Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett (Tin House Books, 2019)
Reviewed by Emily Nelson
Florida has a pretty brutal reputation. Between the ghastly riches of the Florida Man meme to Marco Rubio, there’s definitely more than a few reasons that a decent portion of the U.S. sees it as the embarrassing Drunk Uncle of the states. But if Kristen Arnett has anything to say about it, Florida is on the come up — at least, as far as literature is concerned. Her debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, is as much a love letter to her state of residence as it is a darkly sweet story of grief and growth in a family of taxidermists. Arnett, a darling of Literary Twitter for her dispatches on working as a librarian and her dedication to convenience stores (her Twitter bio declares her a “7-Eleven Scholar”), creates in Mostly Dead Things a universe conjured from swamp magic and sweat, something gritty and wild and aggressively real that makes it instantly unforgettable.
Mostly Dead Things tells the story of Jessa-Lynn Morton, the daughter in a family of Florida taxidermists. One morning, Jessa arrives at the shop to find her father dead of a self-inflicted gunshot, leaving behind only a note imploring her to take care of the family business. Throwing herself into a business that has increasingly become a pit stop for tourists and no one else, Jessa tries to keep her dissolving family together — her mother, unreachable in grief, has started repurposing taxidermy for her own lewd art projects, and her brother Milo’s wife, Brynn (who also happens to be the only woman Jessa has ever loved), has left them both without explanation. Against this backdrop of family dysfunction is the arrival of a mysterious and alluring art dealer, whose presence in Jessa’s life causes her to reassess her past relationship with Brynn and her tumultuous, inhibited relationship with her family. Jessa has been buoyed by a longstanding idolization of her father, and after his death is now wrought with a sense of responsibility and guilt that have somehow kept her afloat. In his absence, along with the absence of her first love, Brynn, Jessa’s attempts for normalcy and clarity grow increasingly desperate, leading her down unorthodox paths towards financial and romantic stability.
On the surface, Mostly Dead Things has all the makings of a particularly offbeat family dramedy that, if it was a film, would certainly win an Audience Award at Sundance, but beneath the offbeat and gorgeously wrought premise lies a heart that beats with anger and confusion. Don’t let the splashy font and the sunny pink flamingo on the cover mislead you – Mostly Dead Things is a brutal and bittersweet examination of family and belonging. Jessa as a character is often infuriating but always sympathetic, and the reader will ache for her as she comes to terms with the true nature of those around her. Her story is interspersed with flashbacks, titled with the Latin names of animals Jessa and her father have taxidermied, that reveal the blossoming and splintering of Jessa’s young relationship with Brynn, her ongoing competition with her brother -both for Brynn’s affections and their father’s – and the ebbing tide of family that held her together through unending Florida summers.
Arnett has a biting sense of place that is constantly palpable; the steaming Florida air seems to seep off the page. This is a novel finely attuned to blood and guts, both literally and figuratively; as you might expect from a story rooted in taxidermy, there’s more than a few descriptions of the art of dissecting and reassembling animal corpses. But the true grit and gristle of Arnett’s story comes from the human characters, both dead and alive – people trying to make sense of the senseless, attempting to find their place and their people on shifting sands. Jessa’s earnest attempt to keep her family together while also staying true to her convictions and her belief in the family business is equally flinty and heartfelt, so darkly humorous at times it’s unclear whether or not we should laugh.
Like Karen Russell in her Florida epic Swamplandia!, Kristen Arnett sees in Florida a fantasia of unspeakable beauty and terrible grief; it is a place where people go to die, but where so many also continue to live and love and drink beer outside 7-Eleven. Arnett writes with the precision with which her characters slice open animal corpses, meditating on the bits and pieces that connect them both and bringing the reader under her seductive rhetorical spell in the process. Mostly Dead Things is the meeting of the tragic and the absurd at its best, providing the reader with something akin to hope. If you put any new release on your early summer reading list, let this novel be the one.