Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett. (Tin House Books)
I became aware of Kristen Arnett right after her collection of stories, Felt in the Jaw, came out from Split Lip Press. I followed her on Twitter and began reading the flash fiction pieces she’d put out. These were raw and emotional stories that quickly made emotional connections. The vivid imagery she wove into the stories ushered me further into her writing. I was hooked. When I saw she had a novel coming out, I was excited because of what she was able to do in a thousand words and couldn’t begin to imagine what she was going to do with tens of thousands.
Mostly Dead Things is centered on different degrees of grief in the Morton family. The characters are dealing with losses from different vantage points. The main character, Jessa, has taken over the family taxidermy business after her dad committed suicide. The love of her life, Brynn—who also happens to be her brother’s ex-wife—left them all years prior, and no one, not Jessa, her brother, or the kids, has come to terms with this abandonment. Jessa’s mom has thrown herself into creating avant-garde sculptures by mutilating, dismembering, and posing animals from the family shop into lewd positions.
The book is told from Jessa’s perspective, so we feel the majority of the grief from her. She was also the closest family member to her dad, it was her best friend and lover who left, and she can’t seem to come to terms with her mom’s new stake in life, making her the point where all the modes of grief intercept.
Arnett gives us lesbian characters who are fully formed and don’t rely on their sexual orientation to define them. It was nice to see Jessa as she wrestled with the problems in her life but being a lesbian wasn’t one of them. The romantic relationships in her life were like any other, and if it wasn’t for the love triangle with her brother, her attractions would be a non-issue. And having a story set at a taxidermy shop is something I hadn’t seen before. The parallels between an emotionally closed-off character and the dead animals she’s meant to make look alive are wonderful.
The parallels between an emotionally closed-off character and the dead animals she’s meant to make look alive are wonderful.
This is an insightful book with a lot of emotions whirling around, but Arnett is able to overlap them and have them work off one another in a satisfying way that deepens Jessa and the crisis she is unable to admit is currently happening in her personal and professional life.
One thing that I had trouble with is the fact that Jessa’s emotionally unavailable. She talks about how the people closest to her in life have withdrawn themselves, and while I don’t doubt there is truth to that, I also can’t see any evidence of it because Jessa is so closed off and unwilling to open up.
As the reader, we’re expected to read the physical clues and decide whether these motivations are true to who the characters are, but it can be difficult to see through the filter of Jessa. In her malaise, we’re not sure if the people around her are acting in accordance to their true core, and the moment I started thinking about this was the moment I could see the writing on the page and the fourth wall broke down a little. It became troublesome when certain progressions were made in the plot. There were moments when I wasn’t sure if their actions were authentic to who the characters were, or if certain situations came to fruition simply because they needed to push the story forward.
There is enough compelling character work in Mostly Dead Things to enjoy it. Kristen Arnett has given us a sympathetic main character. Even when we think she is being an asshole to the people who love her, we can relate because we’ve all been there in our own moments of trauma. She is doing her best to preserve the memory and honor of her dad, and as she learns more about herself, her family, and her past, she comes to terms with differing perspectives; and we are able to meet her there at that destination.