By David Nilsen
Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a critique of both consumer culture and our society’s obsession with beauty. Set in an unspecified near future (functionally more of an alternate present), the book tells the story of A, a young woman whose roommate, B, seems to be slowly taking over A’s identity, beginning with her personal appearance. B begins changing her hair and makeup to look more and more like A, and then begins adopting her mannerisms. A’s boyfriend, C, is distant and inaccessible, and the couple spends most of their time watching television.
C’s (yes, the use of letters instead of names gets annoying) favorite show is called That’s My Partner! The show features real-life couples, and one partner must be able to successfully identify their significant other during a series of tests. A group of doubles tries to trick the contestant into believing they are really his or her partner, and the show culminates in a final test in which the contestant must successfully identify his or her partner by touch in a completely dark room in which everyone is naked. The stakes are high–both partners sign a legally-binding contract before going on the show specifying if the contestant fails to correctly pick out their own partner during one the segments, their real-life union with their partner is dissolved and they can have no further contact. C thinks he and A should enter the show. A has reservations.
A’s world is a culture dominated and defined by consumption. The hot new snacks, Kandy Kakes, are touted for being 100% artificial, which allows them to stay good for decades inside their waterproof fake chocolate exterior. Wally’s Supermarkets, a barely-veiled-at-all twist on Walmart, offer a disorienting shopping experience completely eschewing the concept of convenience in favor of an immersive shopping “experience,” touting the phrase “Consumers are Creators.” The employees, who wear masks and are referred to generically as Wallys, are forbidden from answering direct questions from customers with the actual help the customer needs, instead deflecting the customer to another product or department instead. Items are not even grouped logically, providing a “flexible shopping experience” aimed at keeping a customer in the store as long as possible.
From this plastic, imitation culture springs a cult that aims at eliminating all the harms that come from blending consumption choices with identity, and after a series of difficult life events A finds herself sucked into this bizarre new religion in which identity itself seems to be outlawed. A struggles to follow the religion’s instructions that she eliminate all memories, all vestiges of self. Over time, she begins to wonder if this cult is not just part of the same engine, working as another cog in the corporate machine. Either way, A is losing herself, and the book culminates in a dizzying climax of spectacle and identity confusion in which A has either lost everything or finally found herself, depending on one’s interpretation.
I didn’t like You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine nearly a much as I wanted to. Its critiques of consumer culture were clever, and several of Kleeman’s inventions–the exaggerated philosophies of the Wally’s stores, the high stakes relationship game show–are amusing and insightful. Ultimately though I found the main characters unapproachable. I understand part of the book’s premise is that the culture of these characters is one in which interiority is stunted and identity is blurred, but this does make for a rather non-empathetic reading experience. The protagonist, A, felt like a cardboard cutout of a character we have to flesh out on our own.
Kleeman has a sharp imagination and cutting insight into 21st-century society. I didn’t love this debut novel, but I look forward to seeing what she writes next. She’s a writer worth our attention.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is available now at GPL.