...an irresistible first novel ... Arnett possesses all the bravery her characters dream of. There’s none of the shyness and self-consciousness of so much American fiction that masks itself as austerity. She writes comic set pieces to make you laugh, sex scenes to turn you on. The action flips from the past to the present, swimming through first love and first grief on a slick of red Kool-Aid and vodka, suntan oil and fruity lip gloss, easy and unforced. This book is my song of the summer. Corner me, though, and I’ll admit that it suffers slightly from some first-novel blues. The setup is expert, but the pace occasionally stutters. The climax feels rushed and muted, the resolution a little pat. Not that it matters much; in fiction as much as taxidermy, it is the feeling of vigor and spirit that matters, that is proof of success. And the pulse in this book emanates not only from its sun-drunk, word-drunk wit, but from what it knows about life ... Subtly, unmistakably a beautiful lineage is suggested in these echoes of the great heroines of American literature — so many tomboys, so many queer women. Their shadows flicker, trailing between the alligator jaws and deer hooves and peacock feathers in this book of inheritances, this cabinet of wonders.
The world Arnett creates for Jessa is lushly gross, as if the character’s aspirational impassivity has squeezed her emotions out into the material world, rendering everything as rude and compelling as her own suppressed vulnerability ... The outward conflicts presented at the outset of the novel find their resolutions, though the real story here is an inside job, and Arnett pulls it off with aplomb. Jessa is the disastrous heroine of our dreams; her job has never been to clean herself up, but to open herself ... the catharsis of Mostly Dead Things delivers.
... an astonishing debut novel that’s both a new entry in the long history of great fiction about grief and a darkly comic flight of brilliance that transports the reader to a familiar yet alien world of frozen moments and dysfunctional love ... Arnett’s precise, wickedly witty prose paints a portrait of a searcher, of a woman longing for what came before even if she’s no longer entirely sure what she liked about it, even as she attempts to let something new into her life. It all comes together in a bold, dark and profound comic novel about the nature of love, loss and invention ... announces Arnett as one of the most promising rising novelists writing today.
This is a book where prose style and content work together beautifully. Arnett is not a flowery writer—she says what she means—and her honesty allows us direct access to her characters and their lives. We trust Jessa, as she is an excellent first-person narrator, looking at the world through often clinical and analytical eyes ... Just as the book explores the blurry line between life and death, it also investigates the boundaries of art and science ... We might recoil, at the start, from such frank and honest descriptions of the process of taxidermy, but by the time that Jessa works on three peacocks that she captures with her niece and nephew, we are awed by the beauty of these animals and how Jessa brings them back to life[.]
The central characters in this sad and funny book are recognizable not as easily boxed, felonious stereotypes but as complex, flesh-and-blood human beings ... Arnett gets many things right in this first novel ... Most of all, Arnett skillfully and humanely captures the agony and confusion of surviving a loved one’s suicide ... smart and empathic.
Life is complicated, but in [Arnett's] debut novel Mostly Dead Things, it’s got nothing on the dead: presented for all to see, macabre and refined ... Fundamentally, this is a rock-solid family novel, brightened by its eccentric milieu ... The book is very Florida, very gay—hot to the touch, in other words—and Arnett leads with sharp character development. The author demonstrates keen judgment by getting out of crazy’s way. One masterclass in deadpan description surfaces early on ... The prose could still use a jolt. Dead Things may be animated by graphic explainers on animal stuffing and cutting analyses of family dynamics, but plot isn’t Arnett’s strong suit. She prefers stepping back and allowing Jessa to survey the action. Always a woman of few words, Jessa is well-drawn, nuanced and thoughtful, but her 'simple, no mess' philosophy can turn tedious in narration, especially around Dead Things' bulky midpoint. You almost wish the book were even weirder—for a moment or two where Arnett would really unleash on the madness of her premise. Dead Things is, instead, almost achingly warm ... The reflective, inquisitive quality of Arnett’s writing is key to its success. She’s a natural novelist because of her curiosity ... Indeed, Arnett gives no element of her novel the short shrift. Her sex scenes are steamy, volatile, full—a treatment of lesbian romance that feels refreshing and rare. Her Florida is transitory, artificial, amnestic ... So the heart of Dead Things beats: to the drum of the living.
Much of Arnett’s talent rests in depicting the places where her characters hover between seclusion and exposure, between never talking to the people around them to revealing their sex lives in a menagerie to their family members ... Mostly Dead Things holds no punches and, between running over peacocks with golf carts and skinning cancerous quadrupeds, finds a messy and believable love that depends on enduring the repulsive and rapturous in the same collection of nerves. What elevates Mostly Dead Things beyond a post-funeral rumination with a background of stuffed fauna is Arnett’s ability to complicate what death means. This novel favors presenting death in a way that privileges the personal over the universalizing or pedantic ... But Mostly Dead Things goes beyond even this fascinating dichotomy of how we understand and treat different bodies to suggest that death does not end a person entirely ... The problem with death in Mostly Dead Things is not its finality, rather, it’s what death still leaves open, what bodies it does not allow to be posed in static and reverent recreation.
