacant activities such as watching TV. They listen to each other move around the apartment. They favor foods like popsicles and oranges, things with so few calories “they erase themselves from your bodies.” Visually similar, A worries that B is stealing her identity.
Then there’s C, A’s boyfriend, who is defined less by personality traits than by product preferences and for whom the only questions are what to eat and what to watch. Distressed by the lack of genuine intimacy with C, A muses,
Was there anything joining me to my life that was a matter of necessity rather than chance? It wasn’t my body, which could be moved from place to place, job to job, fed nearly anything, partnered with anyone. It wasn’t my mind, which seized the fake lives of television people with greater enthusiasm than it did its own. Sometimes I thought about C and the idea came to me that any man’s genitalia, however large or weirdly shaped, would be guaranteed to fit inside my own. Our pairing was coincidental, or at best, lucky.
They live in a generic suburb, joined by streets that might have trees or might not, where homes are all similar enough to be mistaken for each other, sharing the constants of television glow and a nearby Wally’s supermarket.
In many ways, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine feels pre-internet and shares the literary anxiety towards television of '80s/'90s authors like David Foster Wallace and Don Delillo. A is less affected by the people around her than by vignettes she sees on TV: a commercial where a woman repeatedly peels off layers of her skin to reveal more “authentic” layers beneath; multiple commercials showing the travails of Kandy Kat, a mascot continually and tragically thwarted in his pursuit of Kandy Kakes; and the saga of Michael, a man so distressed by the sale of veal that he tries to disrupt it by stealing veal until he somehow ends up a pitchman, his smiling visage seen in the local Wally’s along the phrase “This Veal’s a Steal!”
Eventually, a plot, in both senses, develops -- people are disappearing from their former lives into a cult known as “The Church of Conjoined Eaters”, which promotes a Manichean system of Lightness and Darkness, declaring that all products are either “good for you, or they work ceaselessly to destroy you from within.” Church members don white sheets and seek to free their “ghost” from the impure bodies that house them. It turns out the Church has tendrils in most enterprises mentioned in the novel, from Wally’s to C’s demeaning favorite game show, and Church members waste away eating nothing but Kandy Kakes.
Just as in culture at large, consumerism has been steadily encroaching on American fiction. In Don Delillo's White Noise, it permeated dialogue and dreams. In the work of George Saunders, products along with the form and rhetoric of commercials have invaded the characters’ sense of morality and are sometimes, as in “Jon”, even reified into ways of living. A’s unsettling narrations make the borders between authentic identity and consumer identity even harder to identify; consumerism is such a bedrock of life that it underlies everything else -- products are a given fact and the Church can only separate them into different categories.
While this understanding in Kleeman’s male predecessors is mostly cerebral, Kleeman makes her world of people and products disturbingly organic and body-oriented, which is inseparable from the novel’s pronounced femininity. The novel is suffused with a sense of the female body as something distinct and somewhat alien; as A says, “A woman’s body never really belongs to herself.” A and B are both dependent on and highly anxious towards beauty products, which promote a malleable and improvable sense of self, and food, which they’re reminded should nourish the body but only to a certain point (and the marketing is nearly the same!). The foregrounding of organic concerns makes psychological differences almost negligible and personal identity slippery and unstable, if it exists at all.
Stories abound in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine of people easily or accidentally leaving their own identities behind or being unable to discern the identities of their supposed loved ones. C’s favorite game show, That’s My Partner!, makes a contest out of this, and while this fills A (who correctly intuits that C couldn’t tell her and B apart ) with unease, C assures her we’re all almost identical genetically, that “the genetic difference between the two of us comes down to something like eye color and whether or not we like the taste of cilantro.” C thinks A can allay her fears of B intruding on her identity by thinking of herself as a franchise like Wally’s.
Gems of dialogue like this give You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine both humor and the power to unsettle. The novel as a whole has a few flaws, e.g., the cult plot develops very slowly and isn’t as original as the voice that describes it. The true accomplishment here is A’s voice and its internalized sense of alienated wonder towards the simultaneous beauty and terror of consumption. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a thrilling debut, that’s both hilarious and frightening, distinctly feminine, that knows how thin the line has become between consumers and consumables and just how weird this makes modern life.