If it’s a toss-up between a book that’s packed with pretty prose and a nice, tight plot, but that you can’t really remember much about a week later and maybe you end up giving it to your old auntie on the basis that it’s been on a few prize lists and maybe you’ll borrow it sometime and try again, or a book that actively irritates you for much of the time spent reading it, but that latches onto your brain about halfway through like a freakish word-leech you’d rather not deal with but that you can’t scrape off, and it’s still stuck there weeks later, distracting you right through Christmas – well, you’d pick the latter, wouldn’t you? Oh, shut up: of course you would; you wouldn’t be on Bookmunch if you wouldn’t. Anyway, that’s pretty much where I stand with Alexandra Kleeman’s debut. I thought I’d love it, I got really annoyed, then it grabbed hold of me and now we’re stuck with each other. (This is the way we here at BM Towers like to live, God help us…)
So, in essence this is about a girl, A, who’s fed up with her creepy, needy flatmate, B, and lurching between irritation and obsession with her nonentity of a boyfriend, C: after various escapades (hiding from D, who’s copying everything A does, and variously despising, adoring, dumping and running after C), A ends up joining a bizarre new food-obsessed cult that’s surreptitiously taking over all the supermarkets in the area… It’s beyond weird and rather tense, and I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll say only that it’s more intricately plotted than you’d expect, and it all comes together in a way that’s sad and creepy, but also uplifting enough to let you sigh in relief as you put the book down.
Stylistically, at least initially, I found it hard to engage with. The prose has an intellectualising tone that felt very millennial (yeah, I’m old) – ‘under her scrutiny I felt the weight of my own presence constantly and grew tired, irritated by myself so that day by day I waited a little longer before coming out of my room in the morning, trying to postpone reentering the construct of my life’ – and the set-ups felt stagey: the flatmates hanging out on the roof, the neighbours dressed like ghosts, the Kwik-E-Mart exaggerations of the supermarkets, the horror of the TV game-show they’re all hooked on (a sort of gladiatorial-style real-life Hot or No contest). The book’s power is predicated on the psychological relationships between the characters, and most particularly between girls in general, with the A/B dynamic standing in for society’s expectations about how one ought to look/eat/act around boys – and the clever-clever mise-en-scène seemed a distraction. For the first quarter, maybe, I thought the themes were forced and the book overly self-conscious; the artifice of it all felt too close to the surface without going so far down the self-consciousness route as to end up with something more exciting, more Coover-esque.
However! As I read on, the surreal elements drew me in: the book’s full of bizarre details, like the veal thief-become-promoter, that aren’t just quirky, but sad, and that ended up giving the whole world Kleeman’s crafted more (weird) depth than I had expected – she pushes her motifs (the veal, the snack-foods, the absent fathers) so far that they move beyond comedy and into a kind of lurid horror. It’s like Miranda July’s The First Bad Man crossed with Socrates Adam’s Everything’s Fine: really odd people doing really odd things in such a way that makes you roll your eyes, then wince, then want to hug them.
Kleeman’s great on bodily identity, too: amidst the way A and B interact, with B’s desire to become the person she thinks is more functional and A’s fury at her identity being co-opted and her later bewilderment about how to make herself more pure, or more herself, paragraphs like this one leapt out:
‘A woman’s body never really belongs to herself. […] Then there was sex, and a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. […] At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it.’
And here, on beauty products:
‘I lay down on B’s bed. It all smelled like beauty products, that anonymous female scent that we rub onto ourselves to blend into a wet, aggregate femininity, to smell like a person but not any person in particular.’
As the book goes on, it becomes less an exploration of a specific set of relationships, and more an exploration of female subjectivity, subjection and objectification. That’s why I ended up rooting for A: she’s lost agency over herself (or had it removed) to the extent that eating or speaking are dangerous, and she’s rebelling, but she doesn’t know what to do. Here’s Kleeman channeling Rebecca Solnit:
‘Another person [B’s ex-boyfriend] explaining the world to me, what things were and were not, and why I was being unreasonable when I failed to keep them distinct. At the same time, when I tried to describe the dangerous blurriness that I saw at work around me, they were always filing to notice, always finding a problem in me, in the way my mind ordered or disordered the things around me.’
Any Cop?: If you push on through the first while, it becomes a very fast, engaging read; more emotionally compelling than you’d think, and funny, too. Your old auntie might dig it if she’s into feminism and issues around bodily autonomy, but if she’s averse to the surreal, she might just throw it back at you.