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Authenticity and Apocalypse: An Interview with Alexandra Kleeman


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Photo: Nina Subin.

I first encountered Alexandra Kleeman’s work in the pages of this magazine. Her story “Fairy Tale”—published in 2010, when Kleeman was still a student in the M.F.A. program at Columbia University—is a nightmarish account of a woman confronted by a barrage of strangers who all claim to be her fiancé. The one she is forced to choose tries to kill her. Kleeman’s novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine employs a similarly arch and sinister surrealism to tell the story of two roommates whose identities slowly melt into one.

In her latest novel, Something New under the Sun, the otherworldly elements lurk further below the surface. The world of the novel is an only mildly exaggerated version of our own, plagued by privatization, corporate conspiracy, and rampant wildfires. The story follows a middle-aged East Coast novelist, Patrick Hamlin, as he travels to Los Angeles to supervise the making of his book into a film—a glamorous vision that is comically upended when, upon arrival, he discovers his primary task will be chauffeuring a demanding starlet, Cassidy Carter, across the menacing California landscape.

Due to extreme drought and water shortage, all but the wealthiest Californians have to drink WAT-R, a synthetic substitute for water that is described as being “exactly like the original, except moreso.” Back in New York, Patrick’s wife and daughter have taken refuge at a cultish eco-commune upstate, where they perform rituals to mourn the imminent death of the planet. In confident, understated prose, Kleeman foregrounds the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change and its attendant anxieties, conjuring a simmering unease that recalls fellow genre defiers such as Don DeLillo and Patricia Highsmith. But in the end what’s most troubling about the world of Kleeman’s novel is not its strangeness but its familiarity—how closely its horrors hew to those of modern life.

This interview was conducted by phone between New York and Colorado two days after a notorious American billionaire shot himself into space and a few weeks after a patch of ocean in the Gulf of Mexico caught on fire. My conversation with Kleeman made me think deeply about the uncanny moment we are living in and the potential of fiction to offer new and more expansive modes of reality.

INTERVIEWER

The epigraph of the book is a passage from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which a man sees a unicorn. At first, he thinks he must be dreaming or having some kind of mystical experience. But then another person comes along and sees it, too, and then another, and somehow these witnesses reduce the specialness of the experience until it is “as thin as reality,” transforming the unicorn into something ordinary—“a horse with an arrow in its forehead.” Why did that feel like the right way to open the novel?

KLEEMAN

I have a long relationship with the play Hamlet. It is the thing I have seen performed the most times in my life, and it was an important touchstone for me in several different ways while writing Something New under the Sun. First, it manifests this theme of telling and retelling and substitution and change by parts that I think is an important part of the logic of the novel. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also asks this question about whether or not perceiving inaccurately is helpful to us in terms of our psychological stability and our survival, which I think is one of the main questions of this book. We often perceive correctly in a localized way. We can accurately name what is happening in our daily lives, or perform a very complex analysis of a TV show we are watching. But the larger context in which we operate—the capitalist economy, the ecosystem, which is under extreme pressure and is changing in ways that are stochastic and nonlinear—is often beyond our emotional comprehension. I think a lot about whether our models of reality enable us to function usefully in a world that is changing as quickly as the one we occupy.

INTERVIEWER

You have taught classes on speculative fiction. Were you thinking at all about genre while you were writing? And what do we gain when we view our world through an altered lens?

KLEEMAN

Yes, the question of genre was one that came up a lot while I was writing. I think this novel sort of sprawls across several different genres—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it slumps messily across them. That was an intentional provocation, because I find I’m quite skeptical of whether the boundaries it’s blurring are really even meaningful anymore. In the past, realism or domestic realism has enjoyed a privileged relationship to reality because it claims to offer “accurate” representations of people and things that happen in the world. But what counts as reality is always a question of perspective, parameters, and interests. Let’s say you have a novel set in the present day in Brooklyn and there is no representation of gentrification or the gig economy or climate change. Can that be considered realism? Are you writing about an alternate reality, or are you simply telling an artificially narrow story that imagines a world in which these issues are not as visible and not exerting as much pressure on our psyche? In the past week, two different billionaires have shot themselves into space, a lightning storm over British Columbia sent down something like three hundred thousand lightning strikes, and last time I checked, there was still a giant area of the Gulf of Mexico where the ocean was on fire. When you try to write a far-off dystopian or postapocalyptic narrative, I think you inevitably end up creating something that resonates with a lot of what is happening in the world today. So what does that mean? Does it mean we need new genres to accurately project our fantasies into? Perhaps. But I think a better question would be, In what ways do we need to reconceive how we build our standard-issue reality in literature?

