Feeding that Infinite Abyss Within – By John David Penniman

John David Penniman on Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

Alexandra Kleeman, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, A Novel, Harper, 2015, 304pp., $25.99
Alexandra Kleeman, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, A Novel, Harper, 2015, 304pp., $25.99
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“Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” ~ Animal Collective, “Taste

“Is it true that we are more or less the same on the inside?” ~ Alexandra Kleeman, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

There may be no atheists in foxholes, but the grocery store makes theologians of us all. I was shopping recently at one of those places where food items are presented to the customer not as commodity or as sustenance but rather as salvation. Standing in the produce aisle, I stared blankly at an impossible variety of juices lining the shelves. The various shades of green eliciting both hope and envy. (What is envy, anyway, but an acute sense of being alienated from our desires, of seeing the fulfillment of those desires manifested elsewhere?) Looking at my array of juice options, this feeling was amplified by titles like “Essential Greens,” “Über Greens,” and “Green Machine.” The name on the bottle gesturing toward an elemental power contained within, a force that will work its magic inside me once consumed.

Food branding is a moral discourse and grocery shopping makes us all characters within its parable. I picked up one of the bottles, slowly turning it to examine the label. Nine dollars. Twelve ounces. Six grams of sugar. One week from expiration. In addition to the ingredients, the bottle had a cascade of messaging running down its side:

Once upon a time all food was organic
Go Green. It’s the Most Efficient Fuel
Green Like You’ve Never Seen
Shake it Up (Literally)
Dream It. Wish It. DO IT

Here’s a simple exercise that might ruin your next trip to the supermarket: catalog the thought process that leads you to place certain items in your cart. Why the slices of smoked turkey, the firm tofu, the box of penne with a jar of red sauce, the honey-glazed breakfast cereal? How did you come to buy these things and not others? Were these conscious decisions? Evidence of thoughtful consideration? Or some combination of convenience, need, and habit? What are the deliberative protocols that structure your consumption? Can you explain your tastes? Do you watch what you eat? Religiously? I’ve found that this kind of self-interrogation about food choices slides quickly into moral paralysis. Taste, as social theorist Pierre Bourdieu once noted, is an imposed choice. It is “necessity deployed as an act of choice.” Which is to say, the love with which you love those waffle fries is fate masquerading as free will. Like Alice, we are confronted each day by tiny cakes that say “EAT ME.” Like Alice, we don’t know what will happen next when we do.

Let those who have stomachs to digest consume.

Religion and capitalism are both premised on an amniotic view of human life. Each exploits our essential vulnerability, the permeable boundary between what exists outside and what resides within. Our most inward aspirations require tactile, material, and outward reference points. Consider the phrase “sense of self” — as if we are feeling around with ear, nose, fingertip, and tongue for the truth of who we might be. And so the Sunday sermon and the targeted advertisement share a common assumption about the shapeable quality of human nature. They are both exhortations toward new modes of life, better versions of ourselves, if only we could make our insides match the outside ideal they are pitching. Both beckon us toward attentive consumption as the path to perfection, purity, and wholeness. The Pascalian “god-shaped-hole” of evangelical piety must, in the end, be located in the gut. How else can we slake those seemingly unconquerable appetites? We consume stuff. We never stop eating. We hunger and feed, hunger and feed, and then we wake up and do it again.

In her debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Alexandra Kleeman draws out these and other forces embedded within the tastes of our daily consumption habits, rendering them before our eyes in a carnival mirror. Kleeman populates her world with barely distinguishable characters. The protagonist (called only “A”) is both obsessed with and repulsed by the wafer-thin personality of her roommate (“B”), A’s mirror-twin who embodies her deepest fears and insecurities. In addition, A is also trying to discover within herself the kind of person that her emotionally comatose boyfriend (“C”) might love. On her television, A is bombarded by ads for food and beauty products that promise to transform her from the inside out. In one series of commercials, a two-dimensional cartoon cat chases after a three-dimensional Little Debbie-type cake. The cake, having greater substance than the cat, refuses to be consumed. And so the cat’s entire existence is bent by an unfulfilled desire to eat and be satisfied. During the day, A earns a living through work as a copyeditor for niche magazines (“Marine Hobbyist” and “New Age Plastics”), cutting the creativity of human language into prefabricated and palatable formulations. Words and ideas, like food, must be rendered fit for mass consumption. When not at home or work, A wanders the labyrinthine aisles of Wally’s — a chain of big box stores in which the items are constantly being relocated so as to prolong the customer’s “buying journey,” multiplying her “product circumstances.” Wally’s is an elaborate and effective riff on the joke that people go to Target for a roll of toilet paper but can’t leave without spending $100, inevitably forgetting the toilet paper. Kleeman excavates this joke and finds within it a self-deprecating salve for shoppers whose consumption habits are fundamentally beyond their control. The consumerism on display in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine would be hilarious if it weren’t also an uncomfortable indictment of the not-so-invisible hands that shape our unexamined and insatiable taste for things.

