Book Review: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett


Sometimes you encounter a book and you don’t know quite what to make of it. Sometimes you feel this right from the first page, and from there you plough on with a weird and wonderful feeling that things are slowly beginning to make sense and you’re coming to be at home in your new dimension of existence. This is what happened when I read Lanny by Max Porter.

Other times, as with Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things, the transition into this new world is straightforward: a taxidermy shop in the USA isn’t such a jump for me – a plane and taxi ride could get me somewhere similar – and Arnett’s style is reassuringly clear so you never feel lost wherever she puts you. But by the end of the book you realise you’ve been transported in some subtle way after all.

The weirdness of Kristen Arnett’s debut novel is advertised all over the front and back cover: it is strange and funny and surprising, say the reviews. A lot of the strangeness derives from the fact that this book is about taxidermy, which is to me a topic not just strange but stomach-turning, and I occasionally had to put this book down for a moment or even skip ahead a few paragraphs where there was a particularly graphic depiction of the process of cutting into skin and scooping out insides.

Mostly Dead Things is about a woman who has worked for her father at the family business – the taxidermy shop – since she was a child. And then one day her father kills himself, leaving the daughter to deal with both the business and with her mother’s grief, the latter manifesting itself in bizarre artistic expression – her mother has begun creating sculpture that uses the dead animals from the family shop to depict sexual scenes.

Things take an even darker turn where Arnett describes instances of cruelty to live animals – and the way the main character, Jessa, deals with the fact of these crimes is part if the arc of the story.

Despite the weirdness, it is in some ways a very ordinary story: Jessa is a workaholic who has shut herself off from the possibility of finding love. She’s very selfish, and that’s part of her problem. She lives alone in a messy flat and drinks too much beer. In her current condition, there’s not much to like about her – as she keeps telling herself, but she can’t seem to fix it.

And this is at the heart of what I found so interesting about the book: we’re not given any likeable characters to root for – Jessa herself does some truly horrible things. And we’re not even given any unlikeable yet fascinating characters – Jessa works and Jessa drinks, occasionally she lashes out, and she never has the moral strength to stand up and speak when she sees others do wrong. Her own wrongdoing comes from her weakness, from a despair that leaves her helpless to take any real, positive action. This gives the story a very ordinary quality: we’re just watching people going about their lives, being pushed this way and that, and we watch idly in the way we often do watching reality TV – a morbid interest in people we have no feeling for.

Ironically, perhaps this ordinariness is what is strangest of all about the book. It’s a rare skill to be able to hold the interest of a reader without resorting to obvious fantasy, and my interest was held right to the end. I think it’s the claustrophobia that Arnett conjures up that makes it so compelling: the heaviness of the heat, the walls of the shop, the proximity of Jessa’s family – the girl she was in love with went on to marry Jessa’s brother before finally leaving him, which presents us with an awkward unspoken bond between sister and brother. All of this contributes to the pressured intensity of this little world that compelled me to keep reading.

A word about Arnett’s style: very clear sentences with lots of tactile and visual detail, making the scenes come to life with colour and sensation. So much so that what’s going on around the characters can distract from the progression of the story.  I don’t mean this as a criticism: I like when a writer takes as much care over making the setting come to life as they do with continuing the story. I don’t mind when things slow down to a crawl, so you can feel the heat of the hot sun and the hangovers of the characters as they wrestle over their own and each other’s problems.

And this was the subtle effect of the book on me by the time I reached the final page: that I had gradually been placed in this strange ordinary world, in all its light and colour, gristle and grisliness, and clammy claustrophobia.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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“Don’t waste yourself in talk!” says Mona to Henry Miller, as he starts on another of his monologues. He shouldn’t be saying all this to her: it should be going in the book.

Sometimes Henry seems to agree with her on this point. If only he could get all these ideas down on the page! And yet, looking back, Miller sees that Mona’s plea for him to just write it rests on a misconception about the way creation occurs.

Ideas don’t travel directly from the brain to the page, but must find their own way. And there’s something about Henry’s ideas that they never seem to find their way. It’s like they’re the wrong fit for the page and cannot adapt.

