'The Body Feels Like a Journey Into Unknown Space': An Interview with Alexandra Kleeman

Talking to the author of Something New Under the Sun about realist novels, writing as an archaeological excavation, and taking for granted fitting into the world.

Jonathan Russell Clark is the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom and the forthcoming Skateboard. His writing has appeared in the New...

Photo © Hogarth 2021

Alexandra Kleeman published her first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, in 2015. It’s a strange, affecting, and exacting satire about food and beauty and contemporary culture. What especially set it apart, for me, was its depth of emotional resonance. Kleeman cares about the human results of the targets of her acute eye. Reading her debut gave me a sense that I was encountering a major writer at the beginning of her career.

Her follow-up, the story collection Intimations, stoked those embers of promise by expanding her narrative scope. The stories vary wildly in tone and style, and yet the book as a whole is deliberately structured to mirror the arc of life. Kleeman, as an artist, can unify disparate material through her unique sensibility. She’s a literary wrangler.

Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth), her long-awaited second novel, more than fulfills the potential of her first. It represents a leap forward for her as a writer. The language is exquisite and inventive and full of rhythmic poise. I found myself reading numerous sentences aloud, basking in their bracing eloquence. Here’s an example, from the opening chapter:

[The city] resembles an old photograph, faded in color, with a swath of flat gray rooftops close to the highway, a sea of smaller homes and buildings with reddish, quirkily tiled roofs in the middle ground. Neighborhoods pool at the base of the brown hills in the distance; tiny modernist structures stud the slops and peaks, swaddled by smog. It looks like a diorama, three different strips of cardboard painted and stood upright to form a realistic landscape, each successive piece rendered a little hazier than the one before, articulating how vast the distance is between where they had been and where they are going.

The novel is set in the near future, and it focuses on Patrick Hamlin, a writer whose autobiographical novel is being adapted into a film starring a scandalous young Hollywood actress named Cassidy Carter, the former child star of the popular show Kassi Keene: Kid Detective. As an East Coaster, Patrick’s completely out of his element in the Los Angeles of the future: the film production has little use for him; wildfires rage everywhere; the city’s water has been privatized in the form of a mega corporation called WAT-R, which manufactures endless variations of faux-water with names like WAT-R Basic, WAT-R Pure, and WAT-R Energy Surge Plus. Meanwhile, Patrick’s wife, Allison, has opted not to come to California, and has instead taken their daughter Nora to a new age nature retreat called Earthbridge in upstate New York. Isolated, away from his family, and in unfamiliar territory, Patrick finds himself enmeshed in a Pynchonian conspiracy that might involve the film’s inscrutable producers and a neurological disorder known as Random Onset Advanced Dementia (ROAD). It’s a wild, funny, and brilliantly observed satire.

I spoke to Kleeman over Zoom, but as her social media seemed to show her in numerous locations, I began by asking…

Jonathan Russell Clark: Where are you located now?

Alexandra Kleeman: I am in Colorado right now. But my head’s sort of spinning because I came back last week from Italy, and I had to go to California immediately. And I came here—and every place has been very different, obviously—but they've all had their own particular kind of unusual heat that's going on. So the different feels of that on my body have me feeling very, like, fish out of water. On hot, hot ground.

It was intense. The heat in the air felt like a wall, like you were concretely moving through. And even as it was dry, the sort of pressure from the heat was just a different sensation on my body and a different sensation even from previous times I've been in the desert in the summer. So maybe it's also that I'm reading, you know, about mussels cooking on the British Columbian coast at the same time. But it's definitely a weird time to have a body. Maybe as always.

But right now does feel particularly dire.

Yeah, it does. But also, we're so good at acclimatizing to the new particular form of dire. It's as though the world has to keep generating new versions of dire to make us feel that feeling. And it does, and we do. And then we go make a grilled cheese sandwich or something.

