"The lobsters were dead in a pile and with a froth on their shells they waited and watched us undress each other."
If you're not paying close attention to Alexandra Kleeman when she reads, you might mistake the young writer's voice for simply sweet. Certainly, there's a soft, melodic lilt to her sense of meter. And as she sits on a stool in our studio, barely moving as she speaks, dark hair falling across one side of her face, she looks utterly serene. But the worlds the 29-year-old has created are often uncomfortable and surreal, at once apocalyptic and totally familiar—worlds where people and objects disappear without warning, a roommate rivalry turns into low-key identity theft, lobsters revolt against humans, and a cult may or may not be abducting dads.
"[The beauty industry] outlined problems that didn't used to be problems. Pores are a problem now, and pores used to just be a helpful, structural feature of your face."
Talking with Kleeman about her writing habits (when she writes and where), it makes sense that the narratives she crafts exist in a skewed reality. Kleeman herself seems to occupy a strange, in-between space, producing her best work when the rest of the world is sleeping. "I am basically nocturnal," she says. "I write from midnight until 5 or 6 a.m. It's the best time, because you get no emails, there's nothing going on. You're alone, and I feel like all of the alertness of the world that people aren't using because they're sleeping goes to you. I write there. I usually write for four to six hours. Then I sleep until noon."
"The news anchors called it Disappearing Dad Disorder."
Kleeman has come to Sweet headquarters to read from her upcoming collection of short stories, Intimations (out September 13), and her novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (now out in paperback). In the novel, a young woman known as A is both fascinated and confused by the onslaught of advertisements she sees every day—specifically, a commercial for a face cream in which the spokesmodel eats the cream, and, most insidiously, an ad for Kandy Kakes, a food made entirely from processed materials, starring a cartoon cat that chases after Kandy Kakes to the point of near-death.
"I'm fascinated by the beauty industry because I'm a classic consumer in a lot of ways," Kleeman says. "When I see a commercial where someone is applying something, there's a part of me that just sort of leaps up, and goes, 'Yes, it looks so smooth and easy and good,' no matter what it is. But they've outlined problems that didn't used to be problems. Pores are a problem now, and pores used to just be a helpful, structural feature of your face. Now pores are things that should be hidden."
On her early teenage blog: "I can't even read it because it's me talking about food, or it's me complaining about my parents, or it's me reasoning about the world and philosophy through my dog."
As the novel unfolds, A slowly realizes her roommate B is trying to steal her identity, and she ultimately falls in with a cult called the Church of Conjoined Eaters, who subsist only on Kandy Kakes. Kleeman's gift is in creating a book that feels like falling sideways into an unsettling mirror image of our own world. The trimmings of our reality—bizarre commercials, reality dating shows, supermarket chains that promote an entire lifestyle—are all there, but filtered through a slightly absurd lens.
The writer received her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, but debuted her prose to a digital audience during adolescence. Where most people in the early aughts blogged through Live Journals or Xangas, Kleeman chose a DIY approach. "I had this domain called technicolor.org, which I got when I was like twelve or thirteen. I would code it all myself," Kleeman explains. "I would go on there every day after school and I would just write. I never kept a private diary, but I liked blogging events of the world or something. Eventually it got to be pretty big. Some months, I'd have 5,000 hits a day, and I'm not really sure why. When I look back on it, I can't even read it because it's me talking about food, or it's me complaining about my parents, or it's me reasoning about the world and philosophy through my dog."
"I just sit down and I write for as many hours as I can."
The new book of short stories, Intimations, is filled with similarly disorienting narratives. A young woman discovers that every possible path in life has already been determined for her. A horde of whispering lobsters descends on Cape Cod beachgoers in a murderous rage. A woman arrives at a murder mystery party dressed as a nurse covered in fake blood, only to find that there's an axe killer on the loose. In a set of linked stories, Kleeman introduces us to Karen, who frequently feels alienated from the people she loves and the rest of the world: "In her plain but adultlike clothes she looked like a teenage nanny...She was always being mistaken for a foreigner."
"It was cute the way this apocalypse zapped things out of existence, one by one...like clicking on a little box to close an internet browsing window."
In the book's most haunting story, "You, Disappearing," objects, people, even memories simply vanish. It's a quiet apocalypse, one without rhyme or reason and without violence. Pets disappear, clothes cease to exist while a person is wearing them, words seem to simply be missing from language.
"With that story, I stayed up from midnight to 7 or 8 a.m., and then I was done," Kleeman says. "I'll get an idea for what I want to write about or what some of the pieces are, when one piece falls into place, then I just sit down and I write for as many hours as I can. I'm actually a big procrastinator and a moody writer, and I have very slow output. But with short stories, when I'm in the right place, I can just write it."
Fall into the weird world of Alexandra Kleeman through her short story collection, Intimations, out September 13, and her novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, available now in paperback. Go to harpercollins.com for more info.