In Intimations, Alexandra Kleeman’s newest compendium of stories, the bizarre frequently coexists with the quietly mundane. The outcome is an unsettling, often Lynchian storyscape: stark, strange, and nightmarish, often comical, always rich in allegory. A teacher attempts to tame a feral child with art. A murder-mystery costume party is more macabre than it looks. Lobsters stage a rebellion against people. Kleeman guides us gently and masterfully through this veritable house of the bizarre, where each room is worthy of lingering. By the collection’s moving final story, “You, Disappearing,” which first appeared in our pages and in which the world literally disappears bit by bit, the bizarre is inviting if not familiar.
In her review of Imitations in the New York Times, Hermione Hoby writes: “Like an alien intent on some meticulous anthropological mission on Earth, Alexandra Kleeman seems always to be encountering the world for the first time.” Indeed, this sensibility finds its way into her characters, who often appear to be amnesiacs waking from fever dreams into a universe in which some of the rules seem apparent, but the overall picture remains elusive. One story in this collection, a satire about a journalist researching a dairy farmer’s humane practices, obliquely evokes her debut novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, published in 2015. Of this Black Mirror-esque depiction of hyper-commercialized American life, the LA Review of Books said it “easily draws comparisons to Don DeLillo’s critiques of neoliberal consumer culture as well as the eerier ventures of Thomas Pynchon.”
The only child of two academics, Kleeman’s educational background spans the humanities and the sciences. While her degrees include a doctoral candidacy in rhetoric at UC Berkeley and an MFA in fiction from Columbia, she also pursued a considerable interest in evolutionary biology during her freshman year at Brown University. Her writing has been published in the New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, Conjunctions, Guernica,
In person, Kleeman is a comforting presence who laughs quietly and often. When we met for beer in a noisy bar garden, she spoke with ease and without affectation about her delightfully strange way of looking at the world.
—Puloma Mukherjee for Guernica
Guernica: What kinds of stories have stayed with you over the years?
Alexandra Kleeman: I started writing in college. We read a lot of experimental fiction, which fell somewhere between essay and poetry and novel. For a writer, short stories make it easier to read outside your genre, which is useful because you get yourself into contact with things that make you uncomfortable, rub you the wrong way, or make you mad. It helps you to figure out a new way of relating to that material.
My favorite short stories were by Robert Coover, who was my teacher [at Brown University] and is still a friend. I have always thought very metaphorically; indeed I have hard time thinking about specifics. The great thing about Coover’s stories is it always seems that a concrete sequence of events stands for something else. I am drawn to stories with the barest possible physical setting where a reality must be posited. Writers like Coover and Barthelme wrote stories where things were happening, but reality was a stretched a bit, too. Their work made me feel like I had license to tell a story, even though I feel it took me a long time to adapt to the real world and eventually write a story set in the real world.
Guernica: Your characters are sometimes unwitting participants or passive onlookers in your stories. The story happens to them just as it does to the reader. What does passivity mean to you as a writer?
Alexandra Kleeman: Active characters are seductive, likeable, and relatable, regardless of whether the reader agrees with them or their actions. They make you want to follow them. Passive characters are less likeable, from what I have gathered from people’s reactions to my work and other work that I feel attached to. Something about passive characters frustrates people. For me, passive characters are the most relatable and easier to empathize with. I really got attached to this in Beckett. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether [the characters] are likeable or unlikeable. All you know about them is that they are these frustrated people in waiting. Something about that type of a character calls out to me.
I always thought it was pushy, if not violent, to tell your story rooted in the supposed real world about supposedly real people, describing their motivations but also squishing them into one version of who they can be. Telling stories in a more schematic setting gives more authorial control. Passivity and uncertainty are very closely linked, and uncertainty is an interesting ethical position. It is when empathy is up for grabs. You are uncertain about whether the situation you are in deserves your empathy. I feel my characters don’t care, or seem not to, because there is nothing they can do. But active characters have to ignore some of their possible empathetic impulses. With animals, however, empathy can vibrate a bit. We have objectified animals for our physical needs, personified them for our emotional needs. And so I think the way a character interacts with an animal tells us something about the character but also about where they come from.
I have also always been compelled by how people make unreasonable choices about how they can interact [with] or absent themselves from the world. Even if you want to excuse yourself from the action, the world changes around you anyway and forces that change. Like Jains, who go to such great lengths to avoid bringing any harm to the world. But ultimately it isn’t a sustainable way to exist.
Guernica: I did notice that characters in your stories grapple with the impact they have on the lives of animals, especially with animals as food. I’m curious, are you vegetarian?