I wanted to talk about your language in the book, which I just found so gorgeous. There’s a line where you refer to a grouping of trees as a “sarcastic smattering.” You employ such defamiliarizing usage.

That means so much to me. I think as readers we all recognize it in a book, like when we find the description, and it's written in a way that feels both totally apt, and also doesn't feel like any of the things you'd reach for first. That's partly why my metaphor for writing, or what it feels like I'm doing when I'm writing, is often like I'm digging with a trowel, with a shovel, never with anything great like a backhoe or powerful equipment. But just digging past what's on the surface and digging until you find a thing that you can pull out. And in the extended metaphor—I think I have one of the characters using it, too—I think a lot about writing a novel as a sort of archaeological excavation. You know your site, sort of, and then you aren't sure exactly what you're going to find. You know where to dig, you start seeing pieces of it. And the pieces are a surprise at first, and then it becomes a game of arranging properly and arranging carefully, like, in the same way that you don't want to put, you know, the Apatosaurus head on the Tyrannosaurus skeleton and think you created your new species. You go from being the discoverer to being the analyst or something.

So for you it’s about uncovering rather than building, revealing rather than building up and constructing.

Yeah, I mean, for better or for worse, I've never been a person who's good at feeling entirely in control or good at operating in the mode of being in control. I always have to feel like I'm in a space where I know some things and I don't know other things—to have a pleasurable balance between having agency, being able to move around, being able to uncover and do things, and also beingable to be surprised, because if I weren't surprised, I would just be rehearsing what I already knew about this world or about the story.

The novel is set in Los Angeles in the near future, and Patrick, the protagonist, a writer from the East Coast, feels out of sorts there, which I completely understand. Whenever I’m in LA, I feel like I’m unsure of how they do things.

I really love that you had some of the same feelings moving around LA as me. I lived there for a while when I was a kid, and I've been back for longer and shorter periods of time. But there is often this interesting feeling that I think sometimes is rarer and rarer these days, but this feeling that like, Oh, I've suddenly stepped out of my element and out of sync. I don't know how this all works. This seems to be an ordinary thing, but I don't know what it is or how to use it—like, yeah, the surreal experience I had writing this was I had already decided on water and the name for it and things like that. And I went to Los Angeles on the trip, and as I was driving around Silver Lake, that neighborhood, I saw these water stores, which is exactly what I was working on building. They seemed to specialize more in a slightly alkaline water, because this is supposed to be good for your body—you could buy it in large amounts, refilling your own containers, or smaller amounts just come in a bottle. And I saw what it was—I understood the text, but I didn't understand who it was for or how to use it or how you asked for it or whether I needed it. Just these ordinary things that, you know, you couldn't find out about a place and you can’t preadjust yourself for unless you go there. It's disorienting when that happens, which is interesting, but it's also sort of a precious thing, because I think we live in a world where so, so much is expected to be standardized, so we can move around it smoothly. Like, when I drive—while around Colorado, where I'm from, or between Colorado and the West Coast or the East Coast—I sometimes feel like my path along the highway is smooth in this way that's supposed to make me feel like, Don't worry, you haven't really gone anywhere, you're still in the same place, it's just been stretched all across from the left to the right of this block of land. And you can pay in the same way. Every place takes your variety of credit card. And so to be reminded that there is such a thing as place, and that you're crossing distance, and as you're crossing habitat, and that different kinds of ecological systems actually work very differently… seems like a useful kind of jarring experience.

Something New Under the Sun is futuristic, satirical, and even could be classified as postmodern, which is funny to me because I felt while reading it that it also felt almost old-fashioned—a novel with big political ideas and characters with names like Horseshoe and the Arm, who speak in depth about philosophical ideas.

The realist novel, I think, was one of those things for me, because there were many I enjoyed reading, but there wasn't a lot of space where I could see myself operating in that mode. I felt like what characterizes a realist novel is: character-centered, maybe human-centered, maybe maintaining a proper and aesthetic proportion between, you know, what's relevant and what's in the background—like, a foreground/background relationship. Like, here's what's important, here's the stuff that reminds you there's a whole world, so don't worry about it.

