If you’ve ever thought hard about taxidermy — and fiction writer Kristen Arnett has — you might come to the startling conclusion that it’s largely similar to having a gay crush on an unattainable woman.
Taxidermy and the art of freezing your life in moments as a way to compartmentalize the shit it keeps shoveling at you are at the heart of Arnett’s upcoming novel, Mostly Dead Things, which is available for preorder now and will be released by Tin House Books in June.
It’s a book written from the heart of someone who loves where they live, even when it’s inconvenient or cruel. Arnett hails from Florida, a swampy place that takes a lot of shit for the weird stuff that seems to constantly happen there. ‘Mostly Dead Things’ gives us a feel for Arnett’s Florida, wild and humid and full of life, especially the onerous kind. It’s a place of possibility, and with Arnett’s style and imagination, I hope we get to learn more about this Florida for many books to come.
Of course, fans of Arnett’s existing writing — whether it’s from her first collection of short stories, Felt in the Jaw, or her hilarious and illuminating columns for Ploughshares about being a librarian — will feel right at home with her storytelling in this novel. It’s dark and deeply queer and horribly funny, aspects Arnett masterfully juxtaposes to show they aren’t mutually exclusive. And I’d suspect for most readers who aren’t cis or straight, it’s not unlike seeing your innards displayed on a marble countertop, the secrets of your life writ large and writ well.
The story centers on Jessa-Lynn Morton, who takes over her family’s taxidermy business after her dad kills himself inside it. Her mom goes off the deep end of grief and is unreliable, and her brother struggles to function. Her brother’s wife, Brynn, walks out without a word — and also just happens to be the only person with whom Jessa-Lynn’s ever been in love.
It’s the kind of book that sneaks up on you, the kind you read until you realize you have to pee or that the light has left the room. Her writing is accessible and feels like reading a thought from your own brain you weren’t aware of thinking, tapping into experiences of adulthood and gayness and longing that you might think you were the only one to have.
Like our memories, the book bounces between current and past. We meet Jessa-Lynn as an adult dealing with the fallout from her father’s suicide but we learn about her as a child and then a teenager, all of these experiences culminating in her process of self-discovery.
“I was thinking a lot about what it means to be a person who’s trying so hard to control everything or trying so hard to make things be a kind of way that you’re not even willing to let what someone else wants factor into it.”
This process isn’t linear, so it works well with storytelling that seamlessly bobs back and forth. The way Arnett writes about self-discovery accounts for bad decisions or shortcomings the same way it tallies anything good or successful. It’s just part of it.
At one point, we see Jessa-Lynn remembering some of the bad things the girl she loves had done as a teenager, and then we see her remembering how she still wrote their names together on her sneaker before using the marker to cover it all up. Then she kissed the names under the marker blob. My teen heart felt that scene in all four chambers.
Essentially, Mostly Dead Things is the story of what happens to a young woman when her life is torn open and reset in a different pose, and how she deals with herself — and her queerness — as a part of that confusion soup. In the momentary chaos after a building catches fire, for example, Jessa-Lynn is talking to her adult brother, Milo, and suddenly realizes she doesn’t know him. This turns into a bigger realization about herself, but also how we place expectations on others to which we ourselves are not adhering.
“I stared at Milo and understood I was looking at a stranger. This was a person I’d allowed to grow apart from me, one I’d never tried to understand out of the context of our relationship as children. I’d expected my family to understand me as an adult but somehow thought they’d always stay the same — a family encased in the skin I’d stretched over them, ill-fitting and irregular.”
Arnett’s journey with Jessa-Lynn and taxidermy started while at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where she penned a short story about siblings who totally botch the taxidermy on a goat for their neighbor. It was the first time she felt like she’d met characters she wanted to know more about.
“I was thinking a lot about what it means to be a person who’s trying so hard to control everything or trying so hard to make things be a kind of way that you’re not even willing to let what someone else wants factor into it,” she told me from her back porch in Orlando, where she sat sipping wine.
