Patrick is a middle-aged American writer who travels to Hollywood to watch his dreams come true: his latest book is being made into a movie and he has a job on set. When he arrives in LA, though, he discovers that his autobiographical novel has been adapted into a farcical horror and that he’s expected to act as errand boy for the movie’s suave producers, Brenda and Jay, and as driver to the lead actor, Cassidy Carter. Cassidy is notorious – Patrick has seen the viral video in which she’s caught shoplifting a single tampon. A paparazzo, unseen behind his camera, taunts her (“Baby, you’re so moody right now”) until she flips out, pulling a used tampon from her shorts, throwing it at the camera and shouting “Namaste”.
This is the hyperperceptive, painfully funny opening image of Alexandra Kleeman’s second novel, a speculative climate apocalypse fiction. From the outset, there’s a weird pathos to its disturbed and disturbing world, in which rich, successful Cassidy aspires to steal just one tampon rather than taking the box, and in which an enraged white woman’s “Namaste” is so wrong it’s perfect. Still, at least Cassidy has her tampon-slinging chutzpah. Patrick’s mind, by contrast, is saturated with borrowed dreams of contemporary America – advice from men’s exercise magazines, gory movies, advertising taglines, chat forums, property listings and news stories about polygynous cults. More than anything, Patrick’s perception of reality is obscured by his longing for self-advancement. Even his wife Alison suspects that their relationship is founded on the fact that Patrick’s “inner struggle filled much of his field of vision”: Alison can “hide in plain sight”.
If Patrick is obsessed with himself, Alison has become obsessed with the planetary emergency, to the point that she can no longer function. “I don’t see the park or the trees. I see all of it dying.” She and nine-year-old daughter Nora flee the couple’s suburban home for Earthbridge, a nature retreat in the Adirondack mountains: a place of handicrafts and homilies about climate grief. Alison doesn’t mention Patrick’s current situation to the other residents. She’s unwilling to risk a sermon on how Hollywood celebrates the human “at the expense of all else that lives and suffers”.
Something New Under the Sun is interested in this accusation, which could also be levelled at the tradition of the novel. Kleeman creates tensions between the intimate human stories that are the mainstay of literary fiction and the non-human worlds in which these stories happen. She is a playful rather than a lecturing writer, mining the different ways in which the personal is snarled up in the environmental, and vice versa. Alison frets about Patrick’s whereabouts and Nora’s bad dreams while straining to think about the decline of Israel’s Hula frog. Earthbridge pieties about ice sheets and river mussels get in the way of caring for loved ones. On the other side of America, daily life in LA appears even more absurd. The human-centred economy leaves most humans suffering, or at best stuck in traffic. When Patrick and Cassidy glimpse vacant-looking people being loaded into green vans, they become convinced that their movie is a front for some sinister operation. Brenda and Jay have connections with WAT-R, a synthetic blue liquid that has replaced tap water across California. Its commercial monopoly works with quiet efficiency so that lower-income households are left without water and in debt. “When people are dying of thirst, they’ll drink gasoline,” observes Jay. “And it’s their right to do that.”
Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was distinctive in its attention to minute detail. Oranges were described in segments; human skin seen pore by pore, as though the prose looked more closely than the human eye. Something New Under the Sun develops this intense focus in brief passages that digress into largely unseen worlds: sewage pipes, the heart of a wildfire, a prehistoric seascape. When a fictional setting is given a great deal of attention, it’s become a cliche to describe it as a character in the story. That cliche requires an assumption that forests or weather fronts don’t habitually make anything happen. In Kleeman’s novel, as in real life, this assumption looks wishful: scenery and infrastructure threaten to murder the protagonists. Patrick, naturally, is not at all cool with the idea that anything outside his own head has independent agency. He watches insects flit through the beams of his headlights. “The reality of that world unsettles his own.”
Something New Under the Sun is sun-drenched, sharply observed and swift-moving; the sentences are beautiful. What makes it strange and new is the way the narrative disrupts itself. With concentrated attention on each flame in a wildfire, prehistoric marine life forms, or the plastic taste of soft furnishings in a carpet beetle’s mouth, it takes notice of much that is outside the brief of the story of Patrick and Cassidy, Alison and Nora. The book encompasses extra reality, but the experience of reading it is oddly surreal – it exposes unsettling truths about this “world as a whole, trembling with life and violence”, hiding in plain sight.