The last 18 months have felt precarious, like a continued attempt to balance what remains of our status quo on the edge of a steep cliff. There was some relief as the weather warmed and vaccinations became widely available in the United States, but as I write this, the Delta variant is spiking, the eviction moratorium is lifting, and smoke and ash are already filling the air across much of the west. It’s getting harder and harder to see what lies ahead.
Recently, instead of squinting into the dust or aimlessly doom scrolling Twitter, I buried my head in a particularly prescient book. In Alexandra Kleeman’s second novel, Something New Under The Sun, Patrick Hamlin, a forty-something novelist of middling success, travels to Los Angeles from his home on the east coast for a job as a production assistant on the set of the first film adaptation of his work. When he arrives in a drought-ridden, perpetually-on-fire California, he learns that water has been almost entirely replaced by a manufactured H2O equivalent, WAT-R. From drinking water to household plumbing, the WAT-R brand monopolizes the resource and leaves most Californians with no choice but to pay for tanks of the synthesized substance.
Kleeman describes both her prize-winning debut novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, as well as Something New Under the Sun as “explorations of materials.” Whereas in the former, she was considering “food and the body, this second is about water and land.” Kleeman conceived of WAT-R as a lens through which she could explore both the essential nature of natural resources and the wider cultural consequences of unchecked capitalism.
“The idea of this thing that has flowed freely for most of the earth’s history becoming packaged and product devised is really strange, and at the same time a completely natural and expected outgrowth of our capitalist logic,” she tells me via Zoom. “Is there a way in which we can alter these fundamental building blocks of our species without altering who we are? Without altering our connection and link to the earth and to our own history? I feel like there may not be.”
Patrick himself juggles similar questions about his career, his family, and the trajectory of his life as he approaches middle age. As the production descends into chaos, he forms an unlikely friendship with the lead actress, a washed-up former child star and current tabloid magnet in the mold of Nicole Richie or Lindsay Lohan circa 2005, Cassidy Carter, whose most recent “scandal” involved a used tampon thrown at a prying paparazzo. Already deeply suspicious of WAT-R, Cassidy drags Patrick along as she attempts to investigate the substance and the effects it’s having on the people of Los Angeles — most obviously the mysterious green sweat suit-clad patients who are herded like schoolchildren out of green vans in a strip mall parking lot, and who, we later learn, are slowly losing their memories.
It’s clear from her precise attention to Cassidy’s lived experiences — from her humble Fresno childhood to the obliteration of all her close personal relationships as her career consumed her — that Kleeman is interested in the ramifications of fame: the sinister ways in which consumers of celebrity culture claim ownership over these individuals, how we hold them hostage beneath a microscope of our own creation (as anyone following the despicable treatment of Britney Spears over the last several years can attest to).
“In her most recent statement, Britney Spears talks about how hurtful it was to see some of her most humiliating life episodes reenacted and replayed in these documentaries,” says Kleeman. “To see the sort of plasticity that’s expected from these people, to see what they’re expected to give, the type of generosity they’re supposed to naturally hold out — their life and their image, and access to the most internal parts of themselves — has always seemed horrifying to me.”
It’s only despite her “plastic” instincts that Cassidy develops a sort of friendship with Patrick, who she thinks might see beyond the facade she projects to the world. Together they make a kind of quintessential cinematic odd-couple as they embark on a series of quests to uncover the secrets of WAT-R.
“I think that you sometimes find a fit with a person even when you’re being actively misperceived by them. And so the things that draw Cassidy to Patrick and make her want to allow him to connect to her, want to share space with him, are things that are not foremost in Patrick’s mind,” Kleeman says. “The most difficult thing to do with another person, I think, is to move through the layers of your own misperception and projection to see who they actually are.”
Something New Under The Sun is a smart novel that holds a mirror up to a difficult-to-digest concept (climate change) with skillful sensitivity, but it’s also quite funny at times. With nods to Beckett and Stoppard, Kleeman juxtaposes fiery doom with passages of sharp, absurdist dialogue and a sprinkle of one-liners reminiscent of Fleabag, and that’s wholly intentional. “The disjunct between how much we can understand about a situation and how clumsily we still dwell on that situation is a funny one. It’s existentially funny and then it takes on a more urgent tone,” she says, referring to her characters and their attempts to communicate through the catastrophe they find themselves in.
It’s a truth that’s applicable throughout the novel, and a helpful reminder as we muddle through our lives on this planet as we know it. There is still hope for us yet. As Kleeman frames it: “Humor and irony, moments of levity — moments also where we look back at the world and appreciate how complex and how beautiful and how surprising it is — are things that help refill the bank for action and make it more possible to hold in your mind both the truth that increasing catastrophe is coming, and that we still live in this time and can do something with it.”