By talking, Henry is creating ideas to be stored away in his mind and saved for later. He sees these ideas as so many gold pieces, he says, each one forged in the moment, then thrown on the pile to be spent later. It’s like he knows that one day he’ll get his great work written, and with all this talk he’s already working on it. They don’t fit yet, but they will.

And yet he’s sick of not spending any of these stored up treasures. When will the moment arrive?

Henry tells Mona he is still struggling with his limitations, and that’s why he can’t stop talking and just write. He talks of being able to write “like a madman” one minute, and the next he can do nothing. It sounds like he is talking about a lack of technical knowledge: he doesn’t know how he does it even when he does. He is not a craftsman yet, and so must leave it all to chance.

We know that eventually Miller would become a successful writer. But did he ever get past these limitations? His novels spiral on and on, around and around, as if he had lost control of them. Perhaps instead of overcoming his limitations, Miller was only ever able to become better and better at working with them, throwing himself into the chaos of his own mysterious creative processes.

(I’ve been reading Nexus by Henry Miller.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Kathy Acker, Peter Greenaway, and Storytelling


Hollywood films and popular novels are made with certain audience expectations in mind. They have a story to tell, and they are structured so that this story is easy to follow and understand. Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – we can usually tell how much of a film is left to go by what is happening on the screen.

Structure and story tend to fit together neatly in a Hollywood film or popular novel. The structure is designed to fit the story: beginning, middle, and end. Or “orphan”, “wanderer”, “warrior”, “martyr”. The audience know what they came for: a drama in which a hero runs into trouble, learns a lesson, and meets with surprising consequences. (Recently I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, which explains the elements of storytelling really well.)

Sometimes it can all seem quite shallow, especially if it’s not done well. Or if it’s done so neatly that there’s just no surprise, not really. You knew from the beginning that it had to go one way or the other, and – Oh! – it went this way and not that.

Perhaps one day you’re feeling tired of the shallowness of much of popular culture – one “psychodrama” after another – and you decide you’ll try something different. You won’t try to deliver a story like that at all. Instead you’ll play with moments and textures and let a like-minded audience come to you. And perhaps you’ll feel some satisfaction in doing that for a while.

But what if, having done all that, you find you want to tell stories after all? What do you do then?

Structure is essential. But that doesn’t mean you have to revert to the Hollywood-style, story-guided template. There are all kinds of ways you can introduce structure into your work, by putting the requirement for structure before the needs of the story.

“John Cage had made a record in the ‘40s called … Indeterminacy? … for which he collected a hundred tiny narratives, fragmentary fictions. Then he looked for a structure: he would tell each story in exactly one minute. No matter how long the story.”

And that’s just one way to do it, described by Peter Greenaway in an interview with Kathy Acker. The structure is not only external to – meaning, not determined by – the stories, but it’s also utterly arbitrary: why one minute, after all? Acker explains the effect this arbitrary structure had on the storytelling:

“A very short story had to be read so slowly that it became incoherent; a long story so fast, equally incoherent.”

But structure is essential: you need something to get you started.

How can an arbitrary structure be essential? Isn’t this a contradiction? Isn’t “arbitrary” almost the opposite of “essential”?

It’s best not to think too much about it. Accept the paradox. Otherwise you’ll never begin. So he just gets to work.

So Peter Greenaway moved from abstract to “narrational” films while remaining “a lover of abstract systems.” This determined the kind of storyteller he would be. Some people are natural storytellers, while others find the process of making stories up to be a bit silly or trivial, and are ashamed that this is how they want to spend their time.

“Tell stories … without embarrassment.” You’ve done it on your own terms, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. (There was never anything to be ashamed of, of course, but we get in the way of ourselves.)

The main thing is not to lose your own vocabulary in the process of becoming a storyteller. I suppose this is why we often feel that Hollywood films are less valuable then “real” works of art: they are so often created with a ready-made template in mind, so the original voice seems to have been lost somewhere along the way, if it was ever there at all.

What are you interested in? What are you trying to do? Why do you need to tell stories? I feel like I can tell when a writer or director has asked themselves these questions earnestly again and again all the while they’ve been working. A sense of purpose keeps the work real, keeps it from being trivial.

