The best of the stories in Alexandra Kleeman’s collection Intimations unfold in dreamlike settings that are more than a little dangerous. There are sharp teeth, axes, and claws and not a few pools of blood. But Kleeman’s scary stories have a gentle comic edge. She has a gothic imagination and a wit keen to the absurdities of American culture — particularly its dietary vices and media horror shows. She can do realism, but not without a few screws coming loose.
Kleeman is 30 years old and the author of one previous book, the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, one of last year’s most celebrated debuts. Its narrator is called A, her roommate is B, and her boyfriend C. A joins a food cult, B wants to look like A, C has some unwholesome hobbies, and the conceptual fun continues in Intimations.
This new collection has three sections, and the organizing principle is unclear (but fun to guess at). The first set of four stories is the most dizzying, but only one of them is a knockout: the opener, “Fairy Tale.” The narrator emerges from what seems to be a spell of amnesia to find herself sitting at a table with her parents and a man who claims to be her fiancé. She goes to answer the door and it’s someone who says he’s her boyfriend. Soon she’s besieged by all manner of paramours, past and potential. The postman turns up, and she’s relieved:
I arrived to find the entryway empty, save for a man in what appeared to be a uniform stepping across the threshold.
I’m just the postman, he said. Oh, I said, please come in.
… Since you broke up with me, he finished.
Oh, I said. There was a stiff feeling in the air. If only I could remember one thing about him, I could say it out loud. Nice shirt, I said.
Yes — since you broke up with me, he said, as if I’d know what he meant.
Kleeman isn’t the sort of writer who deals in stable meanings — it’s one of the sources of her humor — but there are a few ideas in Intimations that pop up more than once. The suitor the narrator picks in “Fairy Tale” tells her he’s come to murder her. Love keeps coming back as a fatal threat. In “Lobster Dinner,” with a kiss coming, Kleeman writes, “my eye saw his open mouth grow larger and larger until it seemed it could swallow me whole.” That’s the story’s final and best image. The rest of it is a bit of a mess, teeming with fantasies of man-eating lobsters attacking beachgoers. No principle of restraint seems to be at work, and the stories “The Dancing-Master,” about a feral child being taught ballet, and “A Brief History of Weather,” about a pair of sisters who fill their home with clouds, are similarly burdened by excesses. The child narrator of “Weather” is a bit too unsophisticated, the adult narrating “Dancing-Master” quite the opposite. There’s some stunning imagery, but the logic at work can be hard to detect.
Not so for the next sequence of four stories. Three of them follow central characters called Karen. Are they the same Karen or different Karens? As far as I could tell, the details in the stories neither confirm nor deny a Unified Karen. Could Karen also be the narrator of the last story in the sequence, “Intimation”? Perhaps. These Karen stories are the most conventional in the book. We see Karen after a breakup, Karen as a mother, Karen getting engaged. In “I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am the One for You,” Karen takes a German man she’s just met to her room. The story recalls Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof,” but the effect is less menacing, more an awkward sort of melancholy. In “Choking Victim” — Kleeman’s most assured realist story, and the one story from “Intimations” that appeared in The New Yorker — a stroller breaks and Karen leaves it behind. As a result she nearly loses her baby by trusting the wrong stranger. Even when she’s getting engaged, “truly happy for the first time in her life … freshly bludgeoned by love,” Karen always seems to be in the wrong place doing not quite the right thing.
“Intimation” is another dreamlike story, in the mode of “Fairy Tale.” The narrator, an amnesiac maybe-Karen, finds herself in a strange apartment with a strange man, and to get away from him she goes to bake a cake. When it’s done, she pulls it out of the oven, and congratulations is already written on it in icing (we’re in dream zone, remember). The man then presents her with a baby. “Somehow I knew that if I put this food into the mouth of the baby, I would never be allowed to leave this house. But if I didn’t put the food into the baby, who would?” The allegory is a little simple — loss of innocence, adulthood, motherhood, these are things that can come about without our entirely desiring them — but the story unsettles with its mix of woozy where-am-I-ness and the narrator’s sensible decision to get down to the business of baking a cake. It’s a deep, heavy joke.
The final sequence of stories is as eclectic as the first but more successful. There’s an essayistic story about angels called “Hylomorphosis” (from the old Aristotelian doctrine about matter and form) and a piece of surrealism called “Rabbit Starvation” that delivers on its title. “Fake Blood” takes place at a Halloween party with a real ax murderer (and seemingly many axes to hand), and Kleeman strikes the perfect combination of comic and macabre. The last story in the book is its strongest, the starkest display of this young writer’s powerful imagination and exquisite sense of the quotidian. “You, Disappearing” is about a “polite and quirky” apocalypse. The world is ending as various objects vanish without a trace: “A week would go by with everything pretty much in its proper place, and then all of a sudden there was no such thing as magazines, not in your home or anyone else’s, and nobody to bother making new ones.” (I found that sentence chilling.) The story recalls Donald Barthelme as well as Delmore Schwartz’s “The Statues.” The narrator addresses the story to the man she lives with, and of Kleeman’s couples their love is the truest. It’s the saddest piece of apocalyptic fiction I’ve ever read. My only complaint is that the title gives too much away.
*This article appears in the October 3, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.