"This Matrix of Consumption" — Alexandra Kleeman

Alexandra Kleeman on her novel Something New Under the Sun, the chemical makeup of water, Britney Spears, and what conspiracy theorists have in common with Shakespeare

Photo by Nina Subin

In a near-future Los Angeles, where fires ravage the bone-dry landscape and water exists only for the ultra-wealthy, down-on-his-luck novelist Patrick Hamlin shows up to town with a pioneering spirit. His novel is being adapted for the big screen, and former child star, Cassidy Carter, is the leading lady. It’s not long, though, before reality — increasingly bizarre and distressing — begins to butt up against Patrick’s wide-eyed American idealism. Online conspiracy theorists warp reality into oblivion; smoke billows unchecked into the sky; everywhere Patrick looks are bottles and tanks of WAT-R, a brand of manufactured water that may or may not be causing a mysterious new form of dementia.

Alexandra Kleeman’s second novel, Something New Under the Sun, describes a world not unlike our own, but that — like WAT-R — is subtly but definitely off. It’s an ambitious and timely novel, rife with humor, horror, and (one would expect no less of Kleeman) exquisitely precise language. The big and complex themes she tackles in these pages — the blight of capitalism, our parasitic relationship to celebrities, and, maybe most alarming, the myriad ongoing ecological catastrophes we witness each day — feel tactile and urgent; when Kleeman and I spoke over the phone, she had recently arrived in Oregon, where the Bootleg Fire continues to burn hundreds of thousands of acres of land. I was in Brooklyn, where just days before, smoke from that same fire — thousands of miles away — wafted across the country and stained the full moon red.

Lily Houston Smith: I wanted to start by talking about genre — just because of how many you manage to fit in this book. In a way, it's a traditional frontier narrative, in which an aspirational person strikes out west. But it also has elements of noir detective fiction, sci-fi, and apocalit. What were you thinking in terms of genre when you set out to write Something New Under the Sun?

Alexandra Kleeman: I was thinking about genre a lot. When I set out to write this book, I was thinking, “this is when I'm going to write in the genre of realism.” Something that is more grounded in place and detail and character than what I'd done before and that digs into and celebrates the specificities of a place. Before, I always liked my stories to take place in locations where the specificity had been sanded down so that they reminded you of many other places. With this I thought, let's do realism. Of course, because I'm me, that version of realism ended up being pretty strange and also stepping over a lot of genre boundaries.

One of the things that I'm interested in is how we use genre to make sense of our lives. We expect different things from a surrealist novel than from a domestic, familial novel, and our expectations for how to move through the world in a practical sense are structured in a similar way. You start seeing those expectations upended when your normal, everyday processes — like going to the grocery store — are affected, for example, by a sudden flood in your town. Things are getting chaotic and unusual events are happening in a much more usual, mundane way, and that troubles your understanding of the narrative you're living. In that way, I think you could call this novel a mishmash of genres because it raises the question for the reader continuously: How realistic is the version of reality that I'm expecting to encounter in my everyday life?

LHS: It seemed also like you were doing something similar with character. This novel has a huge cast of characters, all with very different worldviews and trajectories, but there is this sense of doom that underpins all of their stories. Everyone is subject to the same fate, so there is this underlying sense that all of these trajectories — like all of these genres — are slowly breaking down as the story progresses.

AK: I love what you said — that there's a way in which danger is coming for everyone in this book. Even if we understand intellectually that we are at risk in the future because of unpredictable climate and ecological catastrophe, it always seems like it's happening to someone else. Or that it happens to some part of town and not the whole town, or some part of the country and not the whole country. I think our challenge is to understand that even though disaster seems localized, it's actually part of this larger network of disaster that manifests in different ways. How can we form a conception of that sort of threat that can tie together flooding in one area and extreme wildfires and lightning storms in another?

In the novel, there starts out being a problem that affects certain people — a particular person who goes into the clinic — but eventually, we see that everyone is affected. Everyone is coming down with this strange dementia that's associated with WAT-R.

