naomi vs naomi

Is Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger Weird Enough?

Naomi (right) and the Other Naomi (left). Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

To start, a confession: I have done it myself. Confused Naomi Klein, the Canadian social democrat, the reporter from war zones and borderlands, the author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, with Naomi Wolf, the American something-wave feminist turned QAnon-adjacent conspiracist and wild anti-vaxxer. It was, to be fair, a long time ago on a long-defunct pseudonymous blog (remember those?), where I was performing a primitive version of the kinds of digital doubling that are among the topics of Klein’s new book, Doppelganger, which wrestles with the many ways — literary, literal, intellectual, otherwise — that the contemporary world and modern technology create doubles, mirror images, and shadows of our selves.

When I made the mistake, Naomi Wolf, or “Other Naomi,” as Klein cannot help but refer to her, had not yet gone fully around the bend, and she still occupied a space on what we would now broadly call “the left.” So while her subjects and preoccupations were not entirely of a piece with Klein’s, the two Naomis nevertheless commented on a similar enough range of topics, in a sometimes-overlapping roster of publications, that it was easy enough, when dashing off a hasty post about some item in the news, to slip and mix them up. I can’t recall exactly what I was responding to or much else of what I said. But I do, to this day, remember the first sentence of the post: Naomi Klein has lost her mind.

I was of course talking about Naomi Wolf — a reader immediately pointed that out in the comments section, to my embarrassment and shame. The mistake is even more egregious in retrospect, now that Wolf has suggested that vaccinated people’s urine and feces need to be quarantined so as not to contaminate drinking water with, well, it is hard to say what, and that the vaccinated have furthermore been transformed into holograms or zombies, drained of their élan vital by some heretofore undiscovered occult property of mRNA technology.

But I think it is fair to say that Doppelganger is a book about how, in a sense, Naomi Klein has lost her mind. How the mind, the self, the soul, however you want to put it, is afflicted, inevitably these days, by a kind of slippage, even if one does not have an actual, uncanny, ludicrous double with the same name and same career with whom one is often confused. How digital life, how contemporary capitalism, how the political and economic derangements of the 21st century cleave us into pieces and make us a little crazy. How we can lose in some quite literal sense our minds, and what it might take to find and recover them.

But it is hard to escape a sense that Klein is too much the self-created product and brand that she effectively critiques to fully embrace the absurdity, to really enter what she calls the “Mirror World,” as not just a reporter, but as an inhabitant, embodying its reflections and refractions, in order to recreate it in all its wild strangeness on the page. Is Naomi Klein weird enough for the book that she has written?

The setup is absurd. One could make a great novel out of it, though some of the details would beggar belief in fiction, like the fact that both Naomis are married to men named Avram. For a long time, Klein more or less resigned herself to the existence of this odd double out in the world, this other writer with whom she was forever finding herself confused, but then it begins to occur to her that they are “not being confused, but conflated, treated as one interchangeable Naomi.” Through some combination of factors — the stasis and isolation of the pandemic; Wolf’s fraught public discrediting and wild descent into the far reaches of conspiracy and political alliance with the far right — she finds herself becoming obsessed. She mainlines former Trump consigliere Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, corrects strangers who mistake her for Wolf online, drives her own family more than a little mad with her maniac descents down the conspiracy rabbit hole to try to divine not only what Other Naomi says and believes, but why.

The result is often fascinating and, like much of Klein’s previous writing, not without neat coinages and pithy, memorable formulae, sometimes literally: “I could offer a kind of equation for leftists and liberals crossing over to the authoritarian right that goes something like: Narcissism(Grandiosity) + Social media addiction + Midlife crisis ÷ Public shaming = Right-wing meltdown. And there would be some truth to that bit of math.” This feels both exactly correct and a little on the nose, an (ironically!) tweetable insight that belies the more complicated social and psychological genealogy of the conspiracist doppelgänger.

Klein’s book suffers from the fact that there is already such an intense and compelling library of doppelgänger film and literature against which to compare. She cites much of it in her book: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Great Dictator, Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock. There have been novels like Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut and Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen or, more recently, variations on the themes of the digital double life by Patricia Lockwood (No One Is Talking About This) and Lauren Oyler (Fake Accounts). All of these works deal in remarkable and profound ways with the sheer uncanniness of finding oneself either to be a fake or to be surrounded by them, unable to quite parse where the border between reality and replication lies, if there is a border at all. And many of them give in to a degree of unknowability that Klein, a relentless explicator, is sometimes at a bit of a loss to evoke.

