Alexandra Kleeman Finds Reality All Too Surreal
It was 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the Mojave Desert on a Friday evening in July, down from 120. Alexandra Kleeman had seen people splash water on …
It was 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the Mojave Desert on a Friday evening in July, down from 120. Alexandra Kleeman had seen people splash water on concrete to watch it evaporate, and a sparrow hunt a live cicada, killing and eating it right out of its shell.
“It feels like a different world,” she said over FaceTime from her hotel room in Palm Springs, Calif. She was back in the United States after a six-month residency at the American Academy in Rome, where the landscape was comparatively lush, the streets and buildings crumbling naturally with age.
“Heat behaves differently here,” Kleeman said. “You walk outside and it’s like walking into a wall.”
It is almost exactly the setting of her new novel, “Something New Under the Sun,” which Hogarth publishes on Tuesday. The story follows a middle-aged East Coast novelist, Patrick, as he travels to and around Los Angeles for the movie adaptation of one of his books. Back in New York, his catastrophizing wife and daughter have taken shelter at a cultish eco-commune upstate, and he’s torn between proving his value at work and saving his family from what he sees as their own doomsday scenarios.
Kleeman’s 2015 debut, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” written during her M.F.A. program at Columbia, was a satire of plastic modern-day identities, depicting a 20-something woman known only as A and her roommate, B, who is so obsessed with looking and being like A that the two become virtually interchangeable — particularly to A’s emotionless boyfriend.
“Something New Under the Sun” takes that sense of disorientation and zooms out, using multiple, bicoastal plot lines to reveal a world that looks a lot like ours, with some scarily plausible differences. The book is set in the near future, and its version of California is so arid, hot and flammable that water is too scarce to go around. So people have to buy WAT-R, a synthetic product that mimics some, but not all, of water’s properties.
Kleeman’s first published story, in The Paris Review in 2010, was the nightmarish “Fairy Tale,” about a woman confronted by suitor after suitor, none of whom she recognizes, all claiming to be her fiancé. The one she’s forced to choose tries to kill her. It is part of her surrealist 2016 collection, “Intimations,” whose stories were inspired, she said, by Samuel Beckett.
In contrast with her earlier work, “Something New Under the Sun” is closer to real life, water shortages included. “I have a funny relationship to the idea of realism,” Kleeman, 35, said earlier this summer, when she was still in Rome.
When she began writing, she started with poetry, since it didn’t require her to create fully formed characters. “Writing realist fiction seemed like such a high bar for me,” she said. “It involved understanding people so well that I could never hope to get there.”
So she takes comfort in genre: sci-fi, the post-apocalyptic, detective stories. Kleeman met her husband, the novelist Alex Gilvarry, at a Don DeLillo reading in 2013, and the two still swap Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith books at their home in Staten Island.
The child of two professors — her mother, a Taipei native, taught Japanese literature; her Miami-born father, East Asian Studies — she grew up in Berkeley, Calif.; Tokyo; Paris; Philadelphia; Williamsburg, Va.; and Boulder, Colo., among other places. In 1995, when Kleeman was in fifth grade, she and her mother lived in Riverside, Calif., and she can remember the “sharp boundary” between their gated condominium’s manicured lawn and the trails just beyond, where she’d go for long walks alone.
“It seemed so strange to me that there was this huge difference in feel between the part that people had made and the part that was just there already,” she said, “and that we tried to spend our time ignoring the part that was around the periphery, just keeping it out.”
That’s hard to do in California. “Part of the bet you make with yourself living in that place,” Kleeman’s agent, Claudia Ballard, said, “is that you’re sort of on the brink of disaster all the time.”
When Kleeman started writing “Something New Under the Sun” in 2018, the first thing she knew was that she wanted to set it around the making of a movie, drawn to “the idea of fabricated realities that are more appealing to exist in than the real apparatus that conjures them.”
Whereas in “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” bodies themselves were plastic, shape-shifting until they lost all trace of their original form, in “Something New Under the Sun,” the plasticity is something foreign, and menacing. Nobody, including its suppliers, knows enough about WAT-R to foresee its true consequences — as Kleeman describes it in the book, it is born out of a capitalist desire to profit from human-inflicted scarcity.
“Things that we’ve always needed, like land, a place to live, resources, become privatized and turned into possessions, when they weren’t to start with,” Kleeman said.
In the novel, only the wealthy in the Malibu hills have access to temperature-controlled interiors and real water, which they drink while watching WAT-R wreak biological and topographical havoc on the less fortunate down below. Back in New York, Patrick’s wife, Alison, suffers a panic disorder, her sense of impending doom irreconcilable with the willful obliviousness of everyone around her.
“She is, to me, the most identifiable character,” Kleeman said. “A lot of me is in there.”
Patrick’s 9-year-old daughter, Nora, represents a younger generation’s precocious, guarded optimism. “It’s difficult to live a life without contradictions, but it’s not impossible to know what those contradictions are,” Kleeman said. “And to keep trying to think of a way out, or to a slightly better state.”
Too often, she thinks, pessimistic dystopian fiction ends up reinforcing the status quo, rather than remedying it. She quoted Fredric Jameson’s dictum that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Kleeman writes as if to say: Watch me.
An assistant professor at The New School, Kleeman teaches graduate classes on the dystopian genre. Her colleague, the novelist Marie-Helene Bertino, often gets students Kleeman has previously taught. “They’ll just rave about how intelligent she is and how she can unpack literature in a way that surprises them,” Bertino said.
One of the stories Kleeman teaches is “The Savage Mouth,” by the Japanese writer Sakyo Komatsu, in which a man systematically amputates and consumes his own body parts so as not to be responsible for taking the lives of other beings. She pulled it from her mother’s bookshelves and read it with horror and fascination when she was 11. “If you want to cause no harm in the world, do you truly have to turn inward?” she asked.
Though Kleeman’s roots are Taiwanese and American, she grew up steeped in Japanese language and literature because of her mother’s field as well as her family’s experiences during World War II. “My grandparents both spoke Japanese because of the occupation,” she said. Her first memory is of waking up in her Tokyo bedroom as a toddler, feeling everything shaking, when her grandmother ran in shouting the Japanese word for earthquake.
But she would say her identity as a writer belongs to no one lineage, genre or style. “I’m terrified of writing the same book twice,” she said, and when she moved away from the dreamlike mode of “Intimations,” there were people who told her to go back to it.
“I literally don’t know how,” Kleeman said. “The idea of trying to be like myself and failing scares me so much.”
She’s not a surrealist, a satirist or even an anticapitalist. She’s a contortionist, she said, “more located in my desire to be something else.”