Grief can be a kind of deadening, a latching onto the past in order to fill in the gaps left by the person who has died or exited our lives. Yet life goes on, no matter how absent from it a mourner may feel. It's in this precarious emotional space that Kristen Arnett's debut novel, Mostly Dead Things is set. But lest you cringe at what sounds like a difficult read, this isn't a depressing book: it's darkly funny, both macabre and irreverent, and its narrator is so real that every time I stopped reading the book, I felt a tiny pull at the back of my mind, as if I'd left a good friend in the middle of a conversation ... One of the best things about the book is its description not only of the work involved in taxidermy but in its ability to render that work beautiful and loving, an art all its own ... [a] queer, boozy, sexy growing up story.
In her depictions of mangled dead animals in elaborate bondage scenes, Arnett’s considerable gifts as a comic writer glow ... the novel’s forward motion is manically driven, somewhat woozy, and heavily burdened by the past. Super erotic and bittersweet vignettes about Jessa’s love affair with Brynn flood the narrative ... The fecundity and rot of the Florida setting permeate throughout ... the reader is [n]ever entirely free of the sticky heat.
...morbid, inventive and darkly funny ... an engrossing exploration of grief, love and family ... While it’s different thematically and tonally from Lauren Groff’s excellent essay collection Florida, Mostly Dead Things captures the essence of the Sunshine State through the eyes of Jessa ... she writes about Florida with equal parts adoration and curiosity ... As a reader, oscillating between empathizing with Jessa’s overwhelming grief and laughing at Libby’s absurdist art is a lot like being on a roller coaster at Disney ... It’s definitely one of those rides you want to take again and again.
...weird, funny and, in its own macabre way, warm-hearted ... Mostly Dead Things opens with a vividly detailed scene ... The chapter also is the first virtuoso display of Arnett’s masterful handling of structure, as she whips the reader with one quick cut from that childhood scene to the day a couple of decades later that Jessa discovers her father at the same work table, a gunshot wound in his skull, a note for Jessa next to him ... [Jessa is] a wryly engaging narrator.
Humor and the grotesque saturate the novel, stewing the reader in a humid sense of fun — a feeling that anyone who has been to Florida can relate to ... [Arnett] discusses intense emotions and complicated themes through the venue of the quotidian. Taxidermy becomes a vehicle to illuminate a character’s psychology ... Most of the novel is about Jessa dealing — or not dealing — with her own 'obliterated system.' Predictably, therefore, the arc towards the close of Mostly Dead Things follows Jessa as she ‘comes back to life’ and attempts to move on from the past. The story’s resolution centers around a loosening: family members finally finding the words to have frank conversations about the secrets that they’ve kept for years...These moments of atonement feel slightly out of place in a novel that has reveled in the messy, the sticky, and the complex. Unlike the rest of Mostly Dead Things the ending washes the sheets, makes the bed, and smooths down the comforter before leaving the room. Even though there is something unrealistically clean or perfunctorily “Hollywood” about the close of the novel, it is summer, and summer is the season for the blockbuster, the season for the cliches that we all secretly delight in — and Arnett’s story is definitely something to delight in.
Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, is an incisive and peculiar study of grief ... Mostly Dead Things uses the preservation of animal bodies as a metaphor as much as a plot detail. Arnett writes about how we have to overcome our first understanding of the world in order to process it as an adult. She uses the language of taxidermy to explore the memories that ripple beneath our longest held beliefs.
This deeply weird and deeply queer novel begins with one of the most gorgeously and gorily rendered first chapters I've read ...Though they sometimes slow the pace of the story, Arnett's rich, cinematic descriptions of scenes that don't typically warrant rich, cinematic descriptions set the reader firmly in the swamp-heat of Central Florida. The paragraphs of description also give Arnett room to flex her keen observational humor. She makes you feel like a Florida insider, bestowing a knowing affection on the bad taste and brashness of her characters ... The freakishly Freudian swirl of sex and death keeps the tension high. And Arnett's literary elevation of the grotesque smartly embodies the primary philosophical question underlying the story ... establishes Arnett as one of the South's new top talents.
... [the protagonists] often seem more broken up about Brynn than they do over their dad. This may have something to do with the structure of the novel: Half of it is told in flashback, a choice which at times swamps the plot like a construction project in the Everglades. It may also have something to do with the first-person narration. Jessa is a ruminator, a loner, a hard drinker, and she prefers to nurse some wounds over others, the way a drunk repeats the same stories night after night. ... suggests, above all else, that love is not something to be conquered, killed, skinned and mounted. It is living, and a verb. What we do for love — be it build erotic buffalo sculptures in grief-stricken homage, steal peacocks, raise someone else’s children, collect roadkill — is so much more powerful than what we think about it.
