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Raising the dead: Kristen Arnett’s debut novel is a deft rendering of familial loss

Raising the dead: Kristen Arnett’s debut novel is a deft rendering of familial loss

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Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things reveals itself like a latent photograph, or perhaps more like a dissection, the insides of a living thing coming to light with each incision, each page turned. It’s fitting for a book that follows a family of taxidermists (appropriately named Morton): protagonist Jessa-Lynn, her brother Milo, their mother, niece and nephew, in the wake of their father’s suicide and the abandonment by Milo’s wife and Jessa’s lover, Brynn.

Using taxidermy as an entry point to explore grief, love, sex and memory, the New York Times bestseller and Arnett’s debut novel is a look at how death tests, molds and transforms family and self.

Readers meet protagonist Jessa at age 10, she and her brother Milo standing in rapt attention in the work area of Morton’s Taxidermy (& More), a space that will define Jessa’s adulthood as much as it did her young life. Milo and Jessa’s father demonstrates the line a knife should take when slicing into a deer. The buck laying in front of them is the prize game of a customer who brought it in to be stuffed and mounted—one of many. Their dad lets Jessa take over after Milo vomits.

“It felt right; it felt like I’d been doing it forever. I could see the exact place I would set the blade and strip the animal, knew how we’d replicate the skeleton with trusses and padding ruffed forms,” Arnett writes. “Inserting the top of the blade into the opening, I pulled forward carefully. I let myself love the buck on the table. I caressed its soft sweet body.”  

Arnett writes Jessa as a provider, strong and brooding, a queer woman full of turmoil and a natural at the family trade, unlike her brother Milo whose weak, emotional and “feminine” tendencies their father has no patience for. We learn that she has always been their dad’s favorite—hers the only name mentioned in his suicide note, which she finds next to his body, slumped over a metal table in the Morton’s workshop.

Set in the “juicy green,” “tactile” abundance of central Florida, Mostly Dead Things succeeds in metaphor. Jessa has never left Florida, a stagnant existence reflected in the thick humidity and cloud cover the novel so often describes.

“What it’s like to physically experience place so naturally finds its way into Florida narratives,” Arnett says.  “I think it naturally filtered its way into the text. There is this element of claustrophobia. [Jessa] puts herself into these positions and has to stay there. Weather or landscape, setting, can naturally reflect the moods of characters.”

Taxidermy too is deeply symbolic as Jessa constantly accesses memories of Brynn, forever frozen in her mind like an animal stuffed.

Arnett even links taxidermy with sex. While Jessa sits inert in her memories of her father and Brynn, numbing herself with alcohol and work, her mother Libby seeks to process and move forward, doing so by posing stuffed boars and goats, squirrels and flamingos engaged in sexual acts. She festoons her creations with leather harnesses and sequins, dildos and lubricant, an exploration of her husband’s repression and prudishness, she says, to her children’s intense discomfort.

“Writing this book, everything started to look like taxidermy,” Arnett says. “Intimacy is taxidermy, relationships are taxidermy. It’s the framework for this book but also the lived lives in it.”

Libby is invited to display her pieces in a local gallery, owned by Lucinda Rex, the object of Jessa’s desire and her opposite in many ways. At several junctures Jessa finds herself imagining what it would be like to slice open Lucinda’s sinewy forearms or strong legs.

“It was something I was thinking more and more about, because truly thinking about [taxidermy] as intimacy, I started thinking about it as nostalgia or memory or the idea of things and how we want them to be or posed or remembered,” Arnett says. “This book is very bodied too. In it, bodies expel things, they ingest things, they’re used for sex, growing children and at the opposite end of that there’s these animals that are being touched and posed. Taxidermy is the only stable thing in Jessa’s life, the only hobby, and it is very bodied too. It’s a thing that passion goes into, a thing that involves [Jessa’s] hands, it goes right up against physical or intimate relationships she has with other women.”

Mostly Dead Things began as a short story about a brother and sister preparing to render a goat, but quickly morphed into something much larger, Arnett says. Arnett, who had little previous experience with the trade, began researching, hovering over books, taxidermy messaging boards and comment feeds. The final product is 350 pages of swirling pain, relationships, growth and a larger dive into the intricacies of family dynamics.

The Morton family is reeling, parched from what feels like endless grief. And yet, Arnett shows us the ways in which they slowly begin to dig themselves out of the wet, mucky, Florida dirt, their eyes opening to beauty and future. All the while alligator jaws, perfectly rendered peacocks in a row, baby kittens posed to look as if they are sleeping remain the constant, watching as the family pick themselves up and dust themselves off.

Bestselling authors Kristen Arnett and Jami Attenberg (All This Could Be Yours) will read at Bright Side Bookshop, 18 N. San Francisco St., on Thursday, March 12, at 5:30 p.m. Attenberg has written about food, travel, books, relationships and urban life for The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Longreads and others. Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She was awarded Ninth Letter's Literary Award in Fiction and is a columnist for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, North American Review, McSweeneys, The Guardian and more. For more information on the authors or the event, visit www.facebook.com/events/2380816728875582/

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