Anatomy Lessons With Alexandra Kleeman

Alexandra Kleeman

A, the beautiful if a little wayward heroine of Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, spends a lot of time on the couch. It doesn’t help that her boyfriend, C, seems devoid of interests that aren’t at least tenuously related to Shark Week, and her roommate, B, flips through channels as a form of therapy.

When A’s not getting emotionally invested in documentaries about environmental zealots or floating through her workday, she sits in front of the mirror in her bedroom, picking at her skin, analyzing her features and meticulously applying makeup.

“I always thought it was strange that no one was allowed to think about [makeup] in literature, because it’s a frivolous topic,” Kleeman said. “But in another way it’s a really timely and important topic. When mirrors were not so well-developed, or even before that when mirrors didn’t exist, your face was a blind spot. It was something other people saw, but you never saw.”

Kleeman’s book — both absurd and deeply intimate — is full of these insightful asides. In an interview with The Huffington Post, the author discussed the weird importance of makeup in modern society and why female friendships are having a moment in fiction. 

Alexandra Kleeman

I loved your book! Did you set out to write about body image or did it just arise naturally?

I was looking at what I’d written in the past and very few elements from my everyday life were in it. I thought things like consumer pressure and body image were not necessarily of literary heft, because they don’t seem timeless. I was frustrated with writing reality without the reality I experienced. So I wanted to include as much of that as possible.

I liked the ongoing theme that bodies are malleable and even interchangeable. What drew you to that theme?

When I was fairly young, just out of high school, my dad got seriously ill. He had cancer. On the surface he didn’t look any different. But I knew from talking to his doctor and then reading about it that something very dramatic was happening inside [of him]. It was this exercise in looking at my father and thinking that even though he looks the same, there’s a bodily crisis going on within. You wouldn’t know without that sort of special vision that a medical eye can offer. 

That was the beginning of thinking of this intense changeability that’s part of bodies. We don’t notice that our cells are turning over all the time. You get a completely new composition of cells every seven years, and on the surface, or subjectively, it looks as though you’re the same for seven years. It’s like a ground — it looks stable, but beneath it everything is shifting all the time. It’s exciting and dangerous.

I especially like how you tied all of that in with makeup. Why did you want to write about lipstick and foundation as a way of constructing an identity?

Makeup is something that a female has to reckon with every single day. Whether you wear it or don’t, you’re always making decisions about wearing it or not, or how you’re wearing it and what that means. So I always thought it was strange that no one was allowed to think about it in literature, because it’s a frivolous topic.

But in another way it’s a really timely and important topic. If you think about 100 years ago, when mirrors were not so well-developed, or even before that when mirrors didn’t exist, your face was a blind spot. It was something other people saw, but you never saw. And that in some ways makes more psychological sense than being able to worry and care for your face all the time, and having this array of tools to look at it and see it better, and correct little things that definitely don’t have functional value.

Yeah! It’s like, our face is the seat of our identity in some ways. It’s the first thing people see. Because you can’t see yourself without this technological apparatus, I feel like it’s in some way this external object. You can cultivate it the way you cultivate Bonsai trees. It’s like a hobby. And that’s both a personal thing and a distant thing.

That reminds me of the show you invented — a woman’s applying eyeliner and says, just put the face you want on your face! I love the way you make TV characters and commercial actors as relevant as real-life characters in the book. Do you think associating too much with TV and other fictional worlds results in a lack of self-awareness?

Sometimes I want to withhold judgement on whether something is good or bad, but I do feel like identifying with TV characters — connecting to them emotionally more than you connect to literal, physical people in your life — causes problems. They just don’t have the same existence or boundaries as you do. They resemble us, but they are not us. 

When I started binge-watching TV, when that became a thing due to Netflix a few years ago, the first thing I watched was “Lost.” It was summer break from grad school, and I watched it all in a row, like as many hours a day as I could, as though I were clocking in at a job. You have this hunger to find out [the characters’] backstory and that gets you really involved. But they have almost no relevance to your life, or who you are.

