Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

One of the strangest and funniest and most surprising first novels I’ve ever read.

Karen Russell’s blurb on the cover of Mostly Dead Things

Dear Karen Russell,

I’m not sure who punched you in the kidney (causing you to pee blood) and then demanded you laugh, but somewhere on your life journey someone trained you to misdiagnose pain for humor. You may wish to seek help for this terrible affliction.

Sincerely,
Grab the Lapels

p.s. I didn’t even guffaw or chortle or crack a smile, Karen Russell. Not once.

Mostly Dead Things is a debut novel by Kristen Arnett. It opens with a fairly graphic scene in which a father walks his two children, Milo and Jessa, through how to taxidermy a deer. The language is cold, almost dangerous, and I felt oddly repulsed in just a few pages.

Moving on, Jessa is now in her thirties and a fierce loyalist to her father and his work. Milo is more sensitive and empathetic, so taxidermy never becomes his thing. But Jessa is right by her father’s side, gutting, cutting, and positioning animals. That is, until he shoots himself on the taxidermy work table, leaving a note and his body for Jessa to find. This obviously messes the family up, and his wife starts going into the taxidermy shop to re-position the display animals in pornographic ways.

Her artistic/therapeutic outpouring captures the attention of Lucinda, a local gallery owner who wants Jessa’s mom to put together a show after seeing a lovely stuffed goat getting its swerve on in the front window of the taxidermy shop. Why have I encountered another weird sexual book? That innocent flamingo on the cover lured me in.

Interspersed between Jessa drinking herself to death and hating her mom’s “art” that Jessa believes are an insult to her dead father’s life work and memory are flashbacks to Jessa and Brynn. Brynn was Jessa’s first love, a girl for whom Jessa would do anything. But Milo also fell for Brynn, and in conservative Florida, it’s safer for Brynn to marry and have children with Milo. So she does, breaking Jessa’s heart but also providing an opportunity for them to still be close and keep sleeping together behind Milo’s back. Brynn and Jessa really get each other. When Mostly Dead Things begins, Brynn had disappeared years ago, and Milo and Jessa are already messed up by their dream woman vanishing. Their father’s suicide compounds things.

Kristen Arnett writes in such a compelling way that I would look up and be surprised by how many pages I had read. Humid, putrid Florida is described beautifully, mixing with the human squalor that develops when no one cares. Jessa’s apartment is filthy — piled up trash, dirty bed linen, clothes covered with taxidermy chemicals and blood get thrown on like yesterday’s hoodie. Even their mother’s house, which needs clean, isn’t vaguely dirty; it’s detailed. The carpet has crumbs that tattle on whomever was supposed to vacuum months ago. Furniture no one wants to use ends up on the back porch instead of a dump.

Gallery owner Lucinda brings a brush with classiness to the family’s life. She has wine and good cooking skills. She dresses more like a Jackie O. than an abattoir employee. It’s hard not to compare her delicate dishes with Jessa’s mom’s store bought this and that, the processed and pre-packaged dishes that reveal their level of give-a-shit, or poverty — or both.

This is a novel about grief and what happens when you don’t verbally process it. It’s about routine, sadness, love, getting stuck, and silence. But it’s also about recognizing art in all forms: what you see in a gallery compared to domestic art like cross-stitching and sewing. I read this novel quickly, and if you don’t get bogged down in the routine of Jessa’s sadness and the poor ways she expresses it, you’ll see that there is forward motion worth reading. You’ll become completely immersed.

8 comments

  1. I won’t lie– I was expecting a fairly negative review based on how you introduced this post. But, I see you… enjoyed reading this? At minimum? It’s hard to quantify your opinion, honestly. Engaging writing. Weirdly sexual content. That’s what I got from this review.

    Would you recommend this novel to others?

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    • What I was trying to say about Karen Russell is that she must have read a different book than everyone else, because it’s not funny at all. If you go in thinking it’s going to be funny, you’ll be disappointed. I also know a lot of readers hated the graphic depictions of poverty and depression. However, altogether, I thought it was a compelling novel that I read very quickly and couldn’t put down.

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  2. Wow, great review! This one has been on my radar because I love weird books, but I must admit the taxidermy focus left me uncertain. I don’t usually mind gritty details but nothing about taxidermy appeals to me. And yet… what you say about grief and silence and art definitely does. I think I will give this one a try after all!

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    • I kept looking at what page I was on and being surprised that I was so far along. It’s easy to get lost in this book and just immerse yourself in the story. The taxidermy details are pretty realistic, and the first chapter is the most hard-hitting in terms of gruesome details, so it starts off hard core.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pages flying by is always a good sign! It’s good to know it starts right in with the gory bits, that way I should know early on then whether this is going to work for me. (Fingers crossed for yes!)

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        • Yes, this review sounds negative because I was trying to give people a head’s up on what might turn them off immediately. I think the novel starts deadly serious and then moves on. However, despite my warnings, I do recommend Mostly Dead Things. I look forward to your thoughts!

          Liked by 1 person

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