Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Twinning at the Edge Of Sanity
By Roxanne Fequiere
I wasn’t very far along into Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine—really, just a few pages in—when a certain Talking Heads song began murmuring somewhere at the back of my mind, humming a polite request for frontal lobe entry. The book’s narrator, a young woman named A, lives with a roommate named B, another young woman who physically resembles A to a certain extent. B seems intent on highlighting and intensifying their similarities, a prospect that irritates and, increasingly, terrifies the object of her affection. Meanwhile, the two women spend their time together—that is, when A isn’t at work or spending time with her boyfriend, C—watching their neighbors, or television, or their neighbors’ television, where commercials for beauty products feature women who peel their faces off to reveal ever more radiant versions of themselves, eventually transforming into a famous actress.
He would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books/ He thought that some of these faces might be right for him. “Seen and Not Seen,” a song that’s remained stuck in my craw ever since first hearing it several years ago, considers the notion that one’s facial features may be subtly shifted by concentrated thought in order to better suit one’s personality, and that “this is why first impressions are often correct.” It’s a concept simple, plainly spoken, and haunting, much Kleeman’s book itself: reality, with a series of disturbing twists.
To be clear, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is the sort of book that defies easy categorization. There is a female friendship story within its pages, albeit an extremely uneasy one; a romantic relationship that wobbles on the precipice of its undoing; a cult conspiracy plot that involves acolytes dressed as bedsheet ghosts, a series of disappearing dads, and a chain of purposely disorienting SuperTarget-esque stores where employees wear smiling, freckle-faced foam heads to create a sense of uniformity. There’s a lot going on, but Kleeman moves deftly from bird’s-eye, deadpan appraisals of the absurd world unfolding around A to hyper-crisp, visceral descriptions of the simplest actions: the tension of convincingly faking sleep, the consumption of an orange. The way she describes teeth, for instance, is so scrupulous that I found myself running my tongue along the backside of my own, marveling at the precision of her words.
With every cosmetic adjustment B makes, she becomes a more convincing doppelgänger of her roommate, an encroachment on A’s shaky sense of self that drives her to near madness. By the time she falls in with the aforementioned cult, the Church of the Conjoined Eaters, it seems A is ready to relinquish all claims to idiosyncrasy. She dons a bedsheet with cutouts for eyes, obscuring her features almost completely, attempts to expel all of her past memories, and shares a cramped space with a new roommate, one with whom she is meant to be conjoined. “You look exhausted,” the roommate says when A arrives. “Much more tired than me. I’ll work on getting my face a little bit wearier…. The closer we are in body and appearance, the easier it’ll be to merge our life.”
They also share meals, piles of Kandy Kakes that, back in A’s former life, were heavily advertised on television with a cartoon mascot, Kandy Kat. It’s hard to overstate just how much I relished every Kandy Kat vignette in this book—at one point, I audibly whispered yes! as I realized I was being treated to another Kandy Kake commercial description. Rooted in the tradition of looping character arcs of the Trix Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote, the Hamburglar, et. al, Kandy Kat is driven by his ceaseless hunger and desire for Kandy Kakes and fails in his pursuit, each time more fantastically than the last.
Of course, as imagined by Kleeman, these commercials stretch far beyond plain slapstick, incorporating humor into an encroaching sense of desperation that hovers unsettlingly, even within a cartoon universe; less Looney Tunes than the Fleischer Studios’ absurd 1933 rendition of Snow White. In it, Betty finds herself trapped within an icy coffin, which prompts Koko the Clown, voiced by Cab Calloway, to take up her funeral procession. As he sings “St. James Infirmary Blues,” he dances mesmerizingly (the animation itself was rotoscoped from Calloway’s own movements), and incidentally, becomes a black-eyed bedsheet ghost with rubbery legs that extend right up to his shoulders. It’s bizarre, but compelling—I find myself returning to the scene often just to marvel at how something so weird and wonderful came to be. I imagine I’ll be doing the same for this feat of a novel for years to come.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.