LHS: I want to talk about the WAT-R, but first: how do you pronounce it? Is it just like “water”?

AK: I think the main thing about how you pronounce it is that, at first, it should give you pause. You should wonder what the right way to do it is. And then the right way to do it is the way that sounds a bit like you've got something stuck in your throat. On the one hand it's kind of a snazzy name for the product that could have looked good on a bottle or a can. On the other, it is so inconvenient to pronounce. It blocks you every time and makes you think about the strangeness of this product that’s become so normalized in this world I'm describing.

LHS: WAT-R also draws attention to a theme that I think comes up a lot in your fiction, which is this anxiety about the ways in which our environment seeps into us — an anxiety about the porousness of our bodies.

AK: One of the greatest disservices that Western philosophy did to our understanding of the world is to treat individuals as though they're separate, autonomous, and self-contained beings. Really, there is no point at which we are not open to the world — taking in things from the world, transforming them into aspects of our survival. We're often blind to this — whether it's an ontological blindness, because we don't believe ourselves to be so radically open to our surroundings, or whether it's a habitual blindness, because we are conscious of our breathing, of our intake, and of the mechanisms of eating and drinking so rarely. We think about what we're eating, but we don't think about this amazing process of the exterior becoming interior.

It's a tick for me, but it's also a philosophical commitment. I am fascinated by the act of making the exterior interior and the feelings and sensations that go along with that. When you drink water that's right, it's hard to make yourself pay attention to what's going on. But if you've ever had the experience of drinking water that's wrong — drinking something you thought was one liquid and turns out to be another, or drinking water that has a taste, or is the wrong temperature, or just somehow not what it's supposed to be — the body reacts with such instantaneous recognition of the foreignness of this otherwise mundane experience. The difference between the normal, difficult-to-perceive experience and the aberrant experience is immediately perceivable, but it's difficult to describe. I'm always chasing down that description — this fine internal distinction that your body knows immediately, but the mind can only catch up to slowly.

LHS: One of the mysteries in Something New Under the Sun is this question of whether or not WAT-R is connected to the strange dementia that people are experiencing. To me, the idea of losing your memory is so viscerally horrifying, but I was wondering if there was something else there. What is the significance of memory loss? Why was that the symptom?

AK: The idea of WAT-R was the thing that initially grew me into writing this story. It's also something I got interested in figuring out the practicalities behind. I wanted to be able to explain WAT-R to a chemist and not get laughed out of the room. This isn't all on the page, but it helps me to think through what the substance is and how it might operate in the world. I came up with the idea of a molecule that was a lot like water, but just slightly bigger and slightly more polarized so that it causes greater surface tension than what we're used to. Water is an amazing substance because it has maximum flexibility — it can move between one cell and another, which allows biological processes to be fluid — but it also coheres in a way that few other substances can. It is liquid and fluid, but it is also capable of pulling and holding things together. Any deviation from those exact parameters is destructive to the body. And then memories — we think of memories as things that are permanent, right? They're etched into our brains. They're a record. But a key part of having memories is that they also disappear when we're no longer experiencing them. Memory has that quality — like water — of being sticky and tacky, and also of being fluid and being able to vanish.

It was this formal resemblance between water and memory that made me think that the result of this altered, monstrous form of water would be an altered form of memory — that we can't get smooth access to our memories. Instead, they get stuck somewhere in the pipeline. The ultimate effect of this is that we lose contact with reality because while we can see what's around us, who we are in the world doesn't make a lot of sense if we don't have access to context.

If you look at some of the stories I've written in the past, I have a lot of amnesiacs and a lot of amnesiac feeling — this sensation of being newly born into the world. It's a particularly scary feeling for me because the world without context, and without this layer of habituation that we develop, is this strange and puzzling place with all of these arbitrary rules and monstrous practices. But at some level, I also feel like the amnesiac's position is in some ways a truer confrontation with reality than what we do on a daily basis.