But recently, as I've gotten more interested in writing one—like, I think of this as roughly my realist novel, where that foreground/background distinction kind of collapses—I've been wondering about how the realist novel directs our attention to some parts of reality and not others. Reality is this vastly entangled thing with billions of people, technology, and climatic factors, nonhuman players that we never know, a million anthills that we never ever write about, all these different things, and we cut this path through it that makes the world seem on the whole more stable and more tidy than I think that it is, and that tightness helps us focus in on the characters and feel for them in this intense, interlocked, and involving fashion. But increasingly, I feel like the emotions that I have as a person supposedly living in reality have a lot to do with the outside and with the unexpectedness of things that I realize are going on that unsettled my idea of what I should be paying attention to, and what is going on in my life—it pushes into the frame. And my life, a lot of times in the past few years, has felt less like a thing that, well, how should I say, is less like a house that I live in [in] my life, and more like just a space that people are constantly walking through. I've never used that metaphor before. I'm not sure it works. But something like that.

Your first novel focused a lot on the body and food, and this new one also concerns itself with the things we put in our bodies, here in the form of WAT-R, the fabricated, corporatized water. What is it about the body that interests you?

To me, the body feels like a journey into unknown space as well. It's a journey into the external space that's inside us. Because there’s such an interesting and varied way in which we relate to our body. I think when you cast your eyes over your body, from the eye—I want to evoke a video game term, like the first-person-shooter perspective. You pass your eyes over your body and you feel a different level of recognition of acceptance of identification with each different part. Some part looks the same, some part looks a little different—you wonder if that's because you're getting older or because you've been spending more time in the sun or you've been doing exercise, whatever it is. It's a constant effort, I think, to sweep all these different parts into some sense of belonging and identity; there are times when it happens naturally, and then there are times when you're doing work to pull that body together. And on the inside, too, I feel like the feelings [of] identification get even more entangled, especially. We're at a point of high self-knowledge about the mechanics of the body and what's in it and how it works, and yet I think we still don't necessarily know that much more about how to care for our bodies—like, what's the right way to eat? Is it this paleo extreme diet? Or this raw food diet? Or this Mediterranean diet? Or this? You know? How do we not just know our body, but how do we, like, love it and care for it—and, in doing that, care for ourselves? There's something about the body that always remains for an evening, as we always try to make it our own.

And the Earth is a body, too. And we certainly don’t know how to correctly take care of that. Your use of water in the book is pretty apt in that sense. It’s the connective tissue between all of life; it runs through everything.

In writing this, I tried to think a lot about the different ways in which I was taught where water was. And I think one of the most common ways was in chemistry, when you learn water is a special substance—it's made up of these molecules, and some of the special properties it has, [the energy it takes] to heat one gram of water one degree, that it will freeze and will evaporate—and in the middle of those two extremes we live and we take advantage of its plasticity and its properties to make all of our life processes possible. But when you think of water, when you learn about water, as this list of features and abilities and qualities, it becomes possible to think, well, there could be something else that ticks off almost all those boxes, and some of those boxes are important. Some of them are ancillary. So we can create a substitute, you know, and when you atomize something, it becomes possible to think of recreating and replicating it, remaking it. But there are so many other ways to understand water, too, and to understand its social function, its ecological function—to understand the way that it in its specific volume and presence in an environment makes it possible for this type of life to exist around, it makes it possible for a certain number of animals or species to gather there. Our history of water management has been one of atomization.

What were the first seeds of Something New Under the Sun?