Because for Klein, the figure of the doppelgänger is not so much a phenomenon in itself that is a potent subject of investigation as it is an extended metaphoric scheme for reporting on a variety of other related and semi-related phenomena. This is what it means to say that Klein is perhaps a victim of her own brand. In The Shock Doctrine, for example, the harrowing story of psychological experimentation designed to torture a human mind into becoming a blank slate upon which a new personality could be built is proposed, with varying degrees of success, as a model for a wide-ranging story about socioeconomic dislocation and exploitation. Similarly, Doppelganger is ostensibly a book about what it is like to be mistaken for someone else, but Klein’s weird situation, to have a shared name and parallel career with her stand-in, is really a jumping-off point for musings on everything from machine-produced language to the sprawling anti-vaccination movement to the pervasive sense, among many on the less lunatic side of the conspiracy divide, that their loved ones have been body-snatched, their physical selves still present but their minds replaced with replicas full of impossibly paranoid beliefs.

Although much of it is compelling, it does suffer from a kind of airport-book schematism, a habit of fitting too many phenomena too neatly into its titular conceptual framework. It is, in fact, a habit of mind and a tic of writing that has quite a lot in common with the conspiratorial style that Doppelganger critiques: a tendency to view overlapping and interrelated trends and occurrences as being necessarily causative of one another, guided by a central hand, designed; a tendency likewise to ignore the old saw about how difficult it is to disentangle malevolence and stupidity (a major flaw in, for example, The Shock Doctrine’s attempt to explicate the launch and conduct of the American war in Iraq). There is a frustrating tendency toward Capitalized Concepts — the Mirror World, the Shadow Lands — that can feel overbroad and too finely drawn at the same time. Klein is not unaware of this irony: The book is very much about the difficulty, even the impossibility, of escaping from the public doubles that we ourselves deliberately create. But it is an interesting question: Was Naomi Klein in the end unable to escape from writing a Naomi Klein book?

That would be the real trick: to write a book that is a doppelgänger, an almost-but-not-quite version of its own model and its own template. That “millions of people have given themselves over to fantasy” is not, I suspect, a controversial statement to the average reader of a book by Klein, but it tips into real insight when she goes on: “The trickier thing, the uncanny thing, really, is that’s what they see when they look at us … on either side of the reflective glass, we are not having disagreements about differing interpretations of reality — we are having disagreements about who is in reality and who is in a simulation.” It is this surreal dream logic, Narcissus’s reflection staring back at him from the pool, that forms the most potent through-line of the book, an opportunity to become something truly different that it may not fully achieve, even if it does succeed in using this uncanniness to interesting rhetorical effect.

Here is a reviewer, after all, staring at a text by Naomi Klein and thinking, This sounds too much like a book by Naomi Klein. If Doppelganger has a single thesis, it may be that the way to understand the shadow worlds of conspiracy, of digital imitation, of the deep fake, is to abandon the idea of the fake altogether. These doubles, these others, are not a lie so much as they are bullshit: not deliberate and instrumental mistruth, but another truth.

On the other hand, Klein speculates that our duplicates represent, in a Freudian sense, “the vast potentialities that our lives hold,” and that they are stand-ins “for the roads not taken.” This suggests that the mirror is the wrong metaphor; that the fundamental quality of the duplicate is its porosity, the way the I and the other bleed back and forth, the way false conspiracies can so often be intimations of the often very real conspiracies that Klein has spent a career reporting on and exposing. It is also a missed opportunity to reflect on the way that the left, and Klein herself, can, in an often attractive manner, gather together the crimes and misdeeds of the American empire, of modern capitalism, of “the West,” into grand and overdetermined narratives that seek to explain how we got here, with all its damnable contingency, its combination of ingeniously cynical malefactors and glibly idiotic true believers, as if history were a coherent whole, as if it had a shape to it. Klein is perhaps too assured in her own identity, too self-possessed, to be truly unsettled by the presence of that other person in the mirror. It is one question that the book circles but does not answer, an absurdity that it intimates but never fully plumbs: We learn how irritating, unnerving, and frustrating it is to be mistaken for Other Naomi, but somehow it feels as if Doppelganger is unwilling, or unable, to dive right in and make us feel what it is like to become, even if by accident, someone else.

Is Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger Weird Enough?