INTERVIEWER

The landscape of California has something of a starring role in your novel. The trees and mountain lions and wildfires are not just vividly conjured but foregrounded and, at times, given consciousness. You mentioned that you spent part of your childhood in California. What about that part of the world captures your imagination?

KLEEMAN

I moved a lot as a kid. I lived in LA, Virginia, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Japan, and even Europe for a little while. One of the big moves was from the Piedmont area of New York to the San Gabriel Valley. Coming out West was this amazing experience of being in the middle of a vast amount of space. To the untrained eye, it looks empty—grassless, treeless, very dry. It’s only once you get to know it that you can really see how much is going on. It is almost an alien landscape after coming from a place where water is so abundant, and I felt that difference really acutely when I was young. So I wanted to pay tribute to the landscape and conjure it with all its drama and beauty, which meant sometimes to just travel across it—to peel away from human characters and let the camera of the narrative move through spaces and see how much life is going on out there.

I feel there is a danger to rendering landscapes in prose. It is easy to write about places in a way that turns them into backgrounds and makes them inert, and that perpetuates the idea that there’s not much going on there, when actually there is so much happening. There is so much drama and action taking place constantly in the natural world—so many stories and narratives unfolding. There are so many worlds of vital life. If we lived in a less anthropocentric world, we might look at our novels and think, Why is there never an animal in this story except for one that dies for some dramatic reason? To show that there is a world that is bigger than the world of these characters was really important to me—to always remind the reader that this story is operating at one level of human scale, plot, character, et cetera, but there are other levels out there.

INTERVIEWER

This novel feels in some ways like a departure from your earlier work, in that the surrealist or otherworldly elements are less apparent at the outset.

KLEEMAN

Absolutely. I wanted to begin by writing my version of a realist novel and then to slowly let it move into more speculative territory. It begins as something that people can recognize and then distorts into something uncanny and unexpected. And Patrick’s character is in some ways a surrogate for the reader in that process. At the beginning of the novel, he is this naive outsider coming into an industry and a world that he still has a lot of unfettered optimism for. Hollywood, for him, is a place where it feels like fortunes can change and big things can happen and your life can transform in a categorical way. And in a sense, his life does transform—just not in the ways he expected.

Many genre writers I really admire, like Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick, use the trope of the “generic man,” and I wanted to play with that and make it my own. The generic man has, for better or worse, defined a lot of the world that we live in, and I’m interested in this cultural moment in which the generic man feels so deeply at risk. I think he is exposed to the world in a way he never was before. His behaviors and instincts have been denaturalized, and he has begun to stick out, forcing him to take on some of the precarity and visibility that people of other identities have felt for a long time. I think this felt to a lot of men like it was the end of the world—but it was just the end of their world, you know? And I thought that was sort of an interesting way to approach the pre-apocalyptic and postapocalyptic, too. The end of an era is never the end for everybody. Sometimes it means space is opening up for others. Sometimes it means the world is more livable for people who haven’t previously been foregrounded. So I wanted the book to begin by being really centered on this man, Patrick, and then to start passing the narrative baton to more and more people who are not white men and sometimes are not even humans.

INTERVIEWER

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that makes a lot of sense. It’s difficult to think on scales beyond the human, but I feel like the novel is constantly pushing the reader to do just that. I was really interested in the way the narrative telescopes, zooming in and out between these big, disquieting events, like the melting of the ice caps, and then the small pettinesses of everyday life. This flattening logic reminded me in some ways of the internet and social media, where the big and the small sit side by side, sometimes to disorienting effect.

KLEEMAN

Yeah, I mean, the amazing thing about the internet is that it contains such a vast amount of information, including hugely significant planetary-level information that it feeds to us in the same way it does an advertisement for a customizable shampoo. It reduces everything to a bite-size component. This is, on the one hand, an interesting and satisfying way to consume information, but it also means we are asked to synthesize things that have large implications and are truly urgent but are happening concurrently to YouTube videos of pets and the lining up of freelance gigs. The book tends toward this overstuffed logic, too, where something big and consequential is shoved out of focus by something small and ordinary.

INTERVIEWER

The novel contains a lot of artifice—synthetic water, phony Hollywood producers—but the characters also talk a lot about authenticity or “realness,” especially in reference to Cassidy. In her case, the question of artifice feels particularly tethered to her gender and fame. Everyone—Patrick included—is obsessed with whether or not she is “real.” Can you speak to this theme of authenticity as it relates to her character?

