Alexandra Kleeman isn’t afraid to lean into what is unsettled. Her 2015 darkly funny, devastating, and uncomfortable dystopian debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine tackled obsessions with bodies, and captured the loss of grip of self and reality we experience through technology, told through the story of a narrator named A, her roommate B, and her roommate’s boyfriend C.
Kleeman’s newest novel Something New Under the Sun, out Aug. 3, is about a novelist who moves to Los Angeles to oversee the production of the adaption of his book, only to find a gradually worsening city dealing with droughts and wildfire — and unravels the mystery of a company pedaling an eerie new brand of synthetic water called WAT-R that residents have to buy, which is marketed in Helvetica font and sold for $4.50 per box. In a summer when the world is only announcing ever more clearly that it’s in peril — fires in the Gulf of Mexico, heat waves killing hundreds in the Pacific Northwest, and flooding in Germany, to name a few — it’s a neo-noir novel that feels disturbingly timely. When NYLON spoke with Kleeman about the book on a recent day in late July, the smoke in New York City was thick from fires 3,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest, where Kleeman is staying for the summer. It felt, like it does in the book, like there’s nowhere we can escape.
“We want to keep believing that when the bad comes, it’s going to be big and explosive and it’s going to be instantly recognizable and it’s going to move everyone all at once,” Kleeman told NYLON over the phone. “I think the truth of climate change is that other people are already living in the bad, other people are finding their homes uninhabitable because of these changes that are happening everywhere, but happen differently in different places.”
Kleeman is an expert at defamiliarizing bizarre things we’ve come to accept as normal: an aging former child star having a meltdown in front of paparazzi, the physiological effects of a popular acne medication, how a shopper gets attacked by a wild animal in the parking lot of a mall that butts up too closely to nature. Kleeman’s world is unsettled, but so is ours. And she leans into that unsettledness to create a world that is just a few notches more uncanny than our own, starkly making the absurdity of ours that much more clear.
Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman is out now from Hogarth Books.
Where did the idea for this book start? Was climate change something you wanted to specifically tackle?
Climate change is something I specifically wanted to tackle, but also I was thinking about how can I tackle it in a way that will make it feel more present and bodily? Or make the strange way in which it is present in this abstract way and then occasionally becomes extremely unignorably present, how can I put that down on the page and get at this strange, ghostly, abstract, and utterly omnipresent certain quality that it has?
Because I’m a person who lives in my body for better or for worse, and I’m from the West, I’m from Colorado where we have some of the same issues with water shortage and droughts as California, I wanted to invent a substance, this fake water that would enter the body and make the wrongness of itself feel palpable in this way. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of traveling and going to a town where you drink water from the tap and you think, “Something about this water isn’t correct to me, it just doesn’t feel right to me,” and that instinctive feeling, where your whole system bucks against the substance is something I’m really interested in. You can’t rationalize it, but you know that something is not right about it.
Choosing to create a substance that is as ubiquitous and necessary as water is an interesting way to talk about that bodily feeling, especially because our bodies are made up of what, like 60% water.
Yeah, certainly and when I was younger, I read this book about the evolution of human beings through other life forms, and going all the way back to things that crawled out of the sea and it always stuck with me, this idea that we are basically the sea put into a bag. We need the sea so much, so we just carry it around with us.
Tell me a little bit about this setting. What drew you to it?
I grew up mostly in Colorado, but I moved around a lot as a kid. One of the most formative times of my life was living in the San Gabriel Valley to the east of L.A., in this part of Los Angeles County where most people I know who live in L.A. never go. They may drive past it on the way to Joshua Tree or Palm Springs. It’s this area that sort of has been made in a lot of ways to look like a familiar American setting: strip malls, grocery stores, In-N-Out Burgers. But just past behind our condo community was this train of hills where coyotes would come down and eat people’s pets off their lawns in the middle of the night, where you’d see snakes and things scuttling away from you and shaking the grass, and you could never quite tell what was fleeing you, but you knew there’d been an interaction between you and it — this interaction with the wild landscape that pushes up and surrounds this place that people have worked really hard to make it to look familiar and friendly and like anyplace else, when it truly is not.
I always thought that dynamic was so fascinating and is kind of part of the paradox of the West — that we have this setting that is so specific, the way that drought and dryness and occasional wetness and the thin margins of life operate are so specific, and yet we’ve carried over these expectations from the East Coast, a place that is so different ecologically, and we’ve just imposed them. It’s as though we couldn’t really see the place that we were in when we started building on it. Part of what I’m interested in doing is beginning the book with this feeling of normalcy and sort of chipping away at it and showing the parts of this environment that we don’t see or have ignored because of habituation and because we’ve transformed it so radically to our specifications, and a certain resurgence of what is underneath our buildings and our concrete is something I’m totally fascinated by.
“Part of what I’m interested in doing is beginning the book with this feeling of normalcy and sort of chipping away at it and showing the parts of this environment that we don’t see or have ignored because of habituation and because we’ve transformed it so radically to our specifications.”
Right, because even when you build, you can’t get away from the coyotes eating the pets, nor should we even.
Yeah, and it’s like at least there is a reminder of what existed before and what exists around us. Where I live on Staten Island, I think it can be pretty easy to ignore that you’re essentially living on a reclaimed floodplain. Everything you see around you is designed to make you forget that fact.
