I’ve been revisiting Alexandra Kleeman’s novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (HarperCollins, 2015). I find the novel fascinating in that it was written in a pre-Trump, pre-2020 America and yet it feels like the novel is, if anything, a postscript to the last few years. The novel deals with a woman, known only as “A,” dealing with her roommate “B” and boyfriend “C” as she tries to break free from a sense of malaise. This malaise forms the core of the novel and it seems to be a symptom of, not of any mental illness on “A”’s part, but rather a result of her realisation at just how empty her life is under late-stage neoliberalism. 

What drew me back to the novel is its presentation of Wally’s: a fictionalized Walmart with its brand ethos pushed to the extreme. Throughout the novel “A” visits the supermarket chain as she tries to find a particular snack cake to satiate her cravings as she tries to navigate just how empty her relationships, and her life, feel. This does not work, and we are treated to passages like the following: 

Every Wally’s had a similar feel inside, the interminable rows of smooth color that began to break apart as you got closer to them, dissolving into little squares of identical logos. But the stores had a little trick to them… they were designed to baffle. The most sought-after items—candy bars, sandwich meat, milk—were places in the most inaccessible parts of the store…. Sometimes you ended up at a different desirable object, peanut butter, for example, and bought it instead, but more often you bought both, and the things in between. (113-114)

Ultimately, the novel does not point to a way out from this malaise. “A” tries one route, a cult, but it is a dead end. I mentioned that Kleeman wrote and published the novel before Trump, the coronavirus, and the BLM protests of 2020 but that it felt like it came after. I found revisiting the novel after all these things powerful because it creates a sense of a lost future. I worked as a reporter during 2020, and for a few brief months that summer it felt like things might change. But they didn’t, and now two-and-a-half years later we’ve returned to the same malaise that characterized the Obama years. Ultimately, I find the novel striking because it didn’t have to be as relevant today as it was when it was written. If the energy of Summer 2020 had persisted maybe, just maybe, the rejection of Trump could have been the birth of something new and not a return to the old ways of doing something. Kleeman makes me imagine and mourn that future as her 2015 feels just like 2023.

To try and counter the malaise of Kleeman’s work I’ve also been returning to a classic—at least in some journalist circles—Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Vintage 1998, originally published in Rolling Stone 1971)Revisiting Thompson’s gonzo trip into the weird world of LSD and journalism at the end of the sixties has paired with Kleeman’s novel better than I had originally anticipated. I think the more popular film adaptation of Fear and Loathing does the novel a disservice by placing attention on Thompson’s wild behavior over his political astuteness. The novel follows a barely fictionalized Thompson as he travels to Las Vegas to try and make sense of the failures of the hippy counterculture and figure out how to keep hope alive as the counterculture gave way to Nixon-era conservatism. I think I was drawn to read Thompson’s novel with Kleeman’s because Thompson does point to a way out. Thompson finds his way out by pushing the limits, simultaneously rejecting the dominant culture and immersing himself in it. For Thompson, the key is to look inward, not outward, and to be “just sick enough to be totally confident” (204).

—William Walton-Case, MAR