As previously discussed on the site, my TBR pile has grown beyond a manageable level, and it’s only gotten worse since I broke that whole promise to not buy any more books until I tackled it. In fairness, it’s my birthday this weekend and I deserve nice things on a regular basis. Whatever the excuse – and there will be many more of those in the future – here are some bite sized reviews of recent reads.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: A lives with B. The pair, who look remarkably alike and often seem interchangeable, spend their days watching TV eating as little as possible and coveting various products they see advertised everywhere. A’s boyfriend C joins her in these aimless exploits, their emotions torn between apathy and hysteria. Throw in some unsettling TV ads for sweets, veal robbers, disappearing dads and a cult with terrifying reach and you’ve almost covered everything on offer in Kleeman’s debut.
The novel starts as a claustrophobic satire of consumerism culture, particularly the ways women are forced to try and attain a standard of beauty completely unrealistic to humanity, and slowly reveals itself to be far more sinister. Think Black Mirror by way of Black Swan – feminism meets satire meets body horror. Each description of A’s attempt to mould her body to fit that of the grinning beauty product models is rooted in exploring the true terror of the human form: Tendons twitch underneath paper thin skin, bones poke like razors from fragile forms, internal organs are described in almost clinical detail and detachment.
A is afraid that B is trying to emulate her life in order to steal it, but as the novel progresses, the reader becomes aware that the opposite may be the case: A trashes B’s things, begins to copy her stalker-like behaviour and almost forces C into her arms. While the world around her falls into uniform sameness, she unwittingly follows behind until she sees no solution beyond embracing it wholeheartedly.
Kleeman has her feet planted firmly on hallucinogenic territory. Everything is heightened to a level that’s just a little too much, although the parallels to the real world are evident. Her prose does have the air of “proud recent MFA graduate with something different to say” but there’s talent to back up the lofty ambitions. Much of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine will push certain readers away, but it’s a novel proud of its abrasiveness. If you’re a reader with a penchant for the weird, it’s an easy recommendation.
Jean Stein is well positioned to give an account of the glory days of Hollywood. Her dad, Jules Stein, helped found the Music Corporation of America and acted as agent to stars such as Bette Davis and Frank Sinatra. Her oral history, West of Eden, takes a less linear route in its exploration of the founding of the home of film, with each of the five segments focusing on a particular person or family: Edward Doheny, the corrupt oil tycoon and inspiration for There Will Be Blood; Jack Warner, co-founder of one of the most iconic film studios in Hollywood; Jane Garland, troubled aspiring actress who bound together a group of unwitting artists; Jennifer Jones, Oscar winning actress who struggled with fame and a codependent marriage to famed producer David O Selznick; and Jules Stein himself, whose agency helped craft modern Hollywood.
Everything in the aforementioned sections is fascinating, even to those of us familiar with a lot of it (the Jennifer Jones stuff was covered in a fantastic episode of You Must Remember This). The story of Jane Garland – no relation to Judy – offered an obscure Hollywood morality tale that was equal parts fascinating and tragic. The oral style creates a casual and intimate tone, broken occasionally when the speakers, ranging from Stephen Sondheim to Jones’s son and Gore Vidal. It’s gossipy, like being in the chair next to the biggest loudmouth at the hairdresser. Those who experienced the scandals first hand – or claimed to – elaborate in the way one only can when speaking.
This format, of course, has its inevitable limitations, and it’s these limitations that inhibit the natural narrative of the book. There are moments, like the Garland story, that cry out for authorial control. A story so unknown and open to speculation seems like prime material for a detailed history akin to the work of Mark Harris. Yet Stein, for better or worse, seems happy to leave things at a comfortable distance. This is definitely one for hardcore Hollywood geeks only.
Marya Morevna, the youngest daughter and the least pretty of four, sits by the window of her family home in St Petersburg as the city constantly changes names, waiting for a husband. One day, he arrives to take her to his home. The catch? He’s Koschei the Deathless.
The story of Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what vampires are to Transylvania, but remains lesser known across the rest of the world. This gives Valente an advantage over authors of other such fairytale retellings. Here, she sets the story in revolution era Russia, combining the fantastical elements of Baba Yaga and souls inside needles with sharp jokes about bureaucracy and the increasing overhead shadow of war. The imagination on display seems limitless, with Valente holding a firm grasp of both history and folklore. It’s allegory meets mythology – the story of one’s relationship with death told through a literal marriage with the Deathless.
My issue with Valente’s work lies more in my personal reading preferences. Valente’s prose is highly decorative, with each metaphor seemingly worked on for hours. It’s ideal for the content of the story and the particular mood it sets, but it also can’t help but leave me feeling a little cold. For those who enjoy such writing, there’s probably no better example of it in modern science-fiction fantasy than here, but as someone who craves a more economical style, it’s not for me.
As it stands, Deathless is a fascinating read, something off the beaten track of fairytale retellings that offers sharp detail and incredible ambition. It’s easy to see why so many readers have flocked to Valente’s work.