The dystopia of body panic

Sharanya | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 13, 2016
Loss of appetite: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is about how eating disorders can be spread.

Loss of appetite: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is about how eating disorders can be spread.   -  Shutterstock

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine; Alexandra Kleeman; Fiction; Harper; ₹1,29

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine; Alexandra Kleeman; Fiction; Harper; ₹1,29

In Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, the body is mechanised, dictated by capitalist urges and ultimately, stripped of identity

The second thing I did after finishing Alexandra Kleeman’s terrifying debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine was to reach for a slice of walnut cardamom cake — knifed with tiny, dark rosebuds, its icing colding into a crust on my plate — and consider what percentage of it was plastic, and true, remembering an episode of the British horror short film series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (“Oh what’s that! A waffle-y pie? But you’re going to end up sad inside!”) which one might think of as a distant, sympathetic but critical companion to the gruesome world of dissolving appetites in Kleeman’s novel.

The first thing was, of course, to google “oranges Alexandra Kleeman” to reassure myself that others too, from the annals of the internet, might have testified to their repulsion of oranges — perhaps even RealFoods, WholeFoods, and what about foods that are meant to kill you but are the secret lining of the know-what-you-eat school: the gummy calories of confectionary that are just as transparent as the ingredients at the back of the packet they are squished into, and the cookie brands that promise three different fruity fillings that are all confidently missing from the ingredients list, substituted by near-concentrates of varying percentages. Foods that, in the novel, would be Light Foods, or food that aren’t of “VERIFIED OR POSTULATED DARKNESS” since you knew exactly what went into them, as per The New Christian Church of the Conjoined Eater, which is a cult-ish capitalist enterprise in the dystopian world of the novel, set in a nameless suburban town in America, the highlight of which appears to be a supermarket chain named Wally’s where the lives of our protagonist A, her room-mate in emotional, physical and linguistic proximity B, and A’s boyfriend C, intersect most visibly.

Turns out, I had company in my orange-phobia, for good reason. Consider Kleeman’s description of canned oranges:

“There were cans of (. . .) mandarin oranges suspended in sugary water, the little naked pieces jostling up together in the perfect dark of the can, curled fetally against one another.”

Or raw ones:

“I opened the refrigerator and saw nothing but a pile of stripped oranges, a pyramid of them, all the pale, yellow colour of rind. They would be so easy to eat — pre-peeled, unarmoured. The little gouges in their rinds matched the diameter of B’s fingernails exactly. But for some reason, the oranges now filled me with dread (. . .) An orange wasn’t a type of food so much as another entity, looking out for its own interests, secretive and sealed, hiding its insides from the outside world.”

Bodies become automata: both sex and starvation lend an awkward resting post for flesh. A dreams of “an inverse pornography in which all that mattered was what was going on within what appeared to be a successful fucking.” Elsewhere, in what I read as the starvation facility she ends up in, A notes of her room-mate, “I saw her collarbones and shoulder blade sliding past each other like pistons in an engine.” Autonomy is an endlessly detachable battlefield, and the scars are ugly proof of flesh, or life. “All around me, people were giving feelings and help to one another all the time, as if it were the only thing to do,” A notes. Capitalism mutates resistance, and links arms with those who do the smothering, especially if they’re men: “[C] was a graceful consumer: he could consume without being consumed in turn.”

It’s a novel about how eating disorders can be learned and transmitted, but not quite. It’s about the Debordian spectacle, but not really. It’s your favourite horror story about bodies that are consumed into hunger, sadness, and other kinds of desire, but it’s also about how bodies at their most intimate can, up close, be as gross as their components, the hyper-intimacy becoming a constant kind of erasure of the self. “The dangerous part of having a face was showing it off, not losing it. To see your face spread onto the faces around you, absorbed by others,” she observes of the helpers at Wally’s, all of whom look the same. Disappearance means resemblance, as B gradually starts to morph into her — “she was disappearing, or reappearing, or appearing for the first time, whatever” — but it also implies stealing oneself away, like the Disappearing Dads syndrome which haunts the town, where fathers disappear but nobody knows if it’s because of “self-napping” or otherwise.

In many ways, this is the rack that A hangs her struggle against life on: her body, as it disappears, resists by being more in other ways; she remembers how to remember more clearly, she retrieves feelings and speech, she realises that there is “no better way to live or worse. It was all terrible, and you had to do it constantly.” In You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, the critique of capitalist desire is straightforward, and electric, but what’s most exciting is Kleeman’s surgical ability to fist it with black humour and yoke our more-than-human lives to it, the kind that makes us afraid of being alive, and the kind that is ultimately effective dystopian fiction. Mostly, it is about disappearance: disappearance of — and by — women’s bodies, wants, needs, and any semblance of the fickle but addictive lies of selfhood. As a promise, I realised as I picked at the flaky rosebuds on the cake, the title is a grimace of hope, where it makes perhaps one of the most unexpected and compelling arguments for us to carry on, as bodies that always could be in the world, if not our own.

Sharanya is currently pursuing a PhD in performance studies at the University of Exeter, UK

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Published on May 13, 2016
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