ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN’S SHORT STORIES
It may come as a surprise to those who know Alexandra Kleeman only through her writing that she laughs easily. After her all, her first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and her short stories—which have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and twelve of which have been gathered in her début collection, Intimations, out this month—are suffused with a vague sense of threat and dread, and she is not shy to admit that her work comes from a very personal place. “I like to think that all of these stories are powered by me directly,” she explains. “It’s like I plug the story in and I power it with some real fear or anxiety I have.”
Intimations, which takes its title from Wordsworth but also her own story “Intimation,” originally published in our Spring 2013 issue, is full of unlikely situations—guests at a party are systematically murdered by ax, a family lives inside a bubble trying to keep the weather out, the end of the world is a gradual disappearance of people and things—but it touches on very real, and common, apprehensions about identity, belonging, and the impossibility of ever really knowing anyone else. Kleeman jokes that the stories are a form of “self-therapy exercises,” a way of finding a resolution in words that maybe be unattainable in life.
The collection is structured in three parts, roughly reflecting the segments of human existence: a birth into an unrecognizable and unknowable world, a life of confusion and misunderstanding, and an impending death that is both impenetrable and unavoidable. Kleeman’s greatest strength is in teasing out the precariousness and fragility of life, finding menace in the banal and the everyday while offering the promise of self-awareness, even without answers. “They see there’s not much that they can do,” she says of many of her characters. “They see the place that they’re in and they find some agency in the absurdity of continuing on.”
The first and last sections have an almost fabular or allegorical tone, albeit with no easy moral at the end, but the middle section falls more squarely in the realist tradition, all of the stories following the travails of a woman named Karen and ending with the almost dreamlike trance of “Intimation,” which Kleeman calls “one of the clearest manifestations of the kind of feeling that I wanted to have all through the collection.” These linked stories also, she explains, feel more honest and natural to her as a form. “I still find really overwhelming the idea that each time you write a short story, you invent a new person and get to know them and then discard them,” she says. “I don’t think that people are as interesting in their singular moments as they are over the course of their life. If you take a sample from this age and a sample from that age, what things that they talk about and what part of them will stick around? What problems do they think they’ve overcome, but will actually be a problem all their life? For me, that seems true to the way that people work.”
Appropriately enough, Kleeman is starting work on her next novel, which she promises will be about “the water crisis and Lindsay Lohan and plastic surgery.” But she expects to write a few short stories along the way as well, and it feels apt that she sees them as an opportunity to turn an obstacle into a catalyst. “Novels are really depressing to write,” she laughs. “You get stuck, you can’t figure out what’s going to happen next, or you feel what’s going to happen next isn’t good enough, then you start feeling like you’re a failure. So when I’m truly stuck, I try to write a short story because giving yourself a new problem to deal with, giving yourself a whole new suite of things to figure out, gets me excited again.”
Intimations is out September 13. Preorder here.