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The Body As Simulacrum of Identity Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

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The Body As Simulacrum of Identity: Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
The Body As Simulacrum of Identity: Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

Alexandra Kleeman’s surreal and brilliant first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, takes its title from a Charles Atlas ad-vertisement. In these ads, Atlas appears shirtless, clothed only in briefs, body toned and muscles rippled. Across the page, the words “[…] YOU can have a Body like Mine!” in bold lettering. This is one of the keys to understanding Kleeman’s story, one that, along with the image of a body, is concerned with themes of identity, sex, and consumerism—a sto-ry of womanhood in contemporary American society.

Kleeman’s main characters don’t have proper names. The story is told through the eyes of A, a mostly unhappy young woman working as a proofreader and living in an un-named city with her roommate, B, who wants to be A and increasingly comes to resemble her in physical appearance (they’re both thin and small, pale, with dark hair). “If you re-duced each of us to a list of adjectives, we’d come out nearly identical,” A says. A works to avoid B by spending time with her boyfriend, C, who can make everything “suddenly, instantaneously normal, just by explaining them” and enjoys Shark Week, reality TV, and porn.

Review: Emily Gould’s Friendship

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Review: Emily Gould’s Friendship
Review: Emily Gould’s Friendship

There’s a saying often espoused by teachers of creative writing: “Write what you know.” The main problem with Emily Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, is not that she writes about what she knows, but that anyone familiar with her background knows all of these things already.

Gould’s main characters, Bev and Amy, both in their early 30s, wish to become writers, though there isn’t one time either writes, unless you count a rushed email at the conclusion. In the beginning, Midwestern Bev rides the temp circuit, serving as a receptionist at “a commercial real estate company” and (sometimes) a French bank, but what she’s really “working on” are “short stories that are sort of…memoiristic.” Amy, an East Coaster and a thinly veiled stand-in for Gould, manages a two-person editorial team at the website Yidster, “the third-most-popular online destination for cultural coverage with a modern Jewish angle.”

Years earlier, Bev and Amy meet as assistants at a publishing house, and their office-related interactions spark a real bond. The friendship between them is, of course, at the center of the work, but Gould may have done better if she omitted the flashback vignettes showing its evolution. How Amy and Bev remained friends in the past—when Amy rose in blogger prominence and Bev moved to Wisconsin with a boyfriend she believed she’d marry—is of little consequence in the present; it distracts, rather, from the current conflict, which is how, with Bev pregnant from a one-night stand and Amy without a job and an apartment, they can stay close.

Winding Down Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America

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Winding Down: Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America
Winding Down: Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America

Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, the latest book from the editors of the Brooklyn-based literary journal n+1, would seem to have arrived just in time. As I write, much of what Occupy Wall Street meant in 2011 looks as though it will be a memory in 2012. Major occupations throughout the country, including the flagship encampment at Zuccotti Park, have been dismantled. Others that remain, like the one in Washington, D.C., face the growing threat of eviction and the deteriorating weather of a North American winter in full effect. Mainstream media coverage, ambivalent even during the movement’s high watermark, has turned definitively to a more reassuring, if less comprehensible, strain of political theater in the Republican presidential primary. Whether or not this decline in profile and enthusiasm is permanent, the evident phase-change merits a look back at the movement’s first chapter.

The writings assembled in Occupy!—from the journal’s editors, as well as other writers and thinkers sympathetic to OWS—chronicle the movement’s first month and a half, from the settlement by protesters in a small park in New York City’s Financial District, to eventual expansions in Oakland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Boston. The book consists of first-person anecdotes about life and activity within the occupations, as well as essays on various theoretical and practical aspects of the movement as it grew. Many of these pieces originally appeared in the Occupy! Gazette, a special newspaper printed by n+1, and on the journal’s blog where content about OWS is regularly posted. Also reprinted are speeches made at encampments in New York by Judith Butler, Angela Davis, and Slavoj Žižek. The book’s account ends two weeks before the Zuccotti eviction and the subsequent Day of Action on November 17 that found some 30,000 marchers in the streets. The preface acknowledges that these events took place as the book was going to print, and its posture is one of defiance: “You can pull up the flowers but you can’t stop the spring…The movement and this book are not over.” It sets the tone for much of what is to come, namely articulate endorsement of its subject. For all the collection’s problems, mistaking its audience isn’t one of them.

A Useful Reminder Jack Hart’s Storycraft

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A Useful Reminder: Jack Hart’s Storycraft
A Useful Reminder: Jack Hart’s Storycraft

“You can’t teach writing. You expose students to good work and hope it inspires them. Some can write, others will never learn,” or so says Woody Allen, portraying Gabriel Roth—famous writer and creative-writing professor—in the film Husbands and Wives. Depending on how you feel about Allen’s remark, the rapid increase in creative-writing programs throughout the United States in the past 30 years or so will seem to you either like a hideous rash or a fragrant blossom. n+1 recently described this trend in its fall 2010 issue, in an article title “MFA vs. NYC,” and way back in 1988, David Foster Wallace complained about it in an essay for the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

For Wallace, creative-writing programs entailed all sorts of intellectual and spiritual problems that would impede someone trying to write well. One of these problems is that a writing program is going to program its writers to compose in a similarly polished, professional, and boringly unoriginal way. n+1 also complained (in an opposite way) about the ineffectiveness of creative-writing instruction: “MFA programs themselves are so lax and laissez-faire as to have a shockingly small impact on students’ work—especially shocking if you’re the student, and paying $80,000 for the privilege.”

So how does one become a writer? Maybe one of the assumptions behind Allen and Wallace’s contempt for writing instruction is that really great and unique writing—be it screenplays or novels or essays or journalism—is spirited and intelligent and honest, and writing that has those qualities can only come from a human being who’s also spirited and intelligent and honest. But you can’t acquire those essential personal qualities by just listening to someone lecture about them. You need to be born that way, or to spend thousands of hours, day in and day out, taking the risks and doing the work and making the choices necessary to, slowly and painfully, become that kind of person. And as you become that person, your vision would become sharper and you could peer more deeply into the world. To write, then, would be to file reports on all the interesting human stuff that’s revealed by such a vision.