Contemporary Literature

Mostly Dead Things

The cover of this book is so eye-catching! I’ve had it on my list for a while because of that, in a sort of backburner capacity, but I have to be honest and say I didn’t really know what it was about. Quite recently, Arnett published a second novel, With Teeth, that has been getting a fair amount of buzz and I figured maybe the time was ripe to finally pick this one up.

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

“We spent so much time looking for pieces of ourselves in other people that we never realized they were busy searching for the same things in us.”

Everything changes the morning that Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the workshop of her family’s taxidermy shop and finds her father, dead by suicide, at his work bench…with a letter addressed to her sitting next to him. Per his instructions, Jessa-Lynn steps up and takes over the failing shop, trying to keep both it, and her family, from drowning. But it’s tough, as her mother deals with her grief by creating increasingly more lewd art with the shop’s taxidermied animals, her brother (Milo) mourns the wife (Brynn) that left him (the wife that is also the only woman Jessa-Lynn has ever loved), Brynn’s children are left without consistent supervision, and Jessa-Lynn herself is falling into alcohol as a coping mechanism for the loss of the father she idolized, the woman she loved, and the general bottled up emotions and relationships she’s allowed to stagnate.

Whoa. This book was messy. Like, purposefully, authentically, messy. Every single character is handling their grief in a very imperfect, very real, way. And reading it was both uncomfortable and also a bit cathartic. That actually goes not just for the grief they’re experiencing, if I’m being honest. The story itself is told in a dual timeline way, unfolding both in the present (as things are falling apart), but also in the past, giving the reading the background on all the “origin stories” of these characters. So, we get to see how Jessa-Lynn and Brynn fall into a covert (but not as secret as they thought) physical relationship as high-schoolers, and the way that evolved to end in Brynn marrying Milo. We also watch how Jessa-Lynn and Milo’s father, following some very stereotypical gender-role expectations, shows clear disappointment in Milo’s lack of interest in taking up taxidermy, while leaning hard on Jessa-Lynn’s interest in it to help him, but never being fully willing to train her as a full apprentice. His control issues and gender-lines rolled over, too, into his decision to end his life, the responsibility he (unfairly) saddled Jess-Lynn with, and the unorthodox and uncomfortably (for the rest of the family) sexual way that his wife deals with mourning him. In general, this book dove head first into the uglier sides of interpersonal relationships, outside the “normal” and into some really unconventional, almost excruciating (for this reader at least), interactions. And yet, these characters are all just humans, doing their best with what they’ve been handed. In that way, Arnett provides some that literary magic that makes this super strange and pretty messed up set of lives and stories that are sort of lost in the cracks of life, into something worth reading about.

Other than the characters (because this is very much a character-development novel, as opposed to one with a heftier plot line), the one other major part of this novel that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, is the taxidermy piece. On its own, that would kind of be enough to add weirdness to any novel (in my opinion, anyways), but Arnett takes it one (or several) steps further.  This aspect of the novel was pretty dark and weird. The hyper-focus on the gritty aspects of bodies, blood and skin and bone and fur, was explicit and intense. And the juxtaposition of those taxidermy details with sapphic attraction, was reminiscent of The Pisces, in it’s strange and kind of off-putting, but also totally fascinating and philosophical, look at sex and sexuality. Honestly, I can’t decide whether I loved or was repulsed by it, so I feel like at the very least it’s a mark of good writing. And along these lines, in looking at the writing, it was just really well executed. The vibe of wistfulness and deep longing in the writing gave the book a sort of sepia-toned delivery, perfectly fit to the messiness (almost dirtiness) of the characters and their journeys that you somehow still felt for.

Overall, if I had to pick just a few words to describe this novel, I’d have to go with grotesque and unrequited. So basically, this book definitely won’t be for everyone. And I think it requires being in the right headspace to really appreciate it. But at the same time, it’s the type of book that, if you’re at all in the mood for, will hit the spot like nothing else could. And you’ll come out the side just as ready for new beginnings as these characters are. 

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