The drought is getting worse. Rice farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are resorting to selling their water as an economic alternative to poor crop yields. Wildfires tear through the brush, destroying homes and displacing countless human and non-human residents. Mile-high fire clouds—what scientists call “pyrocumulonimbus”—gather in the sky and hurtle bolts of lightning down upon the sun-parched earth.
Ursula K. Le Guin tells us that “science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive.” Something New Under the Sun, the second novel by Alexandra Kleeman, follows this line of thought to its profoundly unsettling end. The description: a world of smooth, shiny surfaces, in which corporate malfeasance and rampant inequality obscure the movements of an ongoing climate apocalypse that can hardly be approached, let alone fully apprehended.
Enter Patrick Hamlin, writer, husband, father. Patrick has just moved to Hollywood in order to work on the film adaptation of his book Elsinore Lane—or so he thinks. In truth, he’s a bit player in the action at hand. The film’s potential lead, a recovering child star “with a nose like a beautiful, barely remembered dream” named Cassidy Carter, believes there is a conspiracy afoot involving the producers. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Patrick’s wife and young daughter have decamped to a commune upstate dedicated to climate grief, where his daughter continues to be plagued by visions of a pre- (or is it post-?) historic world. Running below it all is WAT-R: a synthetic water substitute that has recently been adopted by the entire state of California in response to the drought, and which may or may not be linked to a mysterious new illness called Random-Onset Acute Dementia (ROAD).
Fans of Kleeman’s previous work will know that she is an expert at taking the conventions of genre and twisting them to her own ends. In her first novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, readers encountered a missing person story told from the perspective of the missing person, replete with fake food, eating-related cults, and extended descriptions of ads involving a fictional cartoon cat. Here, the Hollywood thriller-mystery spiders out into something much stranger. PAs speak in overblown, hifalutin philosophical language. (“A prophecy is the only thing that can be real—more real, in fact, because it’s impossible to accept. Everything else is just a story to be told in the genre of realism.”) There are references to Hamlet, clouds, a mysterious man in a grey suit, “primeval ancestral memories lodged in our deep memory.” Repeated mention is made of threats—whether they can tangibly exist for us “the way a house or a tree does,” or if they only exist in a world other than our own, “the actual world” of non-human animals. Time and again, reality presents itself as something unstable, subject to constant mediation and manipulation by forces far beyond our control. You may find yourself, like I did, transformed into one of the novel’s many conspiracy theorists, furiously jotting down all the potential connections.
But while the genre may have changed, Kleeman’s set of preoccupations has only deepened and, in more than one sense, expanded. She is still very much interested in the everyday language of capitalism. A number of hilarious and compelling passages are dedicated to describing various WAT-R products, including a warehouse show that scans as disturbingly familiar to anyone who’s ever walked through an IKEA. Only this time, instead of measuring the effects of individual consumption, Kleeman takes a wide-angle view of the systems we all participate in, and how they are embedded in a world that refuses to place our stories at the center.
In recent years, a nascent field of study has emerged called ‘posthumanities.’ According to Cary Wolfe, one of the discipline’s foremost thinkers and the author of What Is Posthumanism?, the posthumanities seek to undo traditional humanist distinctions between mind and body, human and non-human, organic and technological, in favor of a system that locates the human as one variable among many in a broader environment. I would argue that Something New Under the Sun qualifies as a formal attempt to put these principles into practice, if only for one reason—Kleeman’s narration regularly departs from the human action to focus our attention on the so-called “natural” (or at the very least non-human) world. Think: wildcats, coyotes, fire beetles, a taxidermied mara. The path of a blaze as it chars the forest to ash.
One particularly breathtaking passage at the end of the fourth chapter describes the layout of Cassidy Carter’s empty mansion, the temperature-regulating appliances “breathing out and never in, exhaling constantly into the world.” This technique gradually supplants the primary narrative, a process Kleeman herself has likened to the geological phenomenon known as subduction. In a recent interview with TANK magazine, she says, “I wanted to make a story that the reader could get immersed in, that felt busy and full in its own right, and then displace that set of concerns with another larger, less easily approached crisis. We live at the intersection of different planes of catastrophe, each jostling for awareness and cycling through at an increasingly rapid pace—the goal is to make that experience more perceivable, more nameable, by setting this motion down in text.” The result is thrilling, and points to a mode of writing that possesses the necessary mix of beauty, humor, and (funnily enough) serious political engagement to meet the urgency of our present moment.
Wolfe talks about the concept of autopoiesis, whereby a system closes itself off in order to self-generate new meanings. It might seem counterintuitive to think about writing in this way, to make a stab at articulating what cannot ever be fully articulated—especially in the realm of fiction. After all, every novel is, on some level, a conspiracy theory. An attempt to wrest control of reality, to insist upon connections in hopes that someone will read what you have found and experience a flash of mutual understanding or recognition. But while most conspiracy theories presume to make the world more knowable—which is to say, more easily contained—Kleeman’s does the opposite. I left this novel with a peculiar mixture of wonder and unease, the same feeling you might get trying to make out stars from beyond a dense scrim of light pollution. When you finally look back down, the shapes of the buildings seem less solid somehow, like they—and you—were never supposed to be there in the first place.
Something New Under the Sun
by Alexandra Kleeman
Published August 3rd, 2021
Richard Wei Semus is a writer and a painter. He is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.