Mostly Dead Thingsby Published 04 Jun 2019
|Mostly Dead Things.pdf|
|Publisher||Tin House Books|
One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles. Her mother starts sneaking into the shop to make aggressively lewd art with the taxidermied animals. Her brother Milo withdraws, struggling to function. And Brynn, Milo’s wife—and the only person Jessa’s ever been in love with—walks out without a word. As Jessa seeks out less-than-legal ways of generating income, her mother’s art escalates—picture a figure of her dead husband and a stuffed buffalo in an uncomfortably sexual pose—and the Mortons reach a tipping point. For the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.
Mostly Dead Things Reviews
Reading this book was a lot like riding a merry-go-round: I was entertained and mildly fascinated by the unusual scenery until it became obvious that all we were really doing was riding through the same fixed territory again and again and again. I was thinking this could even be a 4-star read for the first third or so, but then found myself tossing away quarter- and half-stars as the circular path became less meaningful.
Plenty has already been said about the squalid, gruesome surroundings in which these characters live and work. It has definitely put a lot of folks off and I completely understand. In general this is the kind of thing I can take in stride. If this is how the author chooses to set her story, so be it. So it wasn't the nasty, aromatic descriptions that bothered me. The problem I had is that this filth and muck is so pervasive that it loses any power it might otherwise have to do more than simply disgust the reader.
Everyone in this novel has an afghan covered in crumbs and pet hair. Nearly everyone's skin is greasy and pustular. Everyone's floor is grimy; their carpets littered with trash, dirty laundry, and "a quart of dust". (A quart? Really? That one made me sigh in half-gallons.). If there is a dead animal within 50 paces of a character, bits of gristle will adhere to their jeans and their hands will become coated with the slime of decay just before they drag them through their ratty hair. Even the tailored, sleek Lucinda leaves her waxy cotton swabs on someone else's bathroom counter...and uses their toothbrush night after night. Welcome to Pigville, where everyone is a hoarder and everything is fetid. Come for the taxidermy but stay for the porn!
There is also a heavy reliance on repeating the same descriptive language, character traits, and stock gestures throughout. That gets old, too. I lost count of the number of times one character sweeps the hair away from another's sweaty face/forehead and tucks it gently behind their ear. More lipstick, balm, and gloss is applied to more lips than at a beauty pageant. If somebody is wearing a t-shirt, the neck wil be stretchd out of all proportion; if they are sporting a fluffy bathrobe, is will slip down or fall open to reveal a shoulder, a leg, a breast. If there's a beer, it's going to get "cracked"; if there's not a beer, it's going to get purchased at a convenience store by the six-pack, THEN cracked. It's all so hackneyed and also so unfortunate. I really think there is so much unrealized potential here.
There really does seem to be a rash lately of talented, well-intentioned debut novelists who include details they do not fully understand, and professional editors who let them. I don't know whether to be insulted or irritated, so I'm both. When red and blue lights flash from a police car, or are reflected over the surface of a lake, they don't combine to make purple. It's just a fact of photo-optics. Eyes that are "squinty and narrowly placed" are no more "ready to analyze the tiniest detail of a pelt" than eyes that are very open and widely spaced. Also an optical fact. And, as all my friends know, the coup de grace for me is when the author herself is self-contradictory:
p. 145: The adult Jessa is playing house with Lucinda and tells us, "She squeezed fresh orange juice, a thing I'd seen done only on TV or in movies."
Why, then, were we told this:
p. 68: A much younger Jessa is in the kitchen with her 4-year-old nephew, Bastien, narrating, "He was standing at the counter with my mother as she pressed orange halves on a citrus press."
Busted. Penalty flags clutter the sordid field of play. 2.5 stars
I really enjoyed this novel. The physicality of it is impressive. Every aspect of living is splayed out--the smells, tastes, textures of human bodies interacting without human bodies. At the heart of it is a brother and sister, in love with the same woman who leaves them both to pick up the pieces of their lives. This family is so tenderly, humanely rendered. There is so much heart here without too much sentimentality. Jessa is an infuriating protagonist but still, so compelling, so damaged, so ready to try a different way of living. I am not sure about the ending or the sections/structure but that is of little matter. Excellent excellent novel. Can't wait to see what Arnett does next.
Despite the neon bright cover that screams ‘Quirky! Funny!’, Mostly Dead Things is Mostly about Sad People, and I didn’t find much mirth in this debut (maybe a sardonic undercurrent, at best). Instead, this is quite a dark story about a family of grieving, emotionally damaged people.
The narrator, Jessa, has only ever loved one woman, Brynn, but Brynn chose the more conventional life of marriage and babies offered by Jessa’s brother Milo (while continuing to have sex with Jessa on the sly). This awkward love triangle holds, barely, until one day Brynn abruptly walks out on them both, also abandoning her small children in the process.
Several years later, Jessa and Milo’s father kills himself, leaving Jessa struggling to manage the family taxidermy business, and their mother channelling her pain into grotesque, pornographic art made from dead animal parts.
A family unit devastated by these twin blows, the lost binary star at the centre of their collective orbit, is the main narrative strand. Interspersed flashbacks delve into Jessa’s childhood, and complicated relationships with both her father and Brynn.