Kleeman places A within a faceless suburban sprawl of similarly and dramatically isolated consumers. Some are burdened by the constant recognition of who they must be for loved ones. Others are disoriented by an inability to distinguish themselves from anyone else. A and B seem to waver between these two poles. Their sense of self always bloated by overdetermination and yet never weighty enough to feel anchored, substantial. In the world of Kleeman’s novel, the exhaustion produced by a culture of consumption is inescapable. Disillusioned middle-aged men are ghosting their families at alarming rates. At local Wally’s branches, a customer has bought up all the veal in an act of protest against those who produce and those who eat the tender meat. But in trying to prevent the already-packaged animal from becoming food, he created an even higher demand for the product. His act of moral outrage inevitably turns him into a spokesman for the very item he was trying to rescue. And a popular reality show called “That’s My Partner!” puts love on the line through a series of challenges in which one partner must correctly identify the other from among a group of people who all dress and behave identically. Failure to recognize one’s partner results in a legal dissolution of the relationship. Lurking behind all these curious (but not obviously sinister) affairs is a mysterious religious organization called the Church of the Conjoined Eaters. Its members leave graffiti and Bible tracts around town, identifying themselves by their motto: “He who sits next to me, may we eat as one.”

The first half of the novel is devoted to the mirroring of taste, affect, comportment, and desire that takes place in our closest relationships. If A eats an orange, so will her roommate B (cloyingly). If B likes freezer pops, A does too (begrudgingly). If A does her hair a certain way, applying makeup just so, B must share this aesthetic. C loves watching Shark Week and so A forces herself to like the shows as well. The relationships between A and B, A and C, and B and C are agonistic in nature. Kleeman excavates the mundane intimacies of friendship, of romantic pairing, finding not a desire for kindness or meaningful connection but rather an impulse to use each other as touchstones for sharpening an elusive sense of self within. The single-letter identity of each character underscores how our personal tastes can be reduced to permutations of a larger cultural code. A and B and C are distinguishable only by subtle differences in their emotional orientation to shared consumer goods. Kleeman is less interested, then, in resolving the question of whether the “self” is some essential kernel buried within us, an accretion of external stuff imposed by our social environment, or some combination of the two. Rather, the novel pivots on that question, asking instead whether the answer to finding the self, wherever it resides, inevitably leads us into dystopian territory.

The social dynamics on display in Kleeman’s novel presume that the “me” that begins to feel more or less settled in adulthood is simply an ossified version of self-knowledge that is realized primarily through imitated wantings, through ingesting external pressures and then regurgitating them as individual preferences. In this way, the novel’s trio of primary characters offers a fitting illustration of René Girard’s theory of mimetic (or triangulated) desire—what Girard calls an “extreme openness” to others that is the fundamental condition for human life together. What is both bitingly humorous and profoundly unsettling in Kleeman’s book is the observation that people become coherent to themselves and to others only through a process of twinning. We duplicate the desires and choices that are fed to us by friends, lovers, and big data until we feel somehow more coherent, more whole. From this vantage, the world of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine isn’t so much a dystopia. It is more like the hypothetical sum of all our individual and collective neuroses—neuroses that are, in the end, the byproduct of a culture in which identity is made legible primarily through shared habits of consumption.