KLEEMAN

I’m part of the same generation as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. In a way, I grew up alongside them. And my whole life I have had this strange awareness of being the same age, numerically, as Lindsay Lohan. I have thought to myself, What is she doing and what am I doing? How am I doing relative to Lindsay Lohan? She has always been a kind of yardstick. With this novel, I was thinking a lot about the dynamic of forced plasticity and endless extractionism, and I thought there was no one better to register this than a celebrity who has been so lauded and, frankly, squeezed for the natural resource that is her supposed naturalness or authenticity. To be asked to provide that all that time, to be pinned in place by one perspective of yourself and constantly mined for it, seems really tragic to me. It’s a contradiction—to be asked to perform realness. But I think that’s the position Cassidy finds herself in.

I also wanted to highlight how fraught the question of authenticity is—for everyone, but especially for young women. We receive so much messaging about what we should be and should desire. Our ideas about who we are and what we want and what we’re worth are deeply circulated between our internal selves and the identities or qualities that others impose on us. It becomes really difficult to tell who you’re performing for and even which part is the performance. So I think that when Patrick and others claim to see something “authentic” in Cassidy, it might say more about them and what they are projecting onto her than it does about who she is.

INTERVIEWER

Yeah, absolutely.

KLEEMAN

I always sort of viewed these infamous celebrity breakdowns—Britney Spears shaving her head or Lindsay Lohan yelling at paparazzi or the like—as personal attempts to escape from the constant performance of identity, to shake off this lens and make some more room for other possibilities of who a person might be. People are messy. We have so many conflicting motives. So when you can identify an impulse or a desire that comes truly from within yourself, those are precious moments to seize on and follow.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of moments of rupture, I’d like to talk for a minute about Patrick’s wife, Alison. She feels in a way like an important foil or balancing character. She is depicted as this emotionally fragile woman who has run off to an upstate retreat to mourn the effects of climate change. But there is an argument to be made that by refusing to adjust to an insane world, she is the sanest person in the book—or at least the one standing on the firmest ethical ground. Her character seems to beg the question, Is it right to be happy and okay in a world that is so corrupt and destructive?

KLEEMAN

Having a chapter devoted to Alison was really important to me. She gets to stand where I stand most of the time, which is in a position of compromise but also of trying to do better. She is reckoning with the question of whether it is even possible to live a normal life if you perceive the world around you to be deeply imperiled. At the moment in the narrative when the stuff about WAT-R and this capitalist conspiracy is coming to a head on the West Coast, the book turns to focus on Alison, who is in a place where the drama has a very different quality. That chapter gives a sense of the breadth of the world.

There is no crisis that takes over everyone’s life in the same way. I think the pandemic has been a really clear example of this. Even something so widespread that has reshaped our lives over the past year and a half, seems almost not to have touched some people. The world is amazing and strange in that way. I think Alison’s struggle is not only how to live an ethical life but how to take it seriously and respond to a crisis that is happening far away, that there’s really nothing she can do to help with in that moment. She is where a lot of us are in relation to this sort of vastly distributed crisis of climate change, which impacts some people really directly but impacts many more of us only indirectly, in a much more diffuse way that is difficult to manage a response to. The result, for better or worse, seems to be a kind of generalized anxiety and feeling of precarity that rarely translates to meaningful action—and in some cases inhibits it.

INTERVIEWER

The idea of grieving for the destruction of the environment was really compelling to me. We so rarely speak about climate change in personal and emotional terms, but of course it’s very emotional. There is so much loss happening. I’m curious if writing this book and thinking deeply about these questions changed your own feelings about consumerism and climate change and our ever-burning world. Or did your feelings become more legible to you in any way?

KLEEMAN

There are so many possible ways of responding to that, and all of them come with their own critique attached. It’s part of what makes this such a tricky subject. The same thing that Alison and her daughter, Nora, wrestle with about being in this ecocentric mourning camp is, Are we being truer to the situation by acknowledging it emotionally, or is there something in the world that we should still be doing? Is this a form of escapism or a form of reconciliation and recognition and honesty? I think everyone’s answers to those questions are going to be different. Again, I think about the moments of rupture in the book, these little gestures of will where the spell of normalcy is broken—for instance, Alison’s breakdown where she destroys her yard and her neighbor’s yard and tears up the lawn, or Cassidy’s unwillingness to behave politely in the face of paparazzi who are stealing her private moments. Those sorts of actions share a symmetry with the more mundane, like deciding that you are going to stop driving or cut single-use plastics out of your daily life. These choices don’t have world-changing effects, necessarily, but they do the work of showing that the expected patterns of life can be cracked, can be broken, can be suspended, and that gives you room to think around them.

For me, it has become really important to think about having a relationship to land, and trying to help that landscape be more resilient in whatever way you can, doing what you can to form a community in a specific place. In general, making yourself ready to keep trying rather than resigned to inevitability or completely hopeless and burned out and despairing. It’s a really difficult balance to strike, but it’s what I’m reaching for.

 

Cornelia Channing is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York. She is a copy editor at New York Magazine.

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