The book’s title can read “mostly dead-things” or “mostly-dead things”. There are a lot of dead things in this book, usually animals, but also yards full of dead grass, dead neighbourhoods, dead relationships. Emotionally closed off and numbing herself with alcohol, Jessa is only “mostly-dead”, as is her brother Milo.
It’s a grimy book. The swampy, muggy Floridian setting; deliquescing roadkill; the gross yet mundane details of human bodies – Arnett creates a pervasive grubbiness throughout. These descriptions are not extreme, but they are frequent, and endless repetition of words like muck & grime & puke & snot & blood & dank belabours the point. Creating this miasma takes up so much space on every page that the story struggles under the weight of it all, leaving the main narrative undercooked.
Characters too are sketched, rather than fully formed - we are presented with every oozing zit and flaking scab but learn far less of their interior lives. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the two ostensibly dominant, charismatic characters are Jessa’s dad and Brynn, who are both defined by their absence, only seen in flashbacks and never really make a strong impression. By the time that the remaining family members ‘make their way back to each other’ as their emotional arc (rather predictably) dictates, this payoff felt a little false: too pat, and not fully earned. Mostly Dead Things is an unconventional family drama that didn’t quite hit the mark for me. 3 stars.
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“Why not try something different instead of the same old shit that’s been making us miserable our whole lives?”
“I haven’t been miserable my whole life!”
“Really? I’ve been pretty miserable.”
Mostly Dead Things was brought to my attention a couple of months ago via way of a recommendation by my friend Mindy. To her I say . . . .
The jumping off point to this story is when Jessa-Lynn finds her daddy has blown his brains out on the specimen table in the family’s taxidermy shop. From there we meet the other members of the family – brother Milo whose wife that left him also happened to be Jessa-Lynn’s girlfriend, Milo’s daughter Lolee (who was pretty much the daughter I’ve never had), his stepson Bastien – back from rehab and a man of dubious means, and their mother – recent widow turned pornographic taxidermy artist. These were my people. What can I say . . . .
Ha! Not really. I’m about as basic as they come. However, I’m also pretty much white trash so I fell head over heels for all of these quirky misfits. I mean, if there was ever a book designed for me it would be one about a dysfunctional family who owns a taxidermy shop, right?!?!?!? For realz . . . .
With my father gone, gag taxidermy paid the rent. I pinned antlers to rabbit heads stuffed with foam cuttings, shellacked frogs propped at miniature card tables, boiled a million alligator skulls, mouths stuffed with pointy teeth painted blue and orange for UF football fans. I turned ducklings into mermaids, fish tails shimmering green-gold.
Not to mention it was set in Florida . . . .
STFU John Oliver! Dear Florida: Never stop being you.
At the end of the day this was a bizarre little book about getting through the grieving process and finding yourself. Definitely not a book for everyone (very detailed in description of creating a mount – not to mention the way some of the animals were acquired), but Mitchell and I liked it enough for everyone. Just look how happy it made him . . . .
I'll definitely be buying a hard copy of this one for the bookhoardshelves.
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I was trying to project, "I swear I'm not a psycho" vibes to the people side-eying me for reading this book, even though the title was basically 99% of the reason behind why I applied for this in the first place. MOSTLY DEAD THINGS is a book chock-full of dark humor, and is definitely not for the faint of heart. I thought Carl Hiaasen had the market cornered on the unique brand of Floridian-style "crazy," but apparently Kristen Arnett is moving in on his territory.
Jessa comes from a family of taxidermists; getting into the family business was the one surefire way she had of bonding with her somewhat aloof father. But when he takes his life into his own hands following a cancer diagnosis, the family is split apart. Jessa's brother, Milo, withdraws away from his mother, sister, and children. Their mother begins to methodically destroy her late husband's animals, turning them into disturbingly erotic displays. And Jessa is torn between stopping her mother and preserving her father's memory, and obsessing over Brynn, her brother's wife, and the woman she's been having a relationship with since high school.
MOSTLY DEAD THINGS doesn't shirk on the gory details, so be prepared to learn everything you probably never wanted to know about taxidermy. That part didn't bother me much, since I've read a couple nonfiction books about taxidermy as well, but sensitive readers should know that there are some animal deaths in here, some of them quite cruel. There's also the whole cheating factor, with Brynn stringing along two siblings for years, and Jessa knowingly continuing her affair with her brother's wife. I know I have some friends who can't stand to read about adultery and cheating, and that's a pretty significant plot point in MOSTLY DEAD THINGS; it can't be avoided.
MOSTLY DEAD THINGS is a pretty interesting look at a dysfunctional family's various ways of attempting to overcome grief. Some scenes were darkly funny, and others were bizarre to the point of being cringeworthy. One thing for sure, is that I've never read a book quite like this, and in a market that's inundated with copycats, originality is definitely noteworthy and appreciated. I'm giving this book 3-stars because I did like it and I thought it took some brave risks, but some of the characters fell a little flat for me and the ending fizzled out-- despite a pretty compelling beginning.
Overall, not bad.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
3 to 3.5 stars