Lost in the Supermarket

All this global capitalist food infrastructure, and still nothing to eat. A review of Alexandra Kleeman's novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

In the 1957 short story “The Feeling of Power,” Isaac Asimov imagined a future in which everyone has a pocket-sized computer, and humanity pays a great price. Specifically, we forget how to do basic math in our heads or on paper, forget that such a thing is even possible. When scientists rediscover the secret relations between numbers, they name the field “graphitics” and quickly set about replacing expensive missile computers with expendable humans.

Among humanity’s greatest fears when it comes to the adoption of tools is that we will become dependent and forget how to function without them. When we collectively shape the world to our will, we externalize knowledge and create shortcuts. I don’t need to know how to make a hammer to use one, how antibiotics work to take them, or how to set up a distribution infrastructure to order something off Amazon. People have fixed their know-how in tools that the rest of us can grab and use. This is great in theory because it lowers the amount of socially necessary labor and improves the quality and supply of stuff as we discover and put to work more and better tools. But this process of technological development and improvement provokes a set of questions that graphitics can’t answer: What skills and knowledge, abilities, and practices do we want to hold onto even if we don’t individually require them? What do we need to remember?

In Alexandra Kleeman’s novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, the characters frustrate themselves and each other in a no-place suburb in a time that seems like now. But under the book’s quirky realism runs an unspoken thread of dystopia: They have unlearned how to feed themselves. Narrator A, her unstable roommate B, and A’s boyfriend C are all young adults who spend the novel failing over and over again to eat a meal. With B, this takes the recognizable form of anorexia and bulimia, which Kleeman depicts as a form of self-directed passive-aggression. C is so lazy and childish he prefers to subsist on canned fruit eaten in front of the television. A is hungry but seems to have forgotten what to do about it. No one cooks anything.

Because Kleeman’s characters are unable to nourish themselves, they spend the novel confused, listless, and hungry, but the kind of hungry where the idea of food has already come and gone and the basic equation between consumption and energy has broken down. Compared to B, A has something like an appetite, and A is always compared to B. “B and I were both petite, pale, and prone to sunburn. We had dark hair, pointy chins, and skinny wrists; we wore size six shoes. If you reduced each of us to a list of adjectives, we’d come out nearly equivalent.” Their domestic situation is like if two American Apparel mannequins came to life and didn’t know how to do anything human except worry about their authentic identities. They eat mostly popsicles.

Conflict between the two surfaces when B goes all Single White Female and cuts her hair off, obliterating the last obvious marker of difference between them. Then she gives the hair to A and makes her keep it. B may be watching A while she sleeps. It’s creepy, but it also serves to make A look sane in comparison. Sometimes it’s easy to forget our narrator is a grown woman who spends most of her free time avoiding her only friend. At least B has a coherent brand. A can’t eat, she’s worried about sleeping, and her boyfriend is a pedantic jerk. So she watches tv and tries to think about what she might want.

Not all of the symbolic keys offered to the reader in Body Like Mine are about food; there’s an epidemic of dads wandering off from their families and a really mean tv show where contestants have to pick their beloved from similar strangers or risk losing them. Some of these devices work better than others, but the best one is a series of commercials for an iconic chocolate-covered chemical-filled snack called Kandy Kake. A spends much of her time watching Kandy Kake ads, which are always on. The campaign features a cartoon mascot named Kandy Kat who -- like forebearers Wile E. Coyote, The Trix Rabbit, and Scratchy -- never gets what he wants. The Kandy Kake he chases does not run away, it exists on a different plane of being. No matter how the Kat attacks the Kake, he can’t consume it. The snack glows impervious and three-dimensional as the Kat uses it to torture himself. A listens to the “terrible grinding and cracking sounds that happen when Kandy Kat tries unsuccessfully to bite down on a Kandy Kake. It sounded as if someone were trying to repair a car but with tools all made of bone and meat.” Poor Kandy Kat, and poor A.

If the goal of these commercials is to create in its viewers an association between Kandy Kakes and starved desperation, they succeed with A. When she hits her breaking point she goes to the supermarket to frantically rifle through empty Kandy Kakes boxes. It’s jarring when A yells at the cashier; it’s the first time she externalizes anything. Unsurprising, given that she’s barely internalized anything either. In the Kandy-Kake-hoarding cult A joins toward the end of the novel, she strives to “become her own ghost” but that’s a class she could already teach.

