There’s a particular feeling, one almost certainly not unique to my own experience, felt only upon turning over the first page of an exam paper. It’s the sort of sensation that might have an untranslatable name in German or Japanese, a collision of consonants capable of conjuring the simultaneous pressure and absence that falls through your being as you realise you cannot answer a single thing. The result is something between inertia and hyperactivity, or rather a panic consisting of both, hitting you simultaneously. The kids around you are writing, and the invigilator guy is pacing, and your teachers and parents and pets are sitting elsewhere with a look of quiet confidence, occasionally checking a clock. Falling overboard a ferry must feel pretty similar, its lights and night-time entertainment fading to tiny points in the night as your mouth fills with foamy wake. No one knows yet but you, and you think you might die under the weight of expectation, or ghost up and away through the roof, or just combust right there in your seat, if only to communicate to those around you.
While there are no schools or ruled paper in the Alexandra Kleeman’s short story collection, Intimations, this feeling is perhaps the closest we’re going to get in any attempt to describe the surreal, anxiety-dream atmosphere stretched across the book. Be they bizarre fables or straighter realist narratives, Kleeman’s stories are imbued with an overarching strangeness. Indeed, many of the characters seem to be facing an exam of one sort or another, though the stakes are raised by their confusion as to what exactly is being measured, by whom, and to what end.
The collection is split into three sections, categorised in the press release as “birth, living, and death.” The first opens with ‘Fairy Tale’, a nightmare in which the narrator’s home is besieged by fiancés and boyfriends, past, present and potential. Her parents look on, as though expecting her to select one, though when she does the piece unravels, chaos disintegrating into a fine, single thread of logic that only she cannot decipher. ‘The Dancing-Master’ is equally unsettling, featuring the titular Dancing Master and his captive-like student trying to perfect his body in motion, while ‘Lobster Dinner’, is an absurd, devious take on the love story, featuring killer lobsters and killing lobsters and lobster-based recipes from summer on the Cape. Strangeness squared, ‘A Brief History of Weather’ closes the section with the most peculiar piece in the collection. Logic obscured as if by a stormy front, the story is either hieroglyphic or pareidolic, as though arriving in neat images and channelled through Kleeman’s pen unedited, arranged according to the direction of the wind or else blind chance.
The majority of the stories in the second section concern a narrator named Karen, though we are left to guess if the Karens are the same person or linked in any way at all. Here Kleeman pivots in a realist direction, the peculiarity left to haunt the spaces between what the characters try to say and what they manage to communicate. ‘Choking Victim’ sees a well-meaning mother grow irrational through neurotic concern, while ‘Jellyfish’ finds a newly-engaged couple at an unnerving holiday resort, seemingly unable to enjoy their milestone. This is made clear by the state of the sea, so chock-full of the Cnidarians of the title that swimming is not possible. “The effect of so many small, identical details multiplied and extended into the far distance was nightmarish,” Kleeman writes. “An optical illusion made suffocatingly real.”
There’s an alienation present in ‘I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am the One For You’, though cleverly registered as the opposite—Karen, having been isolated from human contact, is the ‘normal’ one, and now suddenly aware of the fundamental oddness of other people, the way they live and breathe and lick their lips, fleshy machines we can never really know. The isolation, it seems, is both the cause and the coping mechanism, the reason the people in her cafe appear so strange and the attempt at escaping into something more digestible. Instead she flees to entertainment in which narrative arcs are followed and people represent simplified ideals of viewers choice.
“She felt thick-brained and inept at the delicate choreography of being nice to people. She had been watching two movies a day, sometimes more. There were almost enough movies around to live your entire life in them. But there was not quite enough.”
The closing section opens with the fancy-dress-faux-pas-turns-murder-mystery of ‘Fake Blood’, where guests at a party debate the relative realism of the killings taking place around them (“But what does real look like?” someone asks). ‘Hylomorphosis’ is Kleeman at her most experimental and abstract, never quite materialising into anything tangible, and ‘Rabbit Starvation’ juxtaposes the fluffiness of white cotton with some hideously dark existential force. Finally, there’s an apocalypse of vanishing objects, ‘You, Disappearing’, which echoes Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things. Here is perhaps where Kleeman’s intent becomes clearest, the tale becoming a melancholic love story as represented by absences, and our inability to see them coming.
“The apocalypse was quiet. It had a way about it, a certain charm. It could be called graceful. It was taking a long time.”