This review discusses eating disorders.
I have so little energy. Because of this even my inner monologue cannot question reality. It speaks in a monotone. I am living on snacks. I am living on cookies and apple quarters. Toast with peanut butter. Bananas, chicken. Rice. Cheeseburgers and fries. I am only putting brown and yellow foods into my body. They come all boxed and wrapped up in tissue paper like expensive gifts.
I don’t think I don’t like my body. I don’t think I’m trying to morph into another version of myself, or into anybody else. I just think the food is transient, transcendent. Each shit is pale and smooth in shape, primed for exit. This is because of the food. It can only be a good thing. It can only be a good thing.
The book I am reading feels, at the beginning, so much like it could be the story of my life that I feel like it is the story of my life. When the book gradually becomes unsettling, I feel gradually unsettled inside my own life. My own life doesn’t fit me just right anymore. My life feels like a carbon copy of my life, kind of thin, a version that I’m living in but I’m too dense and heavy for it.
Or, no: my life feels like a ripe fruit in a bowl of less ripe fruits, slowly making all the other fruits ripen more quickly than they should, forcing them to become identical. Fruits that started out firm and full of promise are now liquefied, trapped inside too-soft skins. I can’t tell myself apart from the other fruits in the bowl anymore, but I’m not scared. I’m pretty sure I’m relieved.
How does the person inside the body come out of the body? Why are some people so easy to be around, so free and warm, and others so deeply hidden inside the boundaries of their corporeality? Why can’t I project what I want to project without having to explain it, in a tumble of awkward inarticulacies? Why am I not my purest, cleanest self, visible always and to everyone, without the trappings of a gender, a hairstyle, an outfit, a mood?
Some people would say the real trappings that stifle my purest self are the consumer items I buy, impulsively and sometimes compulsively, and have come to need for true happiness. If you asked a truly happy person which three things they could not live without, they might say: love, friendship, expression. If you asked me which three things I could not live without, I would say: iPhone, Too-Faced Born This Way Oil-Free Foundation in Vanilla, black coffee.
I’d only read one thing by Alexandra Kleeman before I read her novel. The thing I read was a short story called ‘Choking Victim’ published in The New Yorker. I liked it. She’s up-front, poetic, she sees a kind of honest sweetness in things that are fucked up and bad.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is made of this kind of writing. It’s sharp and cute, cutting and absurd. It’s about borders melting and dissolving: borders between you and the world outside, borders between things as they are and the same things drawn to their most grotesque extremes. You have to allow yourself to be absorbed by this book or it won’t make any sense.
Vogue interviewed Kleeman and reviewed You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine on their website. They called the book “Fight Club for girls”, like girls can’t read Palahniuk, like boys can’t read Kleeman, like there’s a gender binary. They described Kleeman as “twenty-nine, pretty, pixieish, with expert cat-eye flicks” in the second sentence of the article. These adjectives are all true descriptors of Kleeman’s physical appearance, and also her protagonist’s, and also her protagonist’s roommate’s. This article is everything that’s strange about the way we’re expected to choose things for ourselves: books to read, clothes to wear, people to love. It is indicative of everything Kleeman warps and violates in her novel.
I have never met her but I reckon Kleeman probably kind of liked that Vogue article. Maybe she read it as though she was her own ghost; as though in reading it she met only part of herself. I can imagine her witnessing such a divide, but maybe that’s only because I know how that feels.
Here’s a list, non-itemised, of my body’s consumable input/output on the weekend:
When you lay it out like that, it looks so skewed! How can my body absorb all that stuff? How can my body equalise itself?
The protagonist in Kleeman’s novel is a thin, pointy, dark-haired girl named A. Her roommate, B, could be A’s twin—both bony, birdlike; both scrambling for a foothold in their understandings of themselves. Reflecting on their similarities, A recalls, “My boyfriend said that ‘all I wanted in a person was another iteration of my person, legible to me as I would be to myself.’”
Self-legibility can be so difficult when you’re unable to identify with the body you see in the mirror. Maybe, sometimes, you need your reflection to be autonomous, a stranger, just so you can make some sense out of it.
