The Short Version: A, a young woman, lives a relatively ordinary life in an American town. She lives with her roommate B and has been seeing a man called C. But as she starts to wonder about her desires and wants, she feels her identity in jeopardy – just as strange things begin to happen, like a family dressing up as ghosts and moving out in the middle of the day or seeing odd TV commercials that veer into the grotesque and surreal…
The Review: It’s nearly impossible to summarize this book. Largely because I’ve ever encountered anything quite like it – although Vogue’s decision to call it a Fight Club for women is an interesting and not-entirely-inaccurate analogy.
The story itself, which seems relatively simple and straight-forward, becomes anything but when you attempt to describe it. As I read it through the first time, I found myself falling back on stock phrases like “it is so unsettling” and “it is so good” because I was consciously aiming to not give anything away to those I spoke to… and because I was struggling to describe the book and its effect on me to myself, let alone other people.
(ed. note: speaking of not giving things away… I think you should go into the book as blind as possible. When you’re done, come back and read the rest of this and we’ll talk about it together, okay? All you need to know is that it is strange, it may disturb you, and it is an absolutely astonishing achievement. So, go on – this will wait here until then.)
I’d started writing a version of this review over a week ago. But even as I approached the thousand word mark, I felt like the book was… not resisting me and my attempts to understand it, but rather that it was demanding more. I was disturbed, I was – well, I think the best word, although it conjures unsettling images (fittingly, for this book), is “infected.” This book infected me, burrowing into my deep subconscious and mucking about. It reached straight into my soul and plucked a string there, creating a startling resonance in an otherwise quiet room.
So I read it again.
If you know me, either as a reader of this blog or in real life, you’ll know that a re-read is a rare thing for me. Too many books to read, you know? But even as I picked up another book and dove in, this one was hanging on and wouldn’t go away. As I finished that interstitial book, I knew that the only thing to do was to read it again. I’ve never, in my life, done that. Wanted to, a few times, but I’ve never done it – let alone felt the actual need to do so.
And, quite frankly, I think I could start it over again, for a third time, and still not be rid of it (in the sense that books, even the ones that stay with you forever, are usually peaceful about their residence inside one’s skull). It’s that powerful of a novel.
What is it that has such power? Kleeman’s prose is wonderful – vibrant and visceral, capturing both the flat sameness of the ordinary everyday world and the individual surreality of one individual experience. It’s a bit like that opening credits sequence to Shaun of the Dead, with the pre-zombie masses essentially being zombies already: there’s a sharp wit at work but also a keen eye for what the world really does look like sometimes. You’ll never look at an orange, an object so simple and ordinary, the same way – not because of a particular moment or thing, but because it should be impossible to go back to the way you used to see oranges before seeing them through the eyes of A.
She’s also created an incredible 21st Century girl in A. If you have been called a “millennial” in a serious and/or pejorative way, you will see something of yourself in A. She’s got a semi-meaningless job, a listlessness that could be a lack of drive or could be an unaddressed psychological issue (depression being only one of the possibilities), a boyfriend who doesn’t really love her and is his own kind of self-centered and oblivious… Everything about A seems like she could be essentially faceless in a crowd: she is the Everywoman. In some ways, this makes her journey that much more easily associated with – but that’s too easy and too incorrect a thing to say about why the reader is drawn along with A even as she makes decisions that we know are objectively bad or wrong or “crazy”. It’s not that she is an Everywoman, it’s that she is every single one of us, reduced down to some of our most fundamental impulses and actions – and those are not always positive. She wants to know who she is, but has no idea how to find that answer. Who among us hasn’t been in that same circumstance and found less-than-flattering things as a result?
Kleeman also uses A and her search for identity & self-awareness/self-knowledge to really dig deep into one of the more quietly insidious problems facing our culture today: consumerism and the sale of constructed identities. There has been progress made in the last few years – American Eagle’s decision to stop Photoshopping its models, for example – but by and large, we as a society are bombarded by images that reinforce gender & physical identity norms. But it goes even deeper than that: it’s the food we eat, the shows we watch, the products we buy. We are trained, both subliminally and surprisingly rather overtly that what we currently have is not good enough. We are trained to want more, to want to be/have better.
