I first encountered Alexandra Kleeman’s work in the pages of this magazine. Her story “Fairy Tale”—published in 2010, when Kleeman was still a student in the M.F.A. program at Columbia University—is a nightmarish account of a woman confronted by a barrage of strangers who all claim to be her fiancé. The one she is forced to choose tries to kill her. Kleeman’s novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine employs a similarly arch and sinister surrealism to tell the story of two roommates whose identities slowly melt into one.
In her latest novel, Something New under the Sun, the otherworldly elements lurk further below the surface. The world of the novel is an only mildly exaggerated version of our own, plagued by privatization, corporate conspiracy, and rampant wildfires. The story follows a middle-aged East Coast novelist, Patrick Hamlin, as he travels to Los Angeles to supervise the making of his book into a film—a glamorous vision that is comically upended when, upon arrival, he discovers his primary task will be chauffeuring a demanding starlet, Cassidy Carter, across the menacing California landscape.
Due to extreme drought and water shortage, all but the wealthiest Californians have to drink WAT-R, a synthetic substitute for water that is described as being “exactly like the original, except moreso.” Back in New York, Patrick’s wife and daughter have taken refuge at a cultish eco-commune upstate, where they perform rituals to mourn the imminent death of the planet. In confident, understated prose, Kleeman foregrounds the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change and its attendant anxieties, conjuring a simmering unease that recalls fellow genre defiers such as Don DeLillo and Patricia Highsmith. But in the end what’s most troubling about the world of Kleeman’s novel is not its strangeness but its familiarity—how closely its horrors hew to those of modern life.
This interview was conducted by phone between New York and Colorado two days after a notorious American billionaire shot himself into space and a few weeks after a patch of ocean in the Gulf of Mexico caught on fire. My conversation with Kleeman made me think deeply about the uncanny moment we are living in and the potential of fiction to offer new and more expansive modes of reality.
The epigraph of the book is a passage from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which a man sees a unicorn. At first, he thinks he must be dreaming or having some kind of mystical experience. But then another person comes along and sees it, too, and then another, and somehow these witnesses reduce the specialness of the experience until it is “as thin as reality,” transforming the unicorn into something ordinary—“a horse with an arrow in its forehead.” Why did that feel like the right way to open the novel?
I have a long relationship with the play Hamlet. It is the thing I have seen performed the most times in my life, and it was an important touchstone for me in several different ways while writing Something New under the Sun. First, it manifests this theme of telling and retelling and substitution and change by parts that I think is an important part of the logic of the novel. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also asks this question about whether or not perceiving inaccurately is helpful to us in terms of our psychological stability and our survival, which I think is one of the main questions of this book. We often perceive correctly in a localized way. We can accurately name what is happening in our daily lives, or perform a very complex analysis of a TV show we are watching. But the larger context in which we operate—the capitalist economy, the ecosystem, which is under extreme pressure and is changing in ways that are stochastic and nonlinear—is often beyond our emotional comprehension. I think a lot about whether our models of reality enable us to function usefully in a world that is changing as quickly as the one we occupy. Read More