LHS: These fears of losing memory, I think, might be particularly heightened for writers, because we exist so much inside our own heads and rely so heavily on our ability to contextualize experience. And it's funny, the main character of the novel, Patrick, is also a writer, so these fears would naturally be elevated in him, too.

AK: I think we generally feel safer and more securely embedded in the world when we have this web of narrative and context around us telling us who we are and why we're here. Patrick is a character that I created as the epitome of a self-narrator. He has this whole plan for his life; he's still a believer in the American Dream. He is able to frame everything for himself in a way that makes him feel — maybe not always secure in the world — but confident in his interpretation of it. So to lose that is to really lose a sense of footing at an existential level, which is very disturbing.

I'm probably not as good a narrativizer as Patrick is, but I still feel this intense comfort, when I'm going through some sort of a crisis, to be able to tell myself the story about what the crisis is and what will probably happen next. It's a way of regaining control over a situation that we never truly have control over.

LHS: On the other hand, then, there's the character of Patrick’s wife, Alison, who struggles to contextualize the crises in her life. Is her experience more similar to yours?

AK: I think Alison is a very important aspect of how I am in the world. Whereas Patrick has these well-defined goals — at first he's trying to advance his career and then trying to expose wrongdoing — Alison is embedded in the world at this level where nothing is super clear. She knows how it makes her feel to live in this suburban mire, in this matrix of consumption and waste and normalcy. That feels really bad to her. But she doesn't know what the better solution is. She doesn't know whether, for example, avoiding plastics at the store would make her feel better. Would it amount to a categorical change in how she is in the world. She is always in the muck, and that's how I feel that I am a lot of the time.

LHS: There's this wonderful moment early on where Patrick is driving around the wildfires in Los Angeles, and you write:“Terrible, definitely. But it's not really an emergency, he thinks, putting on his signal and shifting into the fast lane, if you can drive around it.” I found it so fascinating that you have one character on one end of the country who is driving through a landscape that is literally on fire and dodging this sense of emergency, while on the other, you have Alison, who is on a commune, taking all of these distant, abstract instances of ecological collapse, and willfully trying to make them more urgent and concrete.

AK: I think that gets at this important question that I don't know how to answer. We all have some consensus of what qualifies as an emergency; there are things that are clearly emergencies that invoke the fight or flight response in us almost without any conscious activity on our part. But when we're thinking about threats that we know are dangerous or impending or are harming someone somewhere but not directly affecting us, how can we stoke the appropriate feeling? It requires something more than this instinctual, self-preservation reaction. It requires a collective-preservation reaction that we don't have built into us. So there are these two different characters, who have their different ways of grappling with threat, neither of which is super effective.

There is this vast space we're learning to navigate as if for the first time. This particular summer, we're seeing wildfires earlier than ever before and all of these strange weather reactions. I've seen on my phone a swirly pit of fire beneath the Gulf Coast. It looks like something I've only seen in blockbusters. It's cause for a different type of instinctual reaction to be constructed so that we can actually mobilize the appropriate response.

LHS: All of these dangerous effects of climate change we're witnessing right now lend this novel a sense of timeliness and urgency, but there are other timely aspects of the book that might have been harder to predict. The novel begins with several men watching a viral video of a young woman — this former child celebrity, Cassidy — who is caught on camera behaving badly in public. Obviously, you couldn't have known that Britney Spears would be front-and-center in the news when the novel came out. When I was reading about Cassidy, I couldn't stop thinking about how the Britney story is unfolding.

AK: It's so funny, when you write a book set for the near future, you have a sense of what might be in the future. When I was editing last summer, I did think that next summer, when the book comes out, all probability says there's going to be another wildfire season, and I think we'll emerge into a world that is feeling the same things in its lungs that I'm feeling right now.