One of the most joyously inventive things about the book is Kleeman’s description of various advertisements, at once lampooning (among other things) the ridiculousness of celebrity endorsements/cartoons meant to sell horrible things to children/beauty product imagery and simultaneously creating a genuinely creepy (Lynchian?) set of images. These moments are among the most unsettling in the book, partially because of how they’re often dropped into the narrative with no real opinions placed on them by A and partially because, well, the imagery is just creepy:
- A woman applies a beauty cream to her face and peels off a layer of skin, happily more beautiful – but she does not stop, peeling off another layer and another before revealing a woodland scene and other nature images, before finally revealing the celebrity spokeswoman.
- Another woman opens a tub of edible beauty cream (for your inside and outside) to discover a live dove that fights its way out of the tub only to fly straight into her mouth.
- Kandy Kakes, a clearly-awful-for-you snack cake made of nearly zero natural ingredients, appear in several ads with their cartoon mascot (although that’s far too kind a word) Krazy Kat. Kat goes through trials more akin to those facing Wile E. Coyote than the Trix Rabbit in his attempts to eat a Kandy Kake – and their slogans grow increasingly non-sequiter-y and aggressive.
Kleeman also revels in creating strange real-world moments, like a man who turned veal into a national craze (you’ll see) and a game show where contestants must pick out their romantic partner through a series of escalating trials. The best of these real-world moments comes from Wally’s, the big-box supermarket/everything stores where all of the employees wear a large foam hat/facemask that make them all look like the titular Wally. I am fascinated by the images Kleeman delivers of the insides of these stores and their nefarious processes, processes that seem absolutely realistic when you stop to think about them – like moving shelves around on a daily basis in counterintuitive ways to ensure that shoppers are never complacent and that they will, inevitably, buy more while trying to find the things they really need.
There are genuinely Lynchian horror-moments in this novel as well – David Lynch being the best example I’ve got of a dream-logic storyteller that I can think of and also, if anybody out there has a horse in this race, an ideal candidate to adapt and direct this novel, should it ever be optioned for a film. Disappearing Dad Disorder (explained in this excerpt at Recommended Reading) as well as the Church of the Conjoined Eater are… they are inspired in their simple, deceptively ordinary terror. This is the normal world, our normal world, turned inside out or seen through a glass darkly.
The thing that I’m searching for, as I write and write and try (unsuccessfully) to locate that magic bit of analysis that will free my mind from this book’s thrall, is how to explain its impact on me as a person. Because there are plenty of books that write satirically and constructively about consumerism, there are plenty of books that deal with mental health and identity issues, and there are even plenty of darkly viewed glances at a world just next door to ours – but there are no books like this one.
I feel good about my appearance (although I could work out more). I eat well and buy local (although I could still cut down on meat/processed treats). I don’t have too many unnecessary products (although I do buy a lot of books).
So why do I feel shaken up by this book? Am I worried that I might be susceptible to the same things as A? That I, too, might be missing something? Or is it that I think others in my life might be and I’m worried about them?
I think it might be something altogether different, more oblique. The easy way to say it is that I’m worried about the society pictured here, because although the trappings are fictional and enhanced as such, it looks just like ours. And that’s not good. But a book like this? I can think of very few things that are better.
Rating: 6 out of 5. I have been altered, somehow, by this book. It lives inside me now, having changed the way I perceive reality and unreality both. It is not a “wake-up call” kind of book, nor is it a perfect book in the classical mold. But for the first time ever as a reader, it demanded more from me than it was willing to give up on a first read. It insisted that I come back to it, not months or years later but less than 72 hours later – because to’ve gone any further would’ve been… dare I say dangerous?
It is tremendously well-written, funny as all get out, chock-full of immediately memorable imagery, and it gets at questions of identity in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever read before. Whatever magic Alex Kleeman is working, I’m buying it. This book is exactly the sort of fiction the world needs today and it is, in a word, tremendous.