Recovering from anorexia, my eating becomes ritualistic. I put food in my mouth and I materialise. I take my place in the world assertively. I choose a recipe with my boyfriend and we cook together, we smell the steam rising from the pan. We imitate the TV chefs we see on the food channel and use Gordon Ramsay’s voice to critique the flavours. I order a pizza with my friends, hung over under the air conditioner, and when it arrives we eat the anticipation alongside the stringy cheese. We pass the greasy boxes between us and laugh with our mouths full.
I’m not immune: I skip dinner if I ate junk food for lunch sometimes, but mostly I don’t. I don’t keep scales in the house, but when I see them in other people’s bathrooms I have to plead with my body to not stand on them. I only usually win. I sometimes touch the place where my hipbones used to poke out, jagged. I wonder if I miss them. I do not dare venture into the blankness that is the answer to that question.
In 2010 anthropologist Megan Warin conducted an ethnographic study into the everyday worlds of anorexia sufferers and spoke with a recovering patient about “a hierarchy of clean and dirty foods.” The patient told her, “‘Vegetables are okay to touch—they are clean and pure—whereas other foods, and the greasy ones in particular, are defiling, disgusting … polluting and contaminating.’”
Kleeman’s novel is set in a world where rules like these apply. Rules like some foods are foods that are full of light (allowed) and some foods are dark foods (not allowed). “Production obscurities in today’s food assembly mean that you may be buying accidentally foods grown or produced in a dark realm by ghosts of the types of people you know,” A reads in a pamphlet full of useful information. You can’t tell just by looking at a food’s properties—its colour, texture, viscosity, expiration date—whether it will be dark or light. Some fresh fruits are so, so dark! Some super-processed foods are filled with light! It’s a system or order that exists outside of order.
How can A—or anyone—apply this order to a lived-in life?
So the focus shifts from the food to the body that holds it. Are your internal organs beautiful enough? The consumers who populate A’s world make their oesophagi as clear and smooth as their skin by ingesting edible beauty cream. They purchase veal imbued with the sadness of the calves who died and whose flesh is now packaged, glossy on Styrofoam, at the supermarket. Wondering about the meat, A asks, “Might veal secretly crave its own consumption, thus making its enemies its saviours?” Could we, just maybe, be performing acts of generosity by fulfilling our hungers, our desires?
A wonders whether consumption is a form of infiltration. She is so self-assured when it comes to untethering herself from the world! She allows herself to vanish with a graceful facade. I wonder whether my identity isn’t real enough. I wonder whether, if A is so easily untethered, I might be too.
When I was a teen, my mum told me she was worried that I didn’t know who I was. She had seen me float from clique to clique at my high school, trying out identities. She didn’t want me to lose sight of who I was, imitating those other girls. But I don’t think that was the answer. I had a fever, a restlessness.
I didn’t know who I was, and in a desperate anxiety to show a face, any face to society, I reflected whichever face was nearest me, whenever it was near. I was a ghost. I drifted through high school, leaving no trace behind me.
When B leeches A’s identity it feels more sinister. She says to A, “I think things would be better if I looked more like you…when I looked in the mirror, maybe I wouldn’t mind so much when you stayed away.” She’s more certain about this absorption of identity than I ever was. If my invisibility meant I left no trace behind me, B’s deliberate assimilation is like putting up a smokescreen, covering her tracks. “It would be like you were still here, so I wouldn’t really be alone,” she says.
The conversation only makes A hungry.
Why would anybody want to be someone else? For fear of standing out from the crowd, for fear of being seen? Megan Warin: “Is anorexia a protest or an extreme conformity to societal ideas? Is it a cry for attention or a desire to disappear from view?”
Throwing a white sheet over your face doesn’t take away your face. Dressing up like a ghost doesn’t turn you into a ghost. Feeling invisible doesn’t make you invisible, even if you’re so hungry that you feel transparent.
Sometimes, it feels like A is relating her actions to the reader as though she’s in a dream: she’s doing things without knowing she’s doing them. I worry for her wellbeing even as I know I do the things she does, and I do not worry for myself.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet and writer. Her work has appeared in Seizure, Meanjin, Scum Mag, Alien She Zine, Stilts, Shabby Doll House, and The Lifted Brow.