Reviews

‘Mostly Dead Things’ Brings Death to Life

A review of Kristen Arnett's new novel.

There is a flamingo on the cover of Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things. The flamingo’s neck is dramatically stooped, the bird’s beak at the level of its toenails. The posture looks uncomfortable, but the flamingo is probably dead, so can’t feel the pain anyway. 

Although we never meet a taxidermied flamingo in Mostly Dead Things, plenty of other animals are stuffed, manipulated, and trapped in permanent stasis throughout Arnett’s novel. The story is narrated by Jessa-Lynn Morton, a taxidermist who took over the family business after her father committed suicide on their work table. Throughout the story, Jessa also struggles in the wake of another loss: Brynn, the woman Jessa loves, has skipped town and left her (Brynn also happens to be the wife of Jessa’s brother. Needless to say, it’s complicated). 

Since a taxidermist tells the story within Mostly Dead Things, the muddied borders between life and death structure the novel. Jessa’s income — literally her ‘living’ — is funded by death, so she takes ‘life’ from death. But, in an abstract sense, she also gives life back to the dead. “My hands commanded the flesh, brought life back from the grip of death. I had that power in me,” Arnett writes. Jessa herself also straddles that blurred boundary between life and death: she appears slightly ‘dead’ to the reader, as if she’s vacantly going through the motions of living — most days end with her getting profoundly drunk and passing out in the apartment that she hasn’t cleaned in months. The novel’s title also speaks to Jessa’s hybrid state of living death. Breaking down the name of the book with Autostraddle, Arnett says, “I’m looking at it as mostly dead, not all dead, like there’s still something there, there’s still the beating heart in it.” Jessa’s “mostly dead-ness” is a byproduct of her bereavement. A lot of the book sifts through Jessa’s feelings of loss, and there are whole chapters told in flashback, uncovering memories of Brynn or of her father.

Jessa’s profession is intimately related to memory, which makes the novel’s flashbacks all the more effective. Taxidermy can be understood as the reconstitution of memory, or the preservation of how an animal was in life. Arnett herself has spoken about this in an interview with The New York Times: “A taxidermied animal is an animal someone hunted and killed, and the way they decide to pose them is a memory they’re creating,” she says. In other words, the taxidermist has the power to pose an animal however they like, and the new pose becomes the animal’s memorialized form. For instance, Jessa’s mother starts making erotic art with taxidermied animals after her husband’s suicide; in death, therefore, the animals look wildly different from how they looked in life. In darkly comic fashion, lube drips down animal fur and handcuffs are clamped around hoofs. The descriptions are intentionally funny. Humor and the grotesque saturate the novel, stewing the reader in a humid sense of fun — a feeling that anyone who has been to Florida can relate to.

Like her mother, Jessa also uses taxidermy as a method of memory reconstruction. After Jessa’s nephew kills three peacocks, she poses them to suit her sensibilities rather than reality. “I didn’t want them grim and anxious, or terrified like they’d been in the moment of their death,” Arnett writes. “I wanted them icy and regal. I wanted them beautiful.” When Jessa and her mother pose the dead animals in newly imagined ways, Arnett conveys a broader message about human nature. We like to reconstruct memories — erasing certain elements, emphasizing and romanticizing others. This strategy is representative of Arnett’s larger project: she discusses intense emotions and complicated themes through the venue of the quotidian. Taxidermy becomes a vehicle to illuminate a character’s psychology; the beer bottle with its molting label is an expression of self-obliteration; a pavement represents “a kind of local amnesia.”

The novel is also largely about control, especially trying to exert control when you feel powerless over what’s happening in your life. Naturally, Arnett connects this issue to Jessa’s relationship with taxidermy. The ability to mold and shape animals however you want is an expression of power, and Jessa is a self-confessed “control freak,” a quality she inherits from her father. This need for control even bleeds into her relationship with desire. “Every time I found a woman I was really interested in, I started thinking about her in terms of how I might disassemble her,” Jessa says. She can see a woman and “picture her mounted like a dead animal.” Presumably, this is a result of Jessa’s abandonment by Brynn. If she can imagine women taxidermied, they can’t leave her, as Brynn did. She can pretend, even for a short amount of time, that she has complete control over the women in her life. 

Jessa’s feeling of powerlessness extends beyond Brynn though. Jessa’s father left the business in debt, and her mother continues to create erotic art contrary to Jessa’s wishes. But, in spite of these realities, Jessa tries to appear collected to those around her. There’s a scene in the novel in which Jessa works on a raccoon that has been hit by a car. She uses a scalpel to open the animal’s belly. “It was the worst trauma I’d ever seen,” Arnett writes. “The raccoon’s entire system had been obliterated; but from the outside, it looked totally normal.” Obviously, the raccoon is a stand-in for Jessa.

Most of the novel is about Jessa dealing — or not dealing — with her own “obliterated system.” Predictably, therefore, the arc towards the close of Mostly Dead Things follows Jessa as she ‘comes back to life’ and attempts to move on from the past. The story’s resolution centers around a loosening: family members finally finding the words to have frank conversations about the secrets that they’ve kept for years, the ones that are fossilized and stiff, like taxidermied animals. These moments of atonement feel slightly out of place in a novel that has reveled in the messy, the sticky, and the complex. Unlike the rest of Mostly Dead Things, the ending washes the sheets, makes the bed, and smooths down the comforter before leaving the room. 

Even though there is something unrealistically clean or perfunctorily “Hollywood” about the close of the novel, it is summer, and summer is the season for the blockbuster, the season for the cliches that we all secretly delight in — and Arnett’s story is definitely something to delight in.

FICTION—REALIST
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Tin House Press
Published June 4, 2019

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