In Something New Under the Sun, the latest novel from Alexandra Kleeman, a starlet finds herself wandering in the California desert, dehydrated and disoriented. The state has depleted its water supply, and residents must sustain themselves on a factory-produced liquid called WAT-R, which Cassidy refuses to drink, even the “triple-milled,” high-end version co-designed by a Finnish installation artist. She thinks she may be hallucinating a figure in the distance, but who is she to judge what’s real? A former child star, her life has been full of fakes — TV dads and false friends who pretend to care and then abscond when the tabloids turn on you. Half of L.A. has had their nose fixed to look like hers. Cassidy cannot abide more forgeries. “I want water, not the knockoff,” she tells a waitress earlier in the book. “I want a hundred percent.” Unfortunately, in Kleeman’s vision of California, that kind of thing can run over $1,400 a bottle, particularly if you’re looking for water from, say, an Antarctic ice shelf.
In Something New Under the Sun, Kleeman takes the water wars of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and updates them for our era of severe droughts and unending wildfires, giving us a slick neo-noir where the central crime is neither murder nor blackmail but climate change. The book seems to be set in the future, just barely. As global warming makes a mockery of our timescales for dystopia, this novel is a reminder that, pretty soon, we will not have a choice between real things and whatever approximations of them will exist on a ruined planet. While Kleeman’s dark humor makes this pill a little easier to swallow, you are still left wondering: What was that I just drank?
The story is told from the perspective of a hapless middle-aged novelist named Patrick Hamlin. When he finds out that a production company wants to adapt his novel Elsinore Lane into a movie, Patrick immediately envisions another life for himself and his family away from their problems back East. His wife, Alison, has become so morosely fixated on the state of the environment that she has decamped to an ecoretreat in upstate New York co-founded by a guy who tried to kill himself after watching “a viral video of the polar bear that got shot when it tried to scavenge in a grocery store.” Like gold-seekers and small-town beauty queens before him, Patrick imagines California as a magical solution to his problems. “His daughter could go to school with the children of Kardashians,” he dreams, and “his wife could restore her frayed nerves, becoming one of those women in vintage kimonos who wear their hair in a waist-length braid.” In his exuberance, Patrick overlooks the terms of the contract, and when he shows up in L.A. to “supervise” the shoot, he finds out that his only compensation for the film option is a low-wage job as a production assistant.
As his “ghost story” in the vein of Hamlet is literalized into a supernatural-horror movie — in which Cassidy stars — he finds himself running errands and chauffeuring the actress to and from the set. Exhausted, he tries unsuccessfully to quench his thirst with WAT-R, which his fellow PA assures him is “the same as water, just a little bit more so.” Cassidy tells Patrick that the taste and texture of WAT-R freak her out. “It’s less a flavor,” she explains in L.A.-speak, “than … the awareness of a presence.” Meanwhile, people across the state are being admitted to special clinics to treat a strange new form of dementia whose symptoms include “dense tears” and “unrequited affection.” Over the course of this caper, Patrick and Cassidy begin to piece together a connection between WAT-R, the clinics, and the fact that the producers seem to be tanking the film on purpose.
Something New builds on many of the themes and conundrums that guide Kleeman’s 2015 debut, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine — especially her fascination with the dietary grotesque. Kleeman’s first novel follows a young woman who joins a cult whose members subsist on nothing but Kandy Kakes, a treat so synthetic it guarantees you aren’t eating even a trace of something that was once alive. Although the setting is never named, You Too’s backdrop of a haunted, endless suburbia dotted with game-show studios, negative-calorie snacks, and characters who spew New Age prattle (“Close your eyes and concentrate on your edges”) marks it as quintessentially Californian. In a recent interview with Publishers Weekly, Kleeman — who now lives on Staten Island — talked about growing up in Southern California and, true to form, described it in terms of ingestion: “We were right up against hiking trails where coyotes would snatch people’s little pets. And I wondered, as I have wondered since, what was this place?”
It makes sense that she keeps returning to this repository of absurd appetites — for fame, spiritual rejuvenation, or, ideally, both. Few writers are more committed to exposing the ridiculousness of everyday consumption. Something New is especially scathing in a scene when one of Patrick’s fellow PAs first sees inside the home of the film’s millionaire producer. “One thing I’ve discovered in my admittedly brief time at this house,” the PA says, “is that there are more different shades of white than there are different shades of what we call color.” Yet rather than mock it, he decides ecru paint is something new he can aspire toward: “I’m like a worm gazing up at the stars.”
The WAT-R plot functions at once as a sincere comment on the threats of global warming and an opportunity to dissect the ways we define authenticity. At one point, Patrick meets one of Cassidy’s megafans (who even got her nose). “What’s she like,” she asks him, “you know, is she real?” By which she means: Is Cassidy both an impossibly thin actress and the kind of person who “would order a double cheeseburger without holding any of the sauce, onions, et cetera”? In other words, real is a kind of impossible thing, and no one knows that better than Cassidy herself. As a child, she and her sister played “a game of emotional agility” called Switch On/Switch Off! When her mother called Cassidy fat and she started to tear up, her sister would whisper “switch off,” and Cassidy would “let her face go slack, neutral, like a pretty doll.” This ability to pretend would most come in handy off-set, as she searched “the behavior of friends and producers and actors and staff for signs of falsity.” The real reason Cassidy hates WAT-R is because its fakeness reminds her of herself and everyone around her.
As the secrets surrounding the liquid start to unravel, the mystery element of the novel begins to feel a bit … damp. In the end, the story behind the conspiracy is surprisingly mundane, especially given the book’s hyperreality and intricate imagery. This mundanity also seems to be Kleeman’s point. Is there really such a thing as a shocking twist under capitalism? Eventually, Patrick is fully divested of his Hollywood fantasies — for riches, for justice, for any of his desires to be met. While he wants to believe that California’s problems are the work of a shady cast of criminals who just need to be exposed in some thrilling dénouement, Cassidy brings him down to earth: “A lot of people worked very hard to make it this rotten, and digging it all up isn’t going to shock them into making things right.” It’s only because of the movies that we expect otherwise.