This book tackles a lot of themes: the idea of going West, celebrity, climate change. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine deals with obsessions over our bodies. I’m wondering, what is it about science fiction as a genre that lets you explore these bigger issues?
The project in both books is sort of similar. It’s like, how can we find a way to critique these deep-seated desires and preferences and habituations that are actually so unnatural and so very much introduced to us by such an early age that we can’t know where we begin and where they end? I always find other genres to be a really useful way of unsettling what’s normal. Even when you don’t go super deep into genre — this book has some science fiction elements, but it has no spaceships, it has no technology that we could not create today, it is basically just 5 inches out from where we currently are. But still the way genre makes you sort of look alertly at the world that’s building and think about how it’s created, what elements are recognizable and what elements aren’t — it puts into question this sort of ease of which we normally sit in the world and navigate about it, and the way we take so much for granted just so that we can move around at greater speed and efficiency.
Your books have such a tantalizing sense of uneasiness and a feeling of things being unsettled. Where does that impulse come from?
Yeah, that’s such a great question. I think that impulse comes from my default position in the world. I have a hard time believing a lot of the time that I am where I am, I am who I am. It’s sort of like an amnesiac’s perspective on the world, like I always feel surprised by what I'm experiencing. That’s not a super useful or adaptive quality, but I do think that there’s something about it that seems to me like it broadens what I’m able to observe and whether I notice it or not.
In a private place, I’m always looking at the person who is most uncomfortable there or the person who’s rendered least visible, and I really strongly feel that a feeling of reality and a feeling of normalcy is just a certain distribution of what we notice. If you look at the margins there’s always a lot there that challenges the default reading or interpretation of a scene or space, so by putting that down on the page, I think I’m building reality a little differently and a little more the way I see and feel it, and hopefully changing what people notice around them too.
Right, not being afraid to look at what’s on the fringes.
Totally. I feel that a lot of the stories we consume as people obviously are human-centered and are told in a human scale, like at a scale that’s not only comprehensible to us but entertaining to us. We like to see a certain amount of plot happen, we like to see character development happen, but if you look at the longer view of a person’s life, I feel like they’re having the same epiphany over and over again. Maybe the goal is to find what your epiphany is that you always return to and never quite achieve total absorption of, and you also can see more about your place in the world when you widen your view significantly. If you are existing in a place and you’re not thinking about whose land you’re standing on, whose land was stolen from them, are you really inhabiting that place or the narrowest slice of time for that place? And what other relationships can you have when you draft toward the marginal?
“We like to see a certain amount of plot happen, we like to see character development happen, but if you look at the longer view of a person’s life, I feel like they’re having the same epiphany over and over again.”
In this book, L.A. isn’t destroyed, but everything is a little worse. You describe it as “gradations of badness that felt more like home the longer she dwelt in them.” Is that more dangerous or sinister than total destruction?
That’s the super big question, I think. I’m fascinated by disaster movies because they’re meant to be scary. They’re meant to be a warning sometimes. They’re also meant to get our adrenaline flowing, but I think they also scratch this particular itch, which is that we want to keep believing that when the bad comes it’s going to be big and explosive and it’s going to be instantly recognizable and it’s going to move everyone all at once. I think the truth of climate change is that other people are already living in the bad, other people are finding their homes uninhabitable because of these changes that are happening everywhere, but happen differently in different places. So how can we develop an idea of threat and a response to threat that corresponds to something that’s not so simple and clear-cut and loudly announcing itself as disaster as we wish it would? I think that whereas the fight-or-flight response is a pretty instinctive thing, the response we need is going to take a lot more rational thought and sacrifice. Oof.
Oof! I saw this tweet the other day that was like, “Normalize the end of the world not being one moment,” and that’s exactly what it is. That would be too easy.
Yeah, and it’s like the end of the world for whom? Because there have been ends of the worlds for different populations before. I think being violently dispossessed of your land is a type of end of the world, and that’s known as the start of the American journey West.
What other works that deal with climate change inspired you while writing this book?
That’s such a good question and I think a lot of this book was driven in part by my love for Philip K. Dick. His move he compulsively does over and over again in his books is where someone who didn’t feel great in their reality, but at least felt like they had reality, gets that reality yanked away. And the most palpable interaction you can have with reality is to find out you were wrong about it, so that sort of move — that sort of existential unsettling — was really important to me. I’ve also been reading a lot of mostly naturalist handbooks to California and accounts of radical environmentalists and Chumash people who are native to the area. Mary Hunter Austin, a single mother writer who lived alone in Southern California around the turn of century, wrote this book called The Land of Little Rain, which is really beautiful and a carefully observed account of the land. I was really inspired by books that animate the landscape and make all the different parts of it feel active and alive.
Often in the book, you glance at the landscape to get a mood from it, or you glance at the weather to tell yourself, “Yeah, there is a world here, now let’s get back to the story.” When those two things blend into one another as they do in times of disaster and crises, I think in some ways that’s the plane of reality that I believe in. I also read a bunch of Spanish writers because I think Spanish literature is super exciting right now. Samanta Schweblin, whose book Fever Dream is like the most intense nugget of fiction I’ve ever read and also sort of hallucinatory and also environmental, like about a sort of toxin or disease or something that's in this town. Also Agustín Fernández Mallo who wrote The Nocilla Trilogy, that’s really good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.