Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine centers on the complex thought processes, the brooding and the reverie, of a character particularly vulnerable to the system —both commercial and social —that surround her. Kleeman’s novel examines what consumer culture does to individuals through the story of a young woman, A, who works as a proofreader and spends a considerable amount of time watching television. Television commercials and ads are a distinctive characteristic in an otherwise indeterminate world. The elaborate advertisements are almost more setting than the story’s backdrop: a suburban town similar to any U.S. suburb. The narrator A, with her disturbingly devoted roommate B, or with her dismissive boyfriend C, watches outre promotional content: a woman peels off her face to reveal another, then peels to reveal another, then another, promising “YOUR REAL SKIN IS WITHIN”; a kooky, emaciated cat hopelessly chases after a candy-filled hostess-like cake (a Kandy Kake), eternally unable to capture the processed treat.
Numerous reviews have analyzed You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, discussing the exquisite writing and the intricate discussion of consumer culture, insatiable hunger, and physicality. Reviews have discussed Alexandra Kleeman’s unique skill in describing what it feels like to be within a body, encased in skin and full of organic parts and pieces. However, I have not read a review focused on an aspect of the novel that I found especially significant: the friendship between A and B, and the fear of being interchangeable in a world where individuality is attached to singularity, ownership, and distinct physical characteristics.
A and B live in a world deeply rooted in hyper-consumer culture. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine exhibits the drastic and hair-raising impact of consumer fixation through a perplexing capital-driven cult subsisting on Kandy Kakes; an edible cosmetic cream that beautifies “from the inside out”; and A’s fear that B is slowly transforming into her. A contemplates the physical similarities between herself and B, saying “if you reduced each of us to a list of adjectives, we’d come out nearly equivalent,” and that “to strangers viewing us from a distance…we might seem like the same person.” But she makes it clear that she and B are dissimilar in significant ways, explaining that, as someone “on the inside,” she sees “differences everywhere, even if they [are] only differences of scale.” Many of these differences “of scale” are tied to ownership, and the story ties identity to ownership. A describes B as someone who touches “objects like someone who owned nothing in the world.” A, on the other hand, lives independently of B and possesses merchandise she interacts with day to day, like the makeup she applies every morning.
A tells the reader that she barely recognizes herself when she looks in the mirror first thing in the morning, before she applies makeup. Every morning, she carefully puts on the face she shows the world. One night, B asks A to teach her how to apply makeup, saying “I think things would be better if I looked more like you” —a ominous reason reminiscent of sci-fi thrillers. A resists as B persists, and A reluctantly teaches B how to wear her face.
The physical differences between A and B dwindle. First, B clips off her long hair, unlike A’s “shorter, thinner hair,” and gifts it to A in a neatly tied braid. Then B begins wearing makeup everyday, slowly becoming a less tractable and more A-like version of herself.
Preoccupied by the idea that someone is sharing her identity, A asks her boyfriend, C, “Would you be able to tell us apart?” That’s My Partner!, a reality TV show centered on couples who try to identify their significant others in a series of obstacles, plays in the background. He answers, “Well, of course I think I could, but it’s hard. Everyone thinks they could.” He refers to the show That’s My Partner! and the contestants who confidently enter the show despite the dire consequence of never being able to see their significant other again if they lose, and says, “all those couples thought they could.” When C asks A to enter the show with him, she refuses and they break up. Post-breakup, A’s sense of self seems to diminish: she stops going to work, she sleeps at the abandoned house across the street, and she spends extensive amounts of time at the Cotsco-esque grocery store where products are constantly moved for an interactive shopping experience.
This emotional break stems, in part, from the fear of losing individuality. For A, individuality is attached to singularity. B’s resemblance to her, though purely physical, threatens her individual identity. A destroys B’s makeup, digging her fingers into viscid material. She smears the makeup over B’s dresser; she takes B’s braid and forces herself to swallow it, wad by wad, consuming B’s organic matter. The characters in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine are as malleable as the soft, syrupy makeup products that physically alter them. The story examines the relationship between physical appearance and identity, and the human body as a transformable artifact: A remodels her face every morning with makeup, and B is able to resemble her to an uncanny, spine-chilling degree with makeup; A joins the Kandy Kake eating cult and, after consuming the low-calorie petroleum filled cake, her body reshapes into an emaciated, unrecognizable form.
When you’re told that you’ll lose all you have without distinctive physical qualities, how do you distinguish yourself? When A realizes that she is replaceable to the world around her and to C, she runs away to a cult that values the intangible spirit within. The cult describes the process of dying as “ghosting,” as shedding the problematic body to reveal ones purest self. As the story moves forward, it turns out that the cult sits at the foundation of many of the commercial conglomerates featured throughout the story —the edible cosmetic cream that beautifies from the inside out and the show That’s My Partner!, both of which reveal the dire state of a society so deeply implanted in consumer culture. Cult members stir factory vats of the edible cosmetic cream and, in a wacky twist, A ends up on That’s My Partner!, her face covered in prosthetics. B and C are present on the show. Desperate to have C recognize her, A, unable to take off the prosthetics, takes off her clothes, thinking C will remember her in their most intimate moments. He’s unable to recognize her, but B recognizes her. A, realizing that B replaced her, realizing her fears have been realized, decides she hates B.
This hatred is misplaced, and A’s need to be individual is indicative of a larger problem A fails to recognize. A’s narrative shows that she is obsessively anxious. However, A’s narrative is written with empathy. A is on a quest for individuality (or a quest to maintain her supposed individuality) and is especially vulnerable to the commercial system she is deeply embedded in. This quest for individuality is a mechanism of marketing —a tool to pedal offbeat products that color her world —and A’s fixation on these products, Kandy Kakes and makeup, is deeply troubling. However, the story thoroughly examines the thought processes A, her twisted reasoning thoroughly explained. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine examines the thought processes of a person who is thoroughly objectified.
Kleeman has composed a rare work of literature by examining, with empathy and sympathy, the mind of a human being objectified to great magnitude. A runs toward an idea of salvation only to find that the promise of purpose is a sham. She runs away to a cult that lives outside consumer society only to find that the cult lies at the root of consumer society. While away, B has taken her place, but B’s ability to recognize her despite the alterations in A’s physicality demonstrate a connection that runs deeper than what the relationship deteriorated into. Kleeman’s decision to write You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine from A’s point of view is significant: A could be viewed as weak, an actor in sustaining the culture of female competition, non compos mentis. However, all of A’s fears are realized. All of her “paranoia” is not unwarranted. A’s bleak prospects, the hopeless world, show that her actions may be reasonable. It is reasonable for a character treated as a disposable object, dehumanized and objectified, to live in a state of obsessive anxiety. It is significant that the problem is with the larger world, the consumer obsessed setting, and not only with the character. And, while subversive characters who dare to be defiant are empowering reads, it is nice to enter the mind of a character who demonstrates (to an extreme) what a setting like the one depicted in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine —a culture that objectifies women, deeming them replaceable, entering them in a system of rigorous competition —can do. And, it is startling that I found myself startled by the aspects of the setting —the eery commercials and dietary jargon —that were so similar to this world, our world.
Categories: Means of Reproduction