The Britney thing is also not a complete surprise for that reason. I'm a little younger than Britney, but I'm the exact same age numerically as Lindsay Lohan. I watched her in The Parent Trap when I was a young teenager; I watched her when I was in college, when she started to spin out of control. I've always felt like my fate in some sense was tied to Lindsay Lohan's. I felt a lot of apprehension and fear when I was younger, I think because of the way that her experiences — and Britney's — were shared to us. It seemed to me to be a warning that no matter what you've achieved, something chaotic in your girlhood still puts you at risk of falling into the center of this intense societal gaze. I think as a woman you're taught that you should attract the world's gaze, but not too much, because you may not be made of the stuff that can handle it, if it falls on you full force.

In recent years, I think about Britney and Lindsay all the time. It seems to me that as we've all become more conscious of the ways in which the labor economy wants to extract from us, I look back on them and think, these were the people who were being extracted from most severely. I feel like the time has come to pay back what's due, with interest. But following Britney's story recently, one of the things that struck me most was a statement she released a couple of weeks ago, where she said she didn't understand why these documentaries had to redisplay some of the most traumatic and humiliating moments of her life. On the one hand, it is educational. On the other, I feel sensitive to the ways in which we circulate these images, which were extracted from her in a really violating way. We recirculate them without thinking of the way in which that implicates us, too.

LHS: I wouldn't classify Something New Under the Sun as an “online book” in the way that so many novels right now are, but the effects of the internet do crop up in periphery — like with the circulation of these images — and contributes to this overall sense of doom. Patrick, for example, spends time in internet rabbit holes, learning about these conspiracy theories related to a television show that Cassidy starred in as a teen. I was curious to know more about your research for those scenes. Did you spend time on any similar conspiracy theory forums?

AK: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that one of the things I was interested in with this book was the relationship between information and action. At an early stage, I also brought in a lot of Hamlet. I'm a big Hamlet fan, but I think that — for all the other things that Hamlet is — it's a play about how difficult it is to know what sort of information should be acted on, even when you have all the information you need. It's a play where no plot line ever travels a straight path from motivation to outcome. I think that this way in which information is spun and narrativized in these online forums is another evocative example of that.

We have this incredible ability and tendency as a species to tell stories about ourselves — stories that make us more at home in the world. Increasingly for a lot of people, the stories that make one feel at home in the world are stories that give voice to how strange and out of one’s control the systems that surround us are. People's conspiracy narrativizing often touches me emotionally because I feel like I recognize an emotional emphasis in the writing, but the evidence and arguments that we assemble are so radically different that it's as though we no longer share a world or a reality.

Part of having the forum in the book is that it’s a play within a play, which is a motif I always find really fun in fiction. Also, it's a machine that takes an innocuous thing you've been following as a reader — this pretty simplistic, kind-of-entertaining teen detective show — and begins pulling it apart and investing it with the weight of how strange, how foreign, how convoluted and obscure people feel the systems they're living within actually are. I wanted to show, almost in real time, how one narrative can become imbued with the burden of all of that.

There's this logic of substitution that happens throughout the book. It’s there in an innocuous detail from Kassi Keene: Kid Detective being given new meaning. It's there in the way in which regular water in Los Angeles — in waterways and homes — is substituted incrementally by these different brandings and different price points. And it's there also in Patrick's novel, which starts as an elegy to his father and then, step-by-step at the level of production and script, Patrick ends up becoming the under-appreciated originator of a cheesy ghost story that now has none of the emotional importance of the thing he feels proprietary over. I think we have this tendency to think that tiny changes and tweaks we make to our environment are just that — tiny changes and tweaks — but the accumulation of them results in a really radical shift. And sometimes it's something that is completely new to the world.

Lily Houston Smith

is a writer and audio producer based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She holds a BA in Classical Studies from Bard College and was a 2020 recipient of the William C. Mullen Memorial Fund. Currently, she co-edits the Letters section at Laid Off NYC and is pursuing an MA in Cultural Reporting & Criticism at NYU.

All contributions from Lily Houston Smith

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