All this makes Kleeman’s debut novel a perversely enjoyable read. Intimate and elegant prose chafes against stomach-churning description of the body’s messy relationship to its environment. But still there is a deeper piety at work. Kleeman’s emphasis on consumer practices as a mode of ingesting and bringing-into-being a cultural code unfolds a complex theology about the power of food to make or unmake our sense of self. In a recent interview, Kleeman mentioned that her father — a professor of religious studies with expertise in ancient China — often sends her pirated documents from Scientology’s secret archives. The climactic last third of the novel, in which A is processed into the Church of the Conjoined Eaters, could only have been written by someone deeply attuned to the ways in which social norms about consumption are recoded within the ritual life and symbolic structures of religious communities. Dig into the history and traditions of any religion and you will find food used as a primary site for thinking through the formation (and deformation) of the human person.

Kleeman cues the reader to the slow development of the novel’s religious outcome with an epigraph drawn from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas: “Blessed is the lion that the human being will devour so that the lion becomes human. And cursed is the human being that the lion devours; and the lion will become human.” From the opening, then, the story is framed by the idea that we become that which we consume and that this idea has a deeper mythological and religious register. What begins as the mirroring of taste between A and B and C, a dance between consuming and being consumed, later develops into an elaborate church doctrine as A directly encounters the Church of the Conjoined Eaters. Halfway through the novel, she is given a Bible tract by the Eaters that reveals, as Bible tracts are wont to do, the true source of human unhappiness:

Have you ever wondered why the person you love is kind and amenable one day, dissatisfied and cruel the next? Why eating a certain food on one day leaves you feeling fine, but eating it the day after or the day after that will make you feel tired, or fat, or depressed? THIS IS BECAUSE THE LIGHT AND DARK TWINNING IN THEM HAVE NOT BEEN SEPARATED. Alternatively, you are being made sick by consuming matter that is improperly sourced. Production obscurities in today’s food assembly mean that you may be buying accidentally foods grown or produced in a dark realm by ghosts of the types of people you know.

While Kleeman may have read widely about the church of Scientology, the epigraph from the Gospel of Thomas combined with the ritual separation of light and dark through a dietary regimen within the Church of the Conjoined Eaters’ evokes another religious lineage. As a historian of early Christianity, I was struck by the parallels between Kleeman’s Conjoined Eaters and the prominent, though now extinct, group known as the Manichaeans. Indeed, Manichaean theology incorporated legends about the man referred to as Jesus’s twin and developed elaborate meal rituals concerning the physiological effects of eating foods that contain light and dark.

In the Gospel of John 11:16, the disciple Thomas is also called “the twin” (didymos). Yet the text does not fully explain why the disciple received this alias. In a new book titled Our Divine Double, Charles Stang has offered a provocative answer to this question, arguing that the Gospel of Thomas is notable for its “theology of twinning.” For Stang, the figure of Thomas represents a robust (if somewhat obscure) tradition within early Christianity that was committed to the idea that each individual contains a twin, a divine double, a secret self. Salvation, in this tradition, is nothing less than the integration of the two selves, the unification of them, and the slow realization that “Jesus the transcendent light is [the] innermost self.” While the relationship between Thomas as didymos in the Gospel of John and the more elaborate theology of twinning in the Gospel of Thomas remains unclear, both witness to a broader legend about a disciple who peculiarly mirrored Jesus and who sought deliverance through doubling the light of the Lord.

This ancient theology of twinning was not systematic. But one prominent version was developed by the Manichaeans, so named after their founder Mani who flourished in the Sasanian Empire during the third century CE. A popular story of church history holds that Thomas, the twin of the Lord, brought the Gospel to that region some two hundred years before Mani’s birth. And it seems that Mani was familiar with this legend, incorporating the folktales and apocryphal accounts of Thomas and Thomas’s teaching into his own message. Indeed, Mani was even given the epithet “The Apostle of Light.” For the Manichaeans, theology was pursued primarily through gastronomy. According to their teaching, sexual procreation buries divine light deeper and deeper within the darkness of matter. The only way to extract light from the dark matter is through alimentary rigor. The human gut, then, is an altar on which foods containing high levels of light must be offered, collected, and stored. The Manichaean elect were those who turned themselves into “factories for the liberation of light” (to borrow Stang’s phrasing), seeking not ascetic renunciation of food but rather “a more perfect consumption” (to borrow Jason BeDuhn’s). The light and dark that vie within the body of the Manichaean faithful must be separated through disciplined digestion. Some Manichaeans seemed to think that proper eating would enable them to become reflections of the Apostle of Light who is a mirrored twin, a secret and inward self buried by dark matter. And so Manichaeans sought to eat their way into the gleam of salvation.

