Living with Mostly Dead Things
TW: Although I won’t get into it in detail here, the novel reviewed herein contains repeated descriptions of death by suicide, and death of animals, in some cases violent.
Family plot-driven novels are not a new invention, but as the words kind of go (if you’ll forgive my butchering) “each is unhappy in its own way.” Kristen Arnett creates a very uniquely unhappy family in her upcoming debut, Mostly Dead Things, a tale that surrounds the lives of an antagonistic yet close knit family after the suicide of their controlling patriarch. Told from the perspective of Jessa, the daughter and family career legacy, it focuses mainly on her grief and confusion, but doesn’t spare her brother, mother, and even niece and nephew from their own troubles.
Living in a carefree Florida town, the Morton family has lived the same life for generations, preserving animals in a boutique taxidermy shop and not doing much else. That their lives revolve around this medium has its own effect on each nuclear family member in interesting ways, acting as a thread that keeps them together, but also (to drive home the metaphor) a dull bone saw that shreds them apart. No effect is most evident than that on the father, a man so obsessed with preserving strength and appearance that he chose to die before his body could betray him and give up both. In a dark moment, Jessa even wonders if he has committed the act in their shared work space so that she may actually preserve him in a dignified manner. In the mother Libby, and brother Milo, it serves as a symbol of their own inadequacies; having no talent for the family trade, Milo is shunned, and being ignored for her husbands work, Libby hides her own artistic talents during his life, and rebels by vandalizing his creations once he has passed. For Jessa, taxidermy is everything.
In a recent New York Times feature, Kristen Arnett explains her draw to the art of taxidermy, and in doing so succinctly describes the appeal of her debut novel:
“I was thinking a lot about how we try to preserve memories, and about specific nostalgia — wanting things to remain pristine[.] What is taxidermy other than that? Much of the time, a taxidermied animal is an animal someone hunted and killed, and the way they decide to pose them is a memory they’re creating. I think we do that with other people — family, romantic partners. We reconstruct.”
Nostalgia seems to stalk in a way I can’t pinpoint — it’s only a weird coincidence that just as I finished reading Mostly Dead Things I happened to pick up Rules of Civility for a reread and find it flip open to the highlighted quote I opened with here — or perhaps it's not that nostalgia follows us, but that we follow it.
I’ll admit this wasn’t an easy read for me, not because it isn’t well written, (in fact it has nothing but rave reviews, describing it as ‘cool,’ ‘strange,’ and ‘darkly funny’) but probably because it is. I have nothing in common with this book, except that it has reminded me of so much that I had to read it slowly to avoid getting lost in my own shifting train of thought. This came in both good and bad waves...childhood summers swimming in lakes, trailing adults as they worked to try and learn their skills, my own stubbornness leading to fights with my mother... I could go on. It’s always easy to believe we have left the past somewhere else, until something comes along and shows us how wrong we are. Jessa (and the rest of the Morton clan) initially makes her way through life following the same patterns, believing the past as resolved, until her father’s death causes her relationship to him, her love life, her mother, and brother to come into focus, and for her to realize how damaged they all are.
Struggling her way through grief, abandonment, and depression, Jessa preserves not only those around and those who have left her, but also herself, in a way that though toxic, keeps her standing. She is a nostalgic creature, attached to the memory of her father, the memories of her childhood, the memories of her brother as he was before his own life fell apart, the memories of her mother when she was easier to overlook, and most palpably the memories of the woman who has left her over a decade prior; the only woman she has loved, who also happened to be married to her brother and left behind her own two children for Jessa to essentially raise. Keeping all of these factors as unchanged as possible in her own mind, is how she believes she will keep them in her grasp, and also how she believes to know them fully.
It’s easy to misunderstand any of these characters (those calling for unlikeable female anti-heroines will be pleasantly satisfied by not only Jessa, but her mother and ex-love Brynn as well) and this self-contained world they have created, but it’s not hard to want better for them either. In her denial I just wanted to shake some sense into Jessa myself, and frankly once my own nostalgia passed I became even more frustrated with her actions. Many times I found myself reading mainly in the hope that something else would make her come to her senses, as someone who expects a conclusion when investing this much time into a character (apologies to any salty GoT fans). In a manner very befitting then, it comes as a relief when yet another tragedy successfully brings Jessa back to reality, wherein she decides to let her father and ex go, and finally fight for her mother and brother, and even a potential new love, these people who have also fought for her.
There is a moment, towards the end, where Jessa recalls early morning road trips with her father. Stopping along for roadkill, they instead come across a tragically injured dog. As Jessa asks after its state from a distance, her father replies “Mostly dead, [...] Not all the way gone yet.” For over three hundred pages, one might be led to believe Arnett’s title refers to the creatures preserved and catalogued throughout each chapter, their own histories shared along with Jessa’s recollections of their journey onto her work table, but at this turning point it becomes clear she is referring to this grieving family, thought to be injured beyond repair and only worth the bones and skin of what was left behind. But they are not all gone, and as Jessa scavenges for usable bits after an unexpected, destructive event, she finds solace in her family as the people they are now, and decides to explore how they can finally heal together.
With its depiction of that classic, smothering Florida heat and offbeat family drama, Mostly Dead Things makes a compelling summer read for those not averse to its sensitive topics. For anyone who also enjoyed last year’s Goodbye, Vitamin or Lauren Groff’s Florida, I’d definitely recommend!
This post is not sponsored and all opinions are my own, however I was gifted an advance copy. Thank you once again to Tin House!
Raquel Reyes is Creative Director at The Attic on Eighth. She enjoys styling photo shoots, dramatic hair accessories, and old fashioned cocktails.