“It felt natural to do, to examine this kind of interest in the body. I’m very interested in the body and the physicality of things, but also how we repurpose things or try and pose them and make them into a way to suit particular memories.”
Arnett’s short stories have garnered attention and awards within the literary world. Felt in the Jaw, published by Split Lip Press, was awarded the 2017 Coil Book Award, and her bylines appear at Literary Hub, PBS Newshour, Volume 1 Brooklyn, OSU’s The Journal, Catapult, Bennington Review, Portland Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and many more.
Notably, Arnett is also popular for her love of her local 7-Eleven in Orlando, where she held her launch party for Felt in the Jaw and likes to keep Twitter updated about her close relationships with the cashiers there.
Taxidermy is the art of freezing a natural moment in time, as authored not by nature but by human beings. Essentially, people who taxidermy animals want a physical reminder of a time and place and feeling, and they want that reminder to stay locked in place.
Loving someone unattainable is just doing this to yourself, and stuffing a messy emotion into a clean frame can keep you safer from it. It’s about the myth of being able to control what hurts you.
“It’s a discussion that has to happen and it’s never going to stop… It’s continuously talking to yourself like, ‘Bitch, no, that’s not how any of this works.'”
“It’s about not wanting to deviate from that perfect thing in your mind, or the idea where you feel if you’re in a specific situation that it doesn’t feel acceptable, trying to compartmentalize or making it into this kind of thing so you can process it,” Arnett said.
Keeping that initial thrill of love in amber keeps you safe from it not working out.
“There’s something that’s so precious about that, that kind of first feeling. As a young queer woman that’s how I felt, I felt like I could break it if I pressed too hard. Trying not to destroy it but also wanting to keep it, and a willingness to do anything to maintain it,” Arnett said.
In the book, Brynn’s sudden departure leaves the whole family shaken, but for Jessa-Lynn, it’s just another part of her life left in a snowglobe of memory and potential. Encasing the past is also a place to get stuck, and Jessa-Lynn knows it because she’s been there before. She thinks about the dullness and sameness of life after Brynn, but also how she can’t leave it, just as she was trapped loving someone who didn’t love her back.
“[N]othing in my life ever felt like it was moving fast enough, but at the same time I couldn’t stand to leave the one place Brynn had left me. The last place we’d loved each other.”
This idea of not being able to leave a place because of we’re too attached to the ghosts haunting it shows up across the book, all over Arnett’s Florida, within nearly all of the characters.
Arnett told me these are conversations Jessa-Lynn has to have with herself to come to terms with her attempts to control her life, especially if they’re not necessarily a conscious maneuver. Understanding one’s own behavior in a realistic way isn’t always comfortable, but it’s key if one ever wants to be able to take other people’s perspective and feelings into consideration.
“It’s a discussion that has to happen and it’s never going to stop,” Arnett said. “It’s continuously talking to yourself like, ‘Bitch, no, that’s not how any of this works.'”
Otherwise, “Mostly Dead Things” plays with the idea of home and how we build it and who counts as family, which are all inherently queer ideas anyway. Jessa-Lynn falls in love with Brynn, and Brynn becomes as important as family to her, and then Brynn becomes family through marriage to Milo. It’s messy, but then again, so are families, so are bodies, so are hearts.
As for the title, which could be read as things that are mostly dead or usually dead things, Arnett said it refers to “things that are almost dead but aren’t.” It’s a nod to the taxidermy, sure, but it’s also a perspective on the human heart and how it perseveres, even in the most hostile environments. Arnett uses this to look at the literal hostile environment Florida can pose, but also families, love, and the people we choose to trust.
All of them can harm us, but as long as there is a little life left in our hearts, there’s hope.
“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,” she said. “Just because something is a little dead doesn’t mean it’s all the way gone.”
Mostly Dead Things will be published June 4. Click here to preorder the book.