“I often wondered why we couldn’t talk about the present, why the past held all the promise while the future sat before us like stagnant water.”
(CW: suicide, light spoilers)
Kristen Arnett is one of my favorite people to follow in the internet. Though Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019) is her debut novel, she’s nothing if not prolific. Her debut short story collection, Felt in the Jaw, won the 2017 Coil Book Award, but beyond that, she’s got fiction and nonfiction pinging around the literary web (I’m partial to her LitHub column, and very much enjoy her Twitter and Instagram). Her recent story Minding, published in No Tokens (founded and edited by another literary queero, T Kira Madden), is the latest in a rich Arnett canon that I hungrily consume.
All this is to say, Arnett is no stranger to craft and style, and it shows in this novel. Mostly Dead Things is a really good example of how wonderfully weird and compelling and gay a story can be even when it’s built on the scaffolding of a traditional structure and clear metaphor. Structure-wise, there’s nothing very surprising here – there are straightforward plot and character arcs – but the details that fill out the story are so wild and really had me hooked. It goes to show that a writer doesn’t need to invent a new story structure to create a completely gripping and strange and beautiful work of writing. Also, did I mention this book is really queer?
The story centers on Jessa-Lynn, who grew up with a taxidermist father, a brother one year her junior named Milo, and their mother in Florida. From the time she was a child, Jessa-Lynn took to taxidermy and was basically her father’s apprentice. The craft of stuffing and reanimating dead things was the base on which they build their relationship. When she’s a young woman, her father commits suicide, and the family unravels as each member tries to deal with grief and repressed trauma.
Told in alternating chapters that take place in the past and the present, Arnett weaves the story of Jessa-Lynn and her greatest love since childhood, Brynn. The story of Jessa-Lynn, Brynn, and Milo, who live their adolescence and young adulthood in a unique kind of love triangle, unspools in tandem with the revelation of family secrets. In the present-day storyline, Brynn is gone, leaving her 20-something son from another relationship and the teenage daughter she had with Milo behind. After the suicide, Milo withdraws even farther into himself. Jessa-Lynn’s mother becomes unrecognizable to her. But to the reader, she’s actually the most resilient and emotionally strong character, despite her outwardly wacky methods of dealing with grief and anger in the wake not only of her husband’s suicide but of their entire marriage. Meanwhile, Jessa-Lynn is heartbroken every which way and falls into deep depression.
The writing is easy to read, but the descriptions are both comical and totally beautiful; the sense of place and the character development are very well done. Something about Florida just makes for the weirdest stories, and this isn’t the first entry in the ‘Florida-inspired zaniness’ canon, but it is incredibly enjoyable. There are moments of true tenderness in the carnival of the strange – queer tenderness, mother-daughter tenderness, sibling tenderness – and it never feels like the story gets away from itself. If you *really* can’t handle dead animals, you might struggle, because dead animals are a pretty crucial aspect of the book, in case it wasn’t clear from the title 😉 But if you’re just dubious about it, I still highly recommend this read; there’s almost no cruelty.
This story is about messiness (both figurative and literal) art, sex, sexual art, grief, death, and love. It’s funny and dark and gross and full of light. I definitely recommend it to anyone who finds those descriptors at least a little intriguing.
Thank you Tin House for the ARC! I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.
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