Despite characters defined by their pathologies, Kleeman never devolves into psychologism. A is very much a creature of her environment, not a product of bad parenting. Or at least not exceptionally bad parenting. Occasionally food feels like one of many symbols in a feminized Fight Club where the protagonist strives not to overcome her passivity but to develop it to its full potential. However, the not eating is so persistent that I had to stop every few pages and make sure I hadn’t missed a snack. Under the action growls empty stomachs. This inability to eat is widespread, at least among the central characters. Why don’t they just make some damn pasta or something? The idea of fatness or dieting is not a focal point in the novel. Kleeman’s characters have lost cooking the way Asimov’s future men lost multiplication.

The characters in Body Like Mine live in the middle of the most advanced food production and distribution system in history. Capitalism’s best argument against the Soviet project was the supermarket; they had breadlines, we had multigrain pre-sliced. A supply-and-demand pricing system (along with some well-placed subsidies) makes sure the shelves are stocked and producers always competing to come up with new ways to delight, satisfy, and nourish consumers. Some people go hungry, but some people always go hungry. A, B, and C aren’t food-insecure since money doesn’t really come up at all in the book. Their social position should make them among the best-fed people in human history.

Although the ostensible goal of the integrated food system is to feed people, that’s not what capitalism is for. The real goal of all capitalist firms is to make money, which incentivizes them to focus more on looking good than being good. Early industrial food producers sold people under-filled cans of sawdust meat until popular outcry led to regulation. One of the most common critiques of late-capitalist food sales is that companies manipulate our emotions and desires to sell us food with a low production cost and low nutritional value, but that isn’t exactly A’s biggest problem.

Supermarkets have been drawing intelligence from individual customer choices for decades, but data mining is one of those tools that humans are rapidly developing. It’s important to be able to tell consumers what they want, but it’s also important to find out what they want. Large companies are stuck in a “‘What do you want for dinner?’ ‘Well, what do you want for dinner?’” cycle with buyers who are often generations removed from remnants of non-capitalist eating traditions, whose desires have always been tied up in commercials. In the novel, this tension becomes comic in the supermarket chain Wally’s, which is set up to be as confusing as possible for shoppers. Products switch places constantly, and employees are bound by job description to lead customers away from what they want toward things they might not know they want yet. “Feed a man a fish and he’ll imagine himself content,” a Wally’s sign reads, “allow him to purchase a wide range of non-fish items and he will feed for days.”

Against Thomas Malthus, who believed the world’s population would run out of food and starve, in 1857 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “he forgot to say that the human mind was also a factor in political economy, and that the augmenting wants of society would be met by an augmenting power of invention.” He saw in his time a rapid increase in the sophistication and spread of productive tools (“one might say that the inventions of the last fifty years counterpoise those of the fifty centuries before them”) and he didn’t see that trend stopping any time soon. As it turns out, the transcendental poet was right and the political economist Malthus wrong. Emerson’s visions about the development of the American economy are prescient:

We ride four times as fast as our fathers did; travel, grind, weave, forge, plant, till and excavate better. We have new shoes, gloves, glasses and gimlets; we have the calculus; we have the newspaper, which does its best to make every square acre of land and sea give an account of itself at your breakfast-table; we have money, and paper money; we have language,—the finest tool of all, and nearest to the mind. Much will have more.

But Emerson is no naive technophile. Although he recognizes progress where it is to be seen, Emerson separates economic and technological invention from humanity’s moral development. Just because our tools and productivity have improved does not mean we have. There are more direct ways to check on our collective welfare. Once again, Emerson is prescient: “Things have an ugly look still. No matter how many centuries of culture have preceded, the new man always finds himself standing on the brink of chaos, always in a crisis. Can anybody remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?”

From Grubhub to Soylent and every food-tech business in between, capitalists have set themselves to profitably disrupting traditional processes of cooking and eating. There are services that send fresh pre-chopped ingredients for individual meals via mail. The paleo people try to rediscover cooking like Asimov’s confused graphitics pioneers, drinking salads and swearing off grains. Eating is confusing because confusion is an opportunity for competition and gain. No one involved is much interested in feeding anyone the way you might be interested in feeding someone you care about.

“Man flatters himself that his command over Nature must increase,” Emerson writes, but the inability of A, B, and C to feed themselves in the midst of overflowing abundance and convenience suggests in our drive to rationalize we have missed a few variables; things have a hungry look still. There is more to food and cooking and eating than the flow of labor into calories and back into labor. The need to eat coheres human communities in ways we don’t understand, and when we try to minimize the externalities of this need we literally do not know what we are doing. If we structure our society around only those things about people that we can measure and convert into profit, we act with hubris. We risk leaving some people to starve in the grocery store.