Alexandra Kleeman: No, and I think I have reasons to occupy the position I do. They are perhaps not the best ones, but I do have them. For one thing, my father, who has a lot of nutritional equations, believes fat equals flavor and meat equals health. Whenever I am sick, regardless what type of sickness it is, he wants me to take the equivalent of a meat tablet. Secondly, I try to make ethical choices when I buy meat, but I also feel unconvinced by the extremist Peter Singer school of arguments, in which living organisms shouldn’t suffer. Violence is built into life, any life. Part of how you sustain yourself is by deriving something from another being. I want to go through life with that knowledge, while knowing that much more has gone into a chicken nugget.
Guernica: Your stories employ a range of surreal and bizarre circumstances. What does “bizarre” mean to you as a writer?
Alexandra Kleeman: “Bizarre” is the unfamiliar, of course. On the one hand, it is when something out of the ordinary is happening. But I think it’s also a mindset. I feel like anything can be made bizarre, depending on how you look at it, especially if you look at it closely enough. In fact, I think normal is produced by a certain rate and speed and genre of happening. If you look around this garden, everything seems to be going in a smooth, comfortable pace, but if you really slow down and focus on one small thing, given the opportunity, I think we’ll uncover very bizarre things.
Guernica: Stephen King once said that writers write from a certain place—either overtly or subtly, there are recurring themes or emotions. Do you agree? What are your places?
Alexandra Kleeman: I definitely have my places. I am embarrassed, actually, and I worry that people will recognize this in my writing and question my creativity. I always keep coming back to a threat that is not perceived by others as such—a threat that only I can see but no one around me seems to recognize. I grew up as an only child and have had a calmer life than perhaps most others. But I do think stranger things have happened to me.
Guernica: What is the strangest thing that has happened to you?
Alexandra Kleeman: I am reflexively not a spiritual but a superstitious person. When I was seventeen, I somehow felt like my life had a theme to it. I was studying evolutionary biology, reading Ovid, reading about mutation. My father got cancer. Somehow it all seemed very heavy-handedly themed. Three times in a row, I saw a random stranger squish a small animal on the street. I would get nervous and be made fun of for it. And I kept wondering why I was the only one noticing this. Is this pre-apocalyptic? Are animals losing their sense of self-preservation?
My father’s cancer made me aware of how little we are able to sense what’s inside our bodies.
Guernica: Did you ever feel drawn to endeavors other than writing? What was it like to study evolutionary biology, for instance?
Alexandra Kleeman: Writing was the only thing I felt I was good at. I loved evolutionary biology. Even though I never actually practiced as a professional evolutionary biologist, it is still a very big part of how I think and who I am. I like the way it denaturalizes my existence but also radically deepens it. It’s comforting to know that deeper, more silent life lives inside me and all around me, and that all my conscious experiences are a small sliver of a much longer, fuller existence. I derive my sense of wonder from it, though perhaps the writer in me reads much of biology as parables. I was very moved by the theory of symbiogenesis, according to which perhaps a very significant event in our evolutionary history involved a merging of two or more lineages that had a symbiotic relationship.
Guernica: In many of the stories in Imitations, the protagonist is a woman named Karen. Why a single character threading her way through the book?
Alexandra Kleeman: To me, this collection is a record of aging. I was so intimidated by the idea of writing a story with a named character that I didn’t attempt it till 2014. I wanted us to stay with Karen and watch her navigate her life instead of dropping in and out of it.
Guernica: How much of yourself do you see in your characters?
Alexandra Kleeman: They worry about things I worry about. My characters do what I wish I could do. I would attempt to resolve the situation they find themselves in, while I make them dwell on it. I feel a certain nostalgia for things I once worried about but don’t anymore. You know, we consciously make a decision not to worry about certain problems. It’s a survival technique. But I feel a certain nostalgia for the ability to worry about them. Thankfully, my characters are allowed to worry.
Guernica: How important is it to you that your protagonist is a woman?
Alexandra Kleeman: I power my stories as myself, so my protagonists resolve as women. That said, I only really became interested in the fact that I am female like four years ago. We don’t choose our physicality, but so much of world experience is governed by it. I can’t try on being a man for size, so I would write a male protagonist in third person, perhaps.
Guernica: What would you like to write next?
Alexandra Kleeman: I want to write more about the environment and society and make our ecological existence a tonal trigger. I don’t have it fully formed yet, but I think it’s interesting because literature is, after all, a human art form, one that cannot have participation across species. It’s not like having our dog watch TV with us, which we do sometimes.