The self-loathing behind the sexuality of the novel, though, is inescapable. The book is full of sex, mostly but not entirely between women, and all of it is heartbreakingly self-destructive ... The frustration Mostly Dead Things creates comes through its lack of answers. It’s not really clear why women do these things ... If the novel were more fully in touch with its southern gothic heritage, if it took its grotesquery to the next level (and, given the peacocks roaming through, why not imagine the work in the hands of Flannery O’Connor), some epiphany would be at hand. Whether it’s the lack of engagement with faith, or simply the mode of the novel, no such discovery seems possible. Yet if it’s determined to be a tragedy, why not push for catharsis? If it wants to pursue its comedy, why not break those moments fully open? ... almost a great book, but, like its elusive Brynn, it stops short of offering emotional fulfillment, preferring to pose, with naïve cruelty, just out of reach.
... remarkable for the unexpectedness, the strangeness, the oddity at its heart ... despite its sticky, sexy, dangerous seductiveness, proves a bit hard to pin down when you eventually try to. Is this a story about family? About Florida? About queerness? About life and death? About art? About love? About sex and desire? About all the ways those things are close to but never quite the same as each other? I think it may be all of those things which marks the text as sneakily ambitious. I say sneakily because, as anyone who follows Arnett on Twitter will have expected, this writing is brash and funny and unpretentious. These are sentences you want to get a beer with (and quite a few of them are about doing just that) and shoot the shit. This is a book that might fall into that inscrutable category of a romp, though only a few of the literary romps I’ve encountered have aspired to such an impressive project. With such a high degree of difficulty, though, it does subsequently (like the gymnast who chooses the harder trick) sometimes miss the mark a bit. At times the lush prose tends towards purple, the complexities of Jessa-Lynn’s self-destructive tendencies inch towards caricature, and the slippage between past and present storylines occasionally tiptoe away from effectively hazy and dreamy into a confused page-flipping to make sure you know when and where you are ... But those things happen when you swing big, and Mostly Dead Things might be the biggest swing I’ve read this year. And when it nails those elements — which it does, often, to be sure — it is something special ... heart-crackingly real ... This novel is in many ways a highly successful piece of taxidermy; its seams barely show, and only if you know where to look.
Despite its raw materials, it is neither a slab of Southern Gothic nor a zany romp through the land of Florida Man. To its protagonist and her author, taxidermy is no joke...It’s also a bottomless source of metaphor for Arnett—sometimes forced, but just as often fertile ... Arnett adeptly captures the comfort an odd, unfeminine girl might find in this model of close-mouthed masculinity ... Compromised as her attachments to the departed may be, Jessa is most at home in the past. Curiously, so is the novel itself. Compared with the visceral longings and disturbances of Jessa’s adolescence, present-day plotlines like the one involving the widowed Mrs. Morton’s nascent art career feel less charged with lived experience. In the present, characters wrangle exposition into dialogue and have their motivations laid out plainly ... [Arnett's] eye seems naturally and continually drawn to dust, grime, guts; even beyond the taxidermy table, there’s hardly a clean surface in the book. She’s at her best elbow-deep in the details, sorting through the mess of family history to determine what can be salvaged and what should be laid to rest.
For anyone whose opinion of Florida and its residents largely depends on social media and those mean-spirited 'Florida Man' headlines, Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things may come as a disappointment. The central characters in this sad and funny book are recognizable not as easily boxed, felonious stereotypes but as complex, flesh-and-blood human beings ... Arnett...gets many things right in this first novel: the feeling of being trapped and vulnerable within one’s own family; the frustration of trying to look to the future when the past has 'its teeth dug into you like a rabid animal'; how 'love makes you an open wound, susceptible to infection'; and the manifold risks of swimming in a warm Florida lake, where if an alligator doesn’t get you, a brain-eating amoeba might. Most of all, Arnett skillfully and humanely captures the agony and confusion of surviving a loved one’s suicide ... smart and empathic ...
Making a list of what’s quirky about this debut novel from Arnett...is too tempting to resist, but these quirks also serve as the novel’s starting points. Arnett’s writing cuts through all the unusualness and renders Jessa human and relatable ... The squeamish may struggle to read about Jessa’s life, but readers who persevere will be both compelled and rewarded.
...[a dark and original debut] ... Set in a richly rendered Florida and filled with delightfully wry prose and bracing honesty, Arnett’s novel introduces a keenly skillful author with imagination and insight to spare.
Arnett writes in clear, perceptive prose...yet the pacing and climax of this deeply psychological novel remain off-kilter. Jessa is stuck playing the eternal, repressed 'straight' man to her creator's wry sense of humor—with mixed results. For all of Arnett's insights, the outsize mother-daughter conflict at the heart of the book feels as if a bear skin were draped over the skeleton of a much smaller mammal. Still, there's much to admire in Arnett's vision of Florida as a creative swamp of well-meaning misfits and in the sweet hopefulness of finding your way back to yourself through family.