And not compromising. In this case, not compromising means not simplifying. All the depth and texture you wanted to get across remains and it’s not just a story but a story that’s your own and has meaning.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Henry Miller’s Destination


In Chapter 9 of Nexus, Henry and Osiecki are looking for a place to drink. It’s Osiecki’s birthday. Henry didn’t want to come out, but Osiecki offered him a bite to eat, and he couldn’t turn that down. He eats a sandwich and drinks three cups of coffee before they really hit the town.

A cab comes by. “Looking for a place?” asks the driver, and the two men get in. Henry isn’t too happy: he doesn’t like the idea of getting into a cab to “destination unknown.”

It struck me as strange to read this, to think that Henry Miller was ever troubled by a momentary loss of control, that it would trouble him to put his life into the hands of a cab driver. But now it makes sense to me.

It seemed strange because Henry Miller can seem like the writer of “going with the flow.” He’s all about acceptance of fate, for better or worse, and the fact that you can never know to what heights misfortune can take you. And indeed, he gets a good story out of this adventure, which he goes on to relate in the chapter.

But of course, half of Henry Miller’s life-story is that he always knew where he was headed. For all the ups and downs, he knew he would be a writer one day, provided he could keep body and mind together. He wasn’t following fate blindly, but always on alert for opportunities that were thrown up at him. So it shouldn’t be surprising that, since he’d already got what he needed that night – the sandwich and coffee required to keep going – he wasn’t too keen on this mysterious cab headed for who knew where.

As I’ve said, Miller did in fact get a good story out of the experience. But at the time he hadn’t even figured out how to write yet: he was still attempting to write fiction and hadn’t even thought of writing about himself. He had only the vaguest idea of the direction his own life was taking him – his goal to reach the mysterious state of being a writer. And he was always wary that a misstep would finish him before he even reached his destination. So it’s not surprising he was nervous about that enigmatic cab driver.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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A labyrinth is a structure from which you cannot escape.

Kathy Acker writes about the labyrinth, and how it was built to hide away the Minotaur, the illicit offspring of King Minos’s wife. The King didn’t want people to know about his wife’s unnatural sexual desires – lusting after a bull – and so he built a labyrinth to keep the Minotaur inside, to hide the secret.

Perhaps this was the first labyrinth, but it wasn’t the last.

A labyrinth is a structure from which you cannot escape.

Life is a labyrinth: there’s no escape from life. Death, you might say. But life and death are one. Life is a one-way journey to death, and there’s no getting off before you reach the destination.

Kathy Acker writes about the idea of a labyrinth as a straight line. I believe Borges wrote about the same idea.

You don’t have to think of life in this way. Somewhere you decided that death is inevitable and permanent and the end of life. Why did you do this? How did your life become a labyrinth?

It’s through the stories we share with each other that labyrinths are created.

A labyrinth is a structure from which you cannot escape.

Acker writes that a story becomes true as soon as it is told to another person. There is no such thing as a false story, unless you keep it to yourself.

Writing is a good exercise because it takes those things you might keep to yourself and makes them true. Writing, for Acker, is communication.

A labyrinth is a structure from which you cannot escape. Some stories become so powerful there’s no getting outside them.

And so, by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve been told the story again and again: and this is how it becomes true that there is no escape from death. And this truth can make us afraid, so that we don’t ask questions. You know there is a labyrinth, but you don’t dare ask what is hidden at the centre of it.

If everything is true as long as it is communicated, then we’re living in a world where contradiction is possible. It had better be possible, if the life-death story is true. Because the opposite has to be true too, for there to be any hope for humankind.

You need to experiment with different truths to open up new possibilities. The trouble with having just one story is that you get trapped in it and can’t see it from the outside.

A labyrinth is a structure from which you cannot escape.

Acker thinks a labyrinth could be hexagonal too. The good thing about a hexagon, compared to a straight line, is that it seems like something you might be able to escape from, if you were lucky or very clever. It’s more complex than a straight line, and so there might be a trick to it, some detail you’ve overlooked until now.

You need to construct new stories in order to see the old ones from the outside.

