Wednesday, September 23, 2015

YOU TOO CAN HAVE A BODY LIKE MINE Review: Literature of the Uncanny Valley


(Spoilers for You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine)

The Uncanny Valley

"...the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of revulsion in the person viewing it."
                - the all-knowing Google Dictionary

In 1970, Masahiro Mori introduced the idea of the uncanny valley. If you've ever seen a poorly animated movie (think The Polar Express), an eerily lifelike mannequin, or a portrayal of a human being that just looks a little bit off, then you've experience the unsettling feeling of the uncanny valley. For the uninitiated, here are a few examples of this particular brand of ungodliness.

Don't click here if you value your soul.

Seriously, this one: don't click. You'll never be the same.

No joke, that second link makes me legitimately nauseated. I can't watch it all the way through without feeling an overwhelming existential dread. Quite frankly, it makes me want to barf.

So, now that you've either clicked the links above or (hopefully) skipped them, we can talk about You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Yes, this book is a novel. No, it's not about eerily human-like robots; and no, it's not a self-help book about exercising your way to hotness. What it is, though, is the literary equivalent of staring directly at the uncanny valley for 304 pages.

Our unnamed female protagonist A lives with B, another woman who looks strikingly similar to A and who is increasingly adopting her mannerisms. A is concerned that B is overtaking her identity. Meanwhile, C, A's boyfriend, is becoming increasingly detached until, one day, he simply disappears.

And he's not the first.

All across this unnamed city, people have been disappearing at random. Some show back up, disoriented, or are found living in nearby cities with other families, lacking any memory of their previous lives. A's neighbors across the street similarly disappear one day, shuffling out of their home shrouded in sheets and driving away, never to return.

This book isn't about plot, though. It's about taking familiar, everyday experiences and exaggerating them to show the ridiculousness and absurdity of some of our biggest obsessions. Our bodies, our grocery stores, the food we eat, our constant need to compare ourselves to those around us, all of these ideas are placed in Kleeman's sights and explored with satirical precision.

I've seen people refer to You Too... as weird and I don't think that's quite the right word. I get where these people are coming from, but weird is too dismissive a word to use for a book this unique. Alexandra Kleeman is a wordsmith. (I'm blown away that this is her first book. The writing is that good.) And she uses those words to beautifully tell a rather simple story (plot-wise) about a person who could be anyone of us. Things do spiral into a parallel universe, an almost heightened version of our own reality, in the second half of the book, but everything still feels grounded, realistic, if just maybe a little exaggerated. It's not weird, it's real; just a slightly absurd version of real.

Punctuated with plot points that seem very recognizable as any one person's day-to-day activities, like visiting the grocery store, watching endless television shows, and obsessing over food, the story is so recognizable that it is easy to slip into the mode of thinking that this story is more autobiographical than it really is, or that it's a superficial snapshot of the every-American. It is only when characters start disappearing, and A is religiously indoctrinated into a cult that preaches "unlearning" and "eating as one," that we the reader are reminded that this is anything but a "normal" story.

You Too... explores the question of identity in all the right ways. Kleeman offers questions but never answers them. She takes things a layer deeper (literally) than most authors by having her protagonist constantly ruminate on her guts and how well her insides would fit inside of another body. The novel literally starts out with this sentence:

"Is it true that we are more or less the same on the inside? I don't mean psychologically. I'm thinking of the vital organs, the stomach, heart, lungs, liver; of their placement and function, and the way that a surgeon making the cut thinks not of my body in particular but of a general body, depicted in cross section on some page of a medical school textbook. The heart from my body could be lifted and placed in yours, and this portion of myself that I had incubated would live on, pushing foreign blood through foreign containers. In the right container, it might never know the difference."  -- Alexandra Kleeman (You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, pg. 1)

Ignoring the insanely good prose that should make any wannabe writer froth at the mouth in jealousy, there is a thesis-load of unpacking that could be done with this half introductory paragraph. As identities blend, as characters start turning into each other by degrees, and as personality is covered by blanketed shrouds, Kleeman tightens the screws on the metaphor without every soft-balling any of the answers. Her satire is swift and biting and no one is immune to her microscope.

Like all the best books, this one will endure because one year, ten years, twenty years from now, people will still stumble across this novel and see the relevance. This is absolutely one of the best books of the last five years. It is a book of our time, could only be birthed out of the social and cultural climate that is alive and well today, but it is ageless in that there are nuggets of truth hidden below the clammy facade that are, quite simply, universal.

Religion, identity, sexual roles and mores in modern America, our obsession with food and appearance, Kleeman's got those down pat. She gets how those concepts can worm their way into our lives and take over, how they can seep into the back of our collective unconsciousness and control society more than we realize. Translating those ideas down on paper? Easy. Kleeman's already a master. Following up You Too... with something as resonant, as entertaining, as forward-looking? That's the real test I'm anxiously awaiting to see if she'll pass.

For now, I'll sit back and relax with the future of literature. It's already here.

1 comment:

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