My reality kind of inverted. All the people I was spending the day with seemed more real to me than the people I knew, and myself. It was a cool feeling. I was walking around feeling fictional. But I don’t think it was healthy.

The commercials in your book are goofy and absurd, and the characters know that, but they’re still somehow really persuasive. Are there any real commercials that you modeled your fictional ones on?

Yeah. One of the first commercials I remember being really compelled by was… do you remember when Bioré pore-cleansing strips came out? I remember seeing the commercials and they were like, this face looks normal, this person looks normal, but then you put this thing on and peel it off, and there were all these traces left on the paper that come from you, and you never imagined they were inside your skin. It looks extremely effective. Once you realized there was something hiding in your skin that you couldn’t even see, you definitely take on the impulse to eradicate it as quickly as possible. It was like magic.

They create this must out of something that never even mattered in the first place.

That commercial did what I think a lot of commercials do now — as much as they’re selling the specific product, they’re also selling the idea of magical transformation. You use this and suddenly something will change. You can watch this happen in your own house, or your own face. 

I was reading an interview you did a while ago, where you said you liked writing about characters struggling with memory loss because they’re trying to figure out who they are from a blank slate. This book had a similar tone. Why are you drawn to this type of character? 

Part of the influence, I think, was just my longstanding love for Beckett. His language is pretty experimental, it’s stripped down. I have such intense emotional experiences when I read his work, because I feel like his characters are struggling so intensely with the most basic things, things there’s no sure solution for, especially in their fictive universes. So part of it is becoming interested in how people or characters might solve the problem of bare life if they were dealing with that problem. 

I feel lucky that the basic structure of my world is stable, and in-tact. When I was in college, doing cognitive science, I worked with aphasics, people who had had strokes and lost part of their language ability. They were complex, feeling, thinking individuals who had this trouble with this one layer we take so for granted, the ability to deploy the word you want when you want it and string words together in a way that make you appear like a person to other people. Seeing how breakdowns or obstructions of the basic mechanisms of being a person can destruct everything else — how fragile that underlying stuff is — really compelled me. I’m one of the better-adjusted people you might meet who thinks about that all the time.

Did your studies influence your writing in other ways?

My favorite part about being involved in science, when I was involved in science, was the moment you think of an experiment. You think of a set-up that something will result from, and a suspicion about how it’ll be resolved, but you don’t know for sure what it is. There’s that sense that something could surprise you that draws you in. I think that has a lot to do with how I write fiction. I get interested in setting something up or creating a problem. I don’t want to know upfront what the solution will be.

One of the things I liked most about your book is that even though it sounds really conceptual, it has these great scenes that illustrate female friendship. Are there other books or stories that you enjoy on that theme?

I was just talking to my editor yesterday about this. It’s becoming this exciting time for writing about female friendship, a topic that weirdly hasn’t been broached in recent literature all that much. It’s so strange. It’s such a major element of life, and it’s only appeared within the lens of what you can write about recently. I’m really into the Elena Ferrante novels. They’re so groundbreaking, because of the author’s willingness to devote an epic amount of time and detail to something that’s always been window dressing. Like, here’s a scene we throw in to tell us a little more about one of these characters. I love following those little destructions that happen even over the course of a regular friendship, and she does it so well. I think those books are making a space for more people to talk about it.

Are there other authors who write about hunger and body image that you enjoy? As you said earlier, it’s a theme that’s not covered in literature as much as maybe it should be.

I feel like it isn’t. You can make a top-ten list, and that’s maybe the list. The older works are more male writer-centered, about hunger as a way of expressing something existential. But for physical, literal hunger, maybe my favorite is this Japanese writer Yoko Tawada. Her stories, every one of them, are about a character who’s an immigrant coming to a new land, and they’re experiencing their body change as their diet changes. Who they are is very much in flux because they’re coming as a foreigner into a place, and their body shifts along with that. It’s a really cool, deeply linked person-body combination.

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