by Leni Leanne Phillips
“How we slice the skin: Carefully, that’s a given.” So opens Mostly Dead Things, Kristen Arnett’s debut novel about Jessa-Lynn Morton, a grieving taxidermist living out a less-than-satisfying life with her dysfunctional extended family in Florida. I’m a sucker for a killer opening line, a killer opening scene, and I knew right away that I was in for something special. As the novel opens, we watch as narrator Jessa-Lynn Morton recalls her father teaching her taxidermy in his workshop. The scene is vivid and engaging. Right away, we begin to see what Jessa has been willing to do, ignore, and give up, all in an attempt to preserve or create the life she imagines for herself.
When Jessa’s father commits suicide in that same workshop, leaving a note addressed only to Jessa, she is forced to step up and take on the mess he leaves behind, both figuratively and literally. At the same time, she’s mourning her lifelong best friend Brynn, who ran off a year ago with a man she met online. Brynn was married to Jessa’s brother, Milo, at the time. She was also the only person Jessa was ever in love with. Milo’s heart is broken when Brynn leaves, to the point he’s become nearly useless, and Jessa’s mother seems to be having some sort of breakdown—since her husband’s suicide, she’s taken to creating art with the taxidermied animals, posing them in graphic sexual scenes on the front porch of the family home. Jessa seems to be the only sane person left in the family.
Arnett’s characters are vibrant, even in their despair. Jessa conjures a literary Jessica Jones, one of my favorite dark superheroes. Hardened by her past, Jessa likes beer and comfortable blue jeans, scorns dresses and shampoo. She drinks her way through the book, favoring tallboy cans of whatever happens to be on sale at Publix. Jessa is emotionally closed—she functions almost like an animal, separating emotion from sex, viewing romance as “stressful and kind of blood-soaked, a constant power struggle.” Her life is as messy as her apartment. In fact, she’s surrounded by mess—blood features prominently, and accounts of her work as a taxidermist and her modest efforts at hygiene and housekeeping provide visceral images of an ordinary life that is falling apart. Readers will love and sympathize with Jessa but will also have the urge to throw her into the shower, wash her sheets, and go around her apartment picking up empty beer cans.
Arnett weaves the present day with Jessa’s increasingly clear memories of the past. She masterfully juxtaposes mismatched things throughout the novel, eliciting both their similarities and their differences. Jessa attempts to piece her dismal life together in much the same way she pieces dead animals together from leftover scraps of bone and fur. Even Jessa’s family is pieced together from scraps—the mother and brother her father left behind, and Brynn’s two children.
In the midst of the family’s chaos, Jessa prides herself on being stoic and responsible, like her dad. She has a natural talent for taxidermy and follows in her dad’s footsteps, while Milo casts about unmoored. At the same time, Jessa ignores the things she doesn’t want to accept about her dad, like the fact that he left his family. The woman Jessa loves has also left behind a mess and a congregation of people whose lives she’s broken. Brynn is like something out of East of Eden, a selfish and sensual woman who takes whatever anyone is willing to give her and who Jessa found “beautiful, even when she was terrible.”
Throughout the novel, Jessa opts to live in the pain of the past. It’s something she’s comfortable with, and it seems preferable to risking the uncertainty of the future. But, as with those who live in nostalgia for an idealistic America that never truly existed, the past and the people Jessa long for never really existed. Jessa knows animals, their bodies, how to piece them together from scraps, how to pose them so that, in death, they appear contented, more powerful versions of what they were in life. She thinks she knows people, too, but human beings prove to be more than the sum of their body parts.
Arnett writes about a landscape and people she clearly knows and loves. She gives readers the gift of letting us see them too. Mostly Dead Things is insightful and is full of the beauty of the commonplace, even the ugly. The ending is hopeful, but not overly so. It doesn’t give away the realism that Arnett successfully worked so hard at crafting throughout the book, and it leaves room for the reader to imagine what comes next, which is something I always appreciate in a story.
Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at lenileanne.com.