“Forming the hair into a cohesive mass was a losing task: single hairs drifted from the bundle, falling in slow motion to the carpet. Twisting the bundle made the sound of flesh opening up onto barren sand. I wrapped the stuff around my finger until the wad was the size of a walnut, but when I pulled it off it swelled up in my hand and I understood that this was going to be difficult no matter what. I looked to B’s face, saw her eyes dark and frightened like little gaping mouths. Then I stuffed it in. Tongue clinging to the dry fiber, gums wettening but still sticky, struggling to stay slick.” (Harper Perennial Editions, p.162)
Alexandra Kleeman’s novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine pinpoints the essence of our contemporary world, and shows how the perception we have of ourselves and of others becomes distorted. Kleeman’s main characters remain unnamed throughout the narrative. The female narrator’s name is unspecified –– we can assume that she is referred to as “A,” because she calls her roommate “B”, and her boyfriend “C”. The events that take place in the first part of the novel revolve around these three characters, and they are depicted from A’s point of view. A moves between her home (where B seems to constantly wait for her), her boyfriend’s apartment (described as dull and lifeless) and her workplace. When the story begins, a suffocating summer climate parallels A’s lethargy. A is fighting against a hunger that she can never satisfy.
Kleeman invites readers inside A’s spiralling psyche; we find ourselves falling with her, and empathizing with her struggles and doubts. A’s narrow perspective makes us feel a heightened sense of entrapment––her world is made up of very few elements, which contributes to her extreme loneliness. Despite having actively chosen her job, her boyfriend, and the house that she lives in, A feels trapped in her own life. Characters B and C both remain extremely close to A, but their selfishness and egotism make their presence feel suffocating to A, which adds to her feelings of loneliness.
Anyone could replace A inside her own life. She owns nothing that is specific to her identity –– the apartment she lives in, her roommate, her job, and even her boyfriend could belong to anybody. Nothing else exists beyond A’s limited perspective, where she is alone and isolated. But there is still another presence in her world that stems from a different place: commercials, television, cheap entertainment, and the media as a whole. These outside entities continuously haunt her, influencing every decision that she makes. For the reader, A’s spiralling thought patterns become the only stable ground; her thoughts are the only place in which a reader is able to establish a sense of their personal identity.
Kleeman depicts the consumption world as a disease that prevents the characters (especially A and B) from living in their bodies. This idea manifests itself more evidently in the narrator’s relationship with B, which is one of the most fascinating dynamics in this book. A and B resemble each other physically –– A describes their appearance as generic because they could both disappear into a crowd, and nobody would ever notice them.
“I held B’s smallish face in my hands and gripped her chin a little harder than I had to because I could get away with it, I was making her so happy right now. Before there were mirrors or cameras to allow you to face yourself, you had to see yourself through other people. I tried to think I was painting a picture of my face on hers so that I could see myself better.(…)” (Harper Perennial Editions, p.79)
B’s lack of selfhood makes her feel empty, and she doesn’t know how to fill this void. Here, Kleeman creates a very interesting parallel between physical hunger, caused by eating disorders, and a lack of individuality, caused by society’s expectations. The two roommates’ identities are extremely fragile. As A feels B’s individuality disappear, she becomes increasingly frightened that B will “devour” her life. She becomes terrified that B will steal her own individuality. She’s terrified of becoming nothing.
Vogue described this work as “Fight Club for girls”. This reductive idea is written on the book’s back cover. Why “for girls”? Is it because the book addresses eating disorders? Or because it provides an in-depth exploration of body image issues, and what is societally expected from women?
These issues aren’t only a concern for those that identify as “girls”. And they are not the cause of the narrator’s problems, but rather the consequence. You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine tries to reconcile the lack of space available for people, for them to figure out where they want to be and what they need from others. Kleeman describes a society that makes people feel like they have to conform to a certain way of living, to a specific physical appearance. It is very difficult to overcome these expectations. It produces a society of human beings who do not feel truly free to make choices for themselves, and for their bodies. It makes it difficult to understand what physical appearance means to humans, because it isn’t something people can control. Kleeman reminds us that it takes a lot of questioning to be able to choose how we feel about our bodies, and which type of substance and treatment we want to give to our bodies. For the author, who seems to be talking through A, most people feel like they just have to follow a path that is already paved for them in order to become successful, integrated, and most of all, loved by others. A, during her journey, constantly interrogates the discomfort she intuitively feels about the fact that all her life seems to be dictated to her by outside forces.
Kleeman suggests that we grow and live without ever really understanding the world, because we were never taught to understand ourselves. We grow detached from our body, and then from our own identity. But the novel still ends on a hopeful note. After the narrator hits rock bottom and loses the meaning she gave to her life so far, she seems accepts her fate with a feeling of resignation (and almost a relief): even if the world around her does not change, A decides to try and live again, with her willpower as her only weapon. Because “Life was everywhere, inescapable, imperative”. (Harper Perennial Editions, p.283)
Kleeman, Alexandra. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. New York City: HarperCollins, 2015.