One of the first ideas was doing an exploration of water in a second book that would parallel an exploration of food [in the first book]. And food and water have some similarities, especially in the way that they enter the body and the connection that they have to survival. For some reason, I'm almost fixated on survival, and what elements of the survival relationship you can see in in the corners and crevices of a life that is comfortable and does not seem to be about survival. I feel like our lives are arranged so that we think about success, or progress, or perfecting ourselves, or maybe improving ourselves, healing ourselves, whatever it is. But beneath that, there's this heartbeat of survival, your basic material connection to the world. And so I was planning on doing the second book on another survival material, water, and then this third one that I'm working on is about money, which may or may not be a necessity of survival.

So I wanted to do something about water. And I grew up in a state that has similar water issues as California. So in Colorado, we're currently in another big drought. We’re in a summer of record heat following another summer of record heat. And last summer, when I was in Colorado, they had three of the ten biggest wildfires in Colorado history, all within one year, and we had the first and second biggest two. So many records were broken. And it marked a sort of categorical shift in how I experienced the weather in Colorado, because I'd always heard of wildfires, or sometimes you could see a wildfire—growing up in California I saw wildfires semi-regularly, usually smaller ones that would be, you know, on the hill as you're driving past Fry's Electronics about to take another exit on to a different highway to go back home. It was just something in the background, and you could pay attention to it or you could not pay attention to it. But last summer, it was impossible not to notice all the time that there was a wildfire going on someplace, because it just changed the transparency of the air. It eliminated the mountains from view on a lot of days, it turned the sun red. Also, in a way that was more difficult to pin down, it changed the feeling of your body, of your lungs, how the air felt going in, the temperature it seemed to be, whether you felt well breathing outside—sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in very extreme ways. Most of the people I knew living in Colorado bought air filtration systems.

Characters in the novel suffer from a neurological disorder called ROAD (Random Onset Acute Dementia), a result of drinking WAT-R. Where did that idea come from?

I spent some years working in aphasia research. So I was in cognitive science in the language processing lab, and we spent time making language processing experiments for both college student types [with] unimpaired language function, and then also with aphasics in the New England area who would do the same language tasks. And in the delays that it took to do them, or in the breakdown in the ability to come up with a correct response to a question, you can identify sort of how the language system has been bruised or broken by damage in these in particular areas of the brain. The history of how people have treated people with aphasia, or with brain damage, language loss, or impairment otherwise, is a sad and dark one. Because, you know, humans often get talked about as the language animal—the thing that sets us apart from other animals. Obviously, animals have language systems of their own, to varying degrees, but it seems true throughout human history as a whole that when someone loses the ability to speak language, or when they go and speak language the way you want them to, if they're a foreigner, if they don't speak properly, it is an excuse to dehumanize them.

In both dementia and in aphasia, it's this loss of fit with the world that I'm really interested in. And something that I feel we aren't grateful enough for most of the time—that most of us fit the world so well, which lets you do basic things like ordering food in a restaurant, talking on the phone, setting up a medical appointment. There are different obstacles in different places where you feel that lack of fit, like being uninsured, and being unable to take care of a simple thing with your body, you know? The world is made so that even if you feel like you move through fluidly a lot of the time, sometimes you get kicked into this zone of non-fit and you feel your vulnerability and your specificity there so intensely. So I think what I was interested in with Random Onset Acute Dementia (ROAD) is thinking about, like, we have a certain fit with reality, and it lets us have a consensus reality with other people and share—share our experiences, more or less, even argue about our experiences when I see them differently. But to lose that, and to no longer have access to a form of reality that lets you share space and time with people is a really scary idea to me. And, you know, not to be too dramatic about it, but I think that there have been sometimes recently where you can have a conversation with someone sitting next to you on a plane or with a family member and really feel like we do not share a consensus view of reality. It's this jarring feeling. And in it, you know, you think that you're probably the one with a better version of reality, but you know that you don't seem that way to the other person. And it feels sort of like you could slide right off the face of reality.

Jonathan Russell Clark is the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom and the forthcoming Skateboard. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the L.A. Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Atlantic.