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine imagines a Manichaeism for the masses, in which a similar cosmology and anthropology of light food, dark matter, and twinning through consumption has infiltrated the very fabric of American society. Kleeman looks at the messaging found on our bottles of green juice, the mirroring of food preferences among friends, and perceives a more menacing theology at work. Here is how the protagonist A understands the Church’s teaching while she is being indoctrinated:

Inside a body there is no Light. Blood piles through with no sense of where it goes, sliding past inner parts, parts that feel something but know nothing about what they feel. What they sense they send up through nerve channels to the brain, a cavefish-pale organ with no nerves of its own. Inside a body, thoughts that never touch air, never reach Light, thoughts that end in a suffocating Dark….Inside a body there is no Light, so the Eaters teach that you must shine your own through Righteous Eating.

The Church of the Conjoined Eaters uses the anxiety that we are poisoning ourselves by poor consumption as its proselytizing hook. The solution it offers is simple: we must eat well. As with their Manichaean ancestors, the Eaters seek salvation through a more perfect consumption (“He who sits next to me, may we eat as one”). But the Eaters have also coopted the entire system of food production and distribution in order to impose their doctrine of righteous eating upon believer and non-believer alike. The Eaters demonstrate that “eating well” is not just about developing a taste for good food, whatever that might mean, or committing to ethically-sourced food. More than that, the imperative that we must eat well inevitably initiates a discourse in which food signifies a shared mythic origin, a set of beliefs about the future form of human perfection, and the road that leads from the one to the other.

Once upon a time all food was organic. Go Green. It’s the Most Efficient Fuel.

Toward the end of the novel, after A has uncovered the full extent of the Church’s empire of righteous eating, she returns to the question of how food might still form or deform her sense of self:

Dead Matter, on the other hand, was abundant and cheap. It was everywhere. Our world was made of it: life clung only weakly to its surface. How much energy was it taking me to squeeze those calories from these dead chunks of stuff? And if I ate enough of them as quickly as I could, more quickly than I could, might I maybe outrun this starvation, this steady ghosting of my body? Could I eat my way back into my own face?

A mealtime prayer attributed to the Manichaeans includes the line: “I am eating without fault.” This prayer echoes today in the swelling discourse about farm-to-table, animal-friendly, toxin-free, all-natural, organic, raw, and caveman comestibles. What we want, what we can never have, is a meal that won’t make us complicit in death, a meal that will leave us filled, sated, without fault. Can we eat our way into this kind of wholeness? Fed into self-discovery, self-recognition? Does the food we consume, the meals we share with friends and lovers, help reveal the true person buried within us?

Shortly after I moved from Manhattan to a small town in rural Pennsylvania, local Christian communities began to deliver Bible tracts and other spiritual ephemera to my front porch. One in particular stuck with me. It was titled “Steps to Health.” After some googling, I discovered that it was left for me by the Seventh-day Adventists — a denomination known for its keen interest in health and nutrition. This particular Adventist tract included the following bit of gastronomical advice: “The original diet in the garden of Eden consisted of fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds. After the fall, herbs, which had been food for the animals, were added to the diet. Interestingly, high cholesterol animal products were excluded … Study after study shows that God’s plant-based Creation diet is superior to any other (Gen 1:29-30).” This biblical gastronomy may strike the non-Adventist as arbitrary or absurd. But all ideological systems about food do the same kind of work. They take the often hidden contingencies of our eating habits and impose elaborate ethical and mythological frameworks upon them.

Meals materialize the porous boundary between inside and outside, the individual body and the body politic. The stuff we eat always enters our mouths encoded with a wide range of cultural values, fashioning within us a storehouse of social expectations about who we are and who we want to become. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine forces the reader to confront the religious, ethical, and capitalist structures that make meaning out of our food—those overt and covert systems we ingest daily under the false assumption that we have chosen them because of some personal preference. It takes seriously the symbolic power of food and the unsettling fact that our tastes are never our own. Rather, our tastes are always delivered to us prepackaged, heavily branded, filled with messaging, and that even the most humdrum act of sharing an orange with a roommate makes us ritual participants in the consumption of forces beyond our control. This is the paradox so beautifully rendered by Kleeman: our deepest wanting, the panging of that infinite abyss within, comes to us from somewhere else. And this is a hunger for which there can be no satiety.