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Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She's a columnist for Literary Hub and her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.


“Mostly Dead Things is one of the strangest and funniest and most surprising first novels I’ve ever read. A love letter to Florida and to family, to half-lit swamps and the 7/11, and to the beasts that only pretend to hold their poses inside us. In Kristen Arnett’s expert hands, taxidermy becomes a language to capture our species’ impossible and contradictory desire to be held and to be free.”

– Karen Russell, author of SWAMPLANDIA!

“If Heather Lewis and Joy Williams had a child it might be this―I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel like it. There’s a gunslinger cool to every sentence, like someone is telling you the last story they’ll ever tell you. Kristen Arnett is the queen of the Florida no one has ever told you about, and on every page she brings it to a steely and vivid life.”


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Mostly Dead Things

I Appear To Be Having a Human Emotion: A Review of Kristen Arnett's Mostly Dead Things


I’m not a crier. Not at all. It’s a matter of principle. And self-control. I’ve been accused of being emotionally constipated on more than one occasion; it’s usually my mother leveling those accusations. Cries have to sneak up on me from behind and surprise me, conking me over the head. And so when I reached the final act of Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, at the scene where our protagonist, Jessa, breaks in to her childhood home to care for her grieving and traumatized mother—bathing her, holding her, literally picking her up off of the floor—I was startled to note that tears had begun dripping off the tip of my nose and onto the page. The book had enticed me with it’s strangeness and it’s hilarity, but had come round behind and made me feel things. Sneaky.

I began by laughing and delighting in the weird, breathtakingly specific world created by the taxidermy shop, the run-down and odd Central Florida town, and the Morton family home. In the middle part of the novel my emotions morphed into a prurient, morbid fascination at the slow-motion disaster underway amongst this cast of characters. And by the end I was aching for everyone in the story. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a story in which grief and childhood and how we are loved and damaged by our loved ones are more devastatingly examined. I certainly can’t think of one. It got me right in my soft, meaty bits.

Everyone is awful and wonderful: so human that the book aches with it. At one point Jessa’s mother remarks that: “It’s hard to talk about the ugly parts. How we can be that terrible and still worthy of love.” This feels right. This feels like so much of the point. Everyone is fucked up but everyone is trying so hard. And there’s a real beauty and tenderness in that trying.

There’s also a very specific kind of beauty in the unvarnished realness with this the place of the novel is rendered. It’s so specific and so evocative. I can smell the beer, the unwashed hair, the fried chicken, the roadkill. I can feel the heavy, Florida heat and hear the crickets. The Morton house is like every house I spent any measure of time in as a child. I admit I have no prior context for gators, but the writing is sure enough that I don’t need one to see and smell and hear it all. Nothing in this world is gleaming and moneyed and perfect—nothing is heightened to the unreality of wishful thinking you often find in fiction—it is lime buildup on the shower heads, and crumbs rubbed in to old carpets, and water drunk hot and chemical tasting from a hose. Wash cloths are faded. Clothes are dirty. Bodies have stretch marks and fat and skin tags and blackheads and odors.

On the surface Mostly Dead Things is a story in two tracks. One: a family headed by Jessa—an emotionally unavailable Floridian taxidermist and frustrated lesbian who inherited the family business—dealing with the aftermath and grief of the father’s suicide, the grieving mother’s madcap, sexed taxidermy art, and the abandonment by Brynn—Jessa’s sister in law and also the only woman she, or her brother, have ever really loved. Two: the story of how the family got to that point.

Mostly Dead Things brings the dead things early. “How we slice the skin:” is how the novel opens, and what follows with a detailed description of how one might prep a dead animal carcass for preserving and taxidermy. And the “dead things” in the novel do start as the animals in the family taxidermy shop being worked over by Jessa and her dad, and even at times her brother and her niece and nephew and mother. And the detail with which the act of taxidermy is described is right on the money—trust me, I’m an (amateur) taxidermist. But soon the dead things are the grieving family, their intimacy and love (“Our intimacy was an uprooted plant, shriveled and withered.”), Jessa herself (“Nostalgia carved out my insides, padding my bones until my limbs stuck, splayed. Frozen in time, refusing to live.”), and those lost to them.

And still this novel about loss and pain and actual dead things ends on a hopeful note. A pretty odd one, involving two siblings giving a trio of taxidermied peacocks a beer-soaked “Viking funeral” at the gator-infested lake in the local park, but a hopeful one. Or maybe a human one. And damnit it made me cry (just a tiny bit) again.

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett is out with Tin House Books in June of this year (2019). I promise: it will surprise you.

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