For all the ink shed—in reviews, interviews, and criticism—about the trials and tribulations of navigating the literary world on the level of the individual novel, comparatively little space is provided to career-wide discussions. While this is understandable given the enormous challenge that writing and publishing just one book presents to the writer (not to mention every reader’s endlessly distended To Be Read pile preventing a great number of oeuvres from being consumed entirely), there are illuminating angles that can be seen with a broader lens. Perhaps the hardest thing for an author to manage is evolving book-to-book, pushing themselves to move in fresh directions, be it via form, content, or style, to jolt free of whatever comfortable avenue with which they’d begun. In this light, Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth is among the more satisfying and accomplished books of the past year.
Her third book and second novel, With Teeth follows Arnett’s collection of stories about familial dramas and personal conflicts, Felt In The Jaw, and her successful debut novel, Mostly Dead Things. Arnett signals her writerly evolution from the first lines of this new work. Allowing no spare moment for the reader to acclimate themselves, the taut, confident opening chapter of With Teeth immediately establishes the punctuated tension and merciless urgency that the earlier effort sometimes lacked. For all the accomplishments of the latter—a first-person account of an adult daughter trying to hold herself and her family together in the aftermath of her troubled, taxidermist father’s sudden suicide—Arnett now pushes in a new direction and ends up with a follow-up novel of greater skill, ambition, and poignancy than the first.
A novel told in serial episodes, bouncing from scene to scene at high speed, this sophomore offering again tracks the challenges of a Floridian family’s inner and intertwined lives, but there the similarities to her debut largely end. With Teeth follows two women—our stressed, occasionally neurotic protagonist, Sammi, and her workaholic wife Monika—as they raise their young son, Samson. The book is divided into scene-based chapters which themselves are grouped into sections named for the seasons (although not, as one may think, within the same year), and begins, fittingly for both writer and theme, with the damp and close Orlando winter. It is a structure that allows Arnett to move with the requisite rapidity for a plot that investigates long-term changes and pressures. And while the focus is on the happenings and concerns of her family, the heartbeat of the novel is Sammi’s inner life and personal conflicts. In a manner more fully realized than in her first effort, here Arnett crafts a protagonist that the reader comes to feel for despite her clear flaws.
Arnett takes full advantage of the third person, moving her narrative entity around to highlight Sammi’s inner struggles, anxieties, and the uncomfortable standoff she falls into with Samson, in a manner that would be impossible for her to narrate herself. For all the wisdom of the point-of-view decision on the macro level, at the micro Arnett’s mechanics and structure do, at spots, belie a lack of total comfort in the form. This is especially felt in the occasional italicized passages, à la A Death In The Family, which feel more bizarre artifice than organic matter; an attempt, it seems, to vary the tonal register and form a winking pact between narration and reader, but one that is rather too self-aware to reimburse Arnett the heavy price paid in narrative disruption. However, that outlier notwithstanding, the point of view on balance lends the book numerous opportunities for rich, dynamic scenes.
The completely unexpected, nearly absurd, wonderfully strange passage that serves as inspiration for the title is indicative of With Teeth’s refreshing interest in the art of the scene. At times, Arnett would be better served staying a while longer in a given moment, most notably in an early, hazy scene after Sammi meets a fellow mother at swim practice, where her thought process and decision making could have been explored and rendered more fully. Overall, however, the book moves so quickly in leaping, lingering, then leaping once more, that the reader is constantly engaged and excited to read ahead.
As the book progresses, it is the strangeness, the off-white coloring in which Arnett paints, that provides the momentum. Readerly interest is sustained early by the complications of Sammi’s past—rather effectively given out in flat affect, in asides buried within scenes and rendered conspiratorially, as if the audience already knows all —the widening gap between her and Monika, and the increasingly odd behavior of Samson, whose place on the borderline between unruly preteen and truly disturbed child is constantly challenging to locate. Like a drumline steadily swelling from solid baseline to crashing crescendo, these tensions grow in importance as the book moves ahead, keeping the reader invested as the fictive world grows ever more the odd.
Where in Mostly Dead Things the slight absurdity was a product of authorial imposition, coming from the physical work done by the characters, here it is organic, stemming from the very universe in which the entire story takes place. By switching her focus—and her point of view—from external events to internal consequences, Arnett fashions a narrative where her penchant for the unusual and the unsettling not only fit more naturally but lend a hand in crafting the genetic makeup of the novel itself.
The best moments of With Teeth are when Arnett fully settles into a slice of Sammi’s life and mind, letting rich prose seamlessly guide the narrative from physical description to inner thoughts. In a novel that often embodies in form the hectic interpersonal dynamics of the twenty-first century American family that it takes as content, even brief moments of reprise stand as key landmarks. By taking a second to breathe, we are able to keep pace with so wide-ranging a plot, to stay invested in the characters and outcome. A choice example comes at the end of the second section, “Spring”, in a quick chapter that lays out wonderfully the heightened tensions and developed storylines by this point, a hundred pages in. Tracking the sun’s movement across the living room floor in the quiet of the morning, we see both the ostensibly picturesque life Sammi and Monika have created as well as, simultaneously, the problems that threaten it as they are turned over in our protagonist’s mind. A few minutes of tea and reflection before Samson awakes and comes storming down the stairs, it is indicative of both the book itself and the tale it tells, slivers of calm between rages of storm, one that shows a writer at her best. Here, in her much anticipated second novel, Kristen Arnett has managed to wrangle the wilds of love, family, and motherhood to tell an engaging, voluminous story in bright, lucid prose.
by Kristen Arnett
Published on June 1, 2021
D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he serves as Founding Editor of L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in 3:AM, The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several others. Before returning to Chicago, he lived in Long Beach, California, for nine years.