The Short Version: A house that holds its own weather systems. A woman, struggling to come to terms with love and motherhood. An apocalypse of things disappearing. An attack by lobsters. These are just a few of the strange, lovely, curious tales in Alexandra Kleeman’s first collection.
The Review: Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine remains one of the single most affecting reading experiences I’ve ever had. The oddity of the story, of the voice, of the way it interacted with my brain… it’s the only thing I’ve ever, ever started over and read all the way through as soon as I’d finished it. Stakes, naturally, were high with this collection – but I shouldn’t’ve ever been worried.
The most affecting thing about Intimations as a whole is that Kleeman shows not only the voice that made Y2CHABLM so affecting – but she shows that she can work in other modes, too. Yes, the disaffected somewhat surreal female narrator is here plenty often, but Kleeman brings the same incisiveness and weirdness to historical fiction, to humorous absurdities, and to more mundane realities too. It’s as though she meant to prove how flexible she could be; the debut novel as smash-bang introduction and the debut story collection as examples of some of the other tricks up her authorial sleeve.
Let’s start, because why not, in the middle of things. Of the twelve stories in this collection, three of them (possibly four, depending on whether or not you want to draw conclusions from the way the collection is split into three sections) feature a main character called Karen. It would seem that this woman is the same woman across all three stories but maybe not; that, too, might be a conclusion incorrectly drawn based solely on the repeated use of a name. But the Karen of “Choking Victim” and “Jellyfish” share an architect husband (or fiancée, to be more accurate to the latter tale) – and so I think a reader can be forgiven for considering these three tales to be linked and to create a mini-portrait within the larger collection as a whole. And Karen, unlike A (the main character of Y2CHABLM), is living a pretty ordinary, pretty mundane kind of life. The dream logic surreality of Kleeman’s novel is almost nowhere to be found in these three tales and instead we see a character making poor decisions in the way that human beings often make poor decisions without really knowing why. She invites a strange man back to her apartment, she leaves her baby with a stranger, she goes off with a strange man during her vacation on the day she’s been proposed to by her boyfriend – and all of these things happen with a bit of detachment but also a bit of curiosity. Karen wonders what might happen, as though she is not quite living her own life. It’s terrific, subtle work by Kleeman.
On the flip side of subtlety are some of the other stories in the collection, like “Lobster Dinner” and “Fake Blood”. These are perhaps the two silliest stories in the collection – and I should note that I don’t mean that as a pejorative; they’re conceptually the sort of stories you want to giggle about (lobsters rise up and start attacking humanity, a woman dressed up at a not-costume party realizes she’s in some sort of strange murder game) but that actually deliver on a tangible level as well as on the silly one. They take an idea and deliver it with a bang, intending to strike you firmly and see whether or not you can take it. “Fake Blood”, in particular, was one of my favorites in the collection and the fact that I found it simultaneously amusing and terrifying that people were just inexplicably suddenly ending up dead with an ax in their backs probably just goes to show that I’m an ideal reader for Kleeman’s particular style.
I was impressed, too, as she began to stretch out beyond the bounds of the quirky surreal. “The Dancing Master”, for example, features first-person narration from a genteel male in an older time (courtly but approaching the modern; I’d guess 1700s?) as he attempts to civilize a feral young man via dance. The story has echoes of Hawthorne and Poe and Irving, those classic storytellers of the macabre and spooky, but reflected through a modern sensibility familiar with Lynch and Burton and Oyeyemi. In fact, this story felt like a kindred spirit to “Is Your Blood As Red As This?” from the latter’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Although Oyeyemi has a more classically fantastical sensibility, she and Kleeman share a vigor for playing with form and for allowing stories to twist into whatever shape they, in particular, desire – unrestrained by tradition, form, expectation, or anything else.
I’ll admit to not finding all of the stories in this collection entirely successful. “Hylomorphosis”, a late-collection curiosity about angels, is interesting but oddly academic and it felt almost like an attempt to blend a short essay with short fiction – not a bad read, by any means, but one that felt slight, that I breezed through and past. And “A Brief History of Weather”, the longest story in the collection, was perhaps the most baffling to me – not through any fault of the author. I found myself reading it as though – appropriately – peering through a blizzard. I could see things but they would recede or shift or disappear entirely, revealing perhaps something else I hadn’t been looking for. It wasn’t until I read Robert Coover’s blurb of the book that I realized exactly what the story was; not in a way where I had been misled or left in the cold but in a way where I simply hadn’t gotten there yet. It’s almost as though I needed to give it another go, that tale – but where I finished Kleeman’s novel and wanted to dive back in immediately, where I was downright compelled to do so, this story did not pull me back in.
But, joyously, there were stories in this collection that made me want to read them again, that had that same compelling force to them. “You, Disappearing” – the last story in the collection – is like the “True Love Waits” of this book: beautiful and mournful and almost infinitely repeatable. And “Fairy Tale”, the opener, is exactly the sort of weirdness I love and I read it again after finishing the collection, just to see if I still liked it as much. Maybe I’ll even come back around to “A Brief History of Weather” at some point. With Alexandra Kleeman’s work, there’s never a guarantee that the story won’t creep back into your life sometime down the line. And what a wonderful thing that is.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. There’s a paragraph in the title story (or, well, kind of – the story is called “Intimation”) that brought me such joy, where Kleeman’s narrator (possibly but probably not the Karen of the three preceding tales) goes on about the way she “had never really noticed how much sound there was in a word.” This paragraph goes on for more than half of the page, full of delight and keen phrasing and fascinating insight with a grin-inducing conclusion – and then, the next paragraph, only a sentence long, is “Suddenly, I remembered the cake.” The humor she’d brought slowly to a boil paid off over the course of 2/3rds of a page and this is just one small example of the delights that are to be found inside of any Alexandra Kleeman tale. Not all of the stories in this collection will appeal to every reader, but all of them prove that her debut novel was not a fluke: Kleeman is a potent voice, here to stay and delight and prod at the gray matter of the reader’s brain for a long time to come. I myself look forward to it.