If you could see a labyrinth from the outside you would be able to find the way out, and it would cease to be a labyrinth.

A labyrinth is a structure from which you cannot escape. Even those stories that do not come to dominate an entire culture tend to remain: we cannot escape any truth that has become true. The only way out is through the labyrinth: stories and more stories, labyrinths and more labyrinths.

A labyrinth is a structure from which you cannot escape: it always comes back to the form of the labyrinth, the form of truth- and story-telling.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Kindred Spirits (Notes on Henry Miller’s Nexus)


Chapter 8 of Henry Miller’s Nexus is about the role that other people can play in the life of an artist, for better or worse. Life can seem lonely for an artist, without anyone in the world who understands you, and Stasia wants to leave New York for this reason.

She is disgusted with the “beehives” of New York: the skyscrapers that house all those “monsters”, as she calls the people of the city. She wants to go back to Nature.

She remembers her innocence: “I was so aware. Often I got down on my knees – to kiss a flower … Yes, I knew how to commune with Nature.”

Getting away from the monstrous people of the city is everything now. She doesn’t seem to care about finding like-minded souls, people who might recognise her struggle as an artist. In fact, it is such souls that she blames for her loss of innocence. They told her she had talent, that she was an artist. And with those words they took something away from her:

“The flowers no longer spoke to her, or she to them. When she looked at Nature she saw it as a poem or a landscape. She was no longer one with Nature. She had begun to analyse, to recompose, to assert her own will.”

It made her believe that the truth lay in what was artificial, and so of course she was soon attracted to the idea of city life. She was now far away from the flowers and trees, from the things that previously had really inspired her.

While Stasia seems to believe that escaping human society altogether might solve her problems, we know that Henry will never quite come around to this view. For all he might have craved a bit more peace and quiet in later life, hiding away in Big Sur, he remained to the end of his days a social animal. And for now he seems to think staying in the city is the answer. After reading the biographies of a number of writers he dearly wishes to emulate, artists who struggled on until they eventually found success, he asks himself:

“And I, was I to add my name to this host of illustrious martyrs? To what further depths of degradation had I to sink before acquiring the right to join the ranks of these scapegoats?”

He seems to believe in this moment that he is on the right track. Since all artists before him have suffered, then he must accept his suffering here in New York. And one day his purgatory will be over and he will be allowed to become what he is, a writer just like those he admires.

There is talk of going to Europe, but this will mean more suffering too. What’s important is to take your punishment, wherever you happen to be, until the time is ripe.

In a way, Stasia appears to have been right in this case, and Henry wrong. Henry did have to leave New York to become an artist. Later he will say that if he had never left for Paris he would have remained forever in the gutter. You can’t just wait for change to occur: at the vital moment you have to make it happen.

But while Stasia wants to commune with Nature, Henry wants to commune with artists:

“Stasia’s words came to mind – the need to meet a kindred spirit, in order to grow, to give forth fruit. To hold converse (on writing) with the lovers of literature was fruitless. There were many I had already met who could talk more brilliantly on the subject than any writer. (And they would never write a line.) Was there anyone, indeed, who could speak discerningly about the secret processes?”

It’s the secrets of writing that Henry can’t get access to here in New York, any more than Stasia can get access to Nature, pure and unspoiled. New York is artificial, full of critics and experts, with nothing of the real human spirit. Since it’s in the depths of the human soul that real art and literature are created, he needs to get down beneath the surface if he is to discover how this creation can occur.

Henry sits in the public library, barely glancing at the book in front of him, dreaming about the novels he will write. He is writing “in the head”, since he isn’t able to put pen to paper just yet. The critics and professors of literature wouldn’t call this writing at all. But Henry doesn’t believe that you should go to the critics and professors if you want to discover the secrets of becoming an artist.

And since Henry doesn’t know yet who you should go to for such secret knowledge, for now he will sit in the library and commune with himself.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Hegel’s Scepticism


Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is an exercise in scepticism.

People who call themselves “sceptics” often pride themselves on having their own ideas about the world, and trusting the evidence of their own senses. This is better than accepting established truths and arguments from authority. The sceptic says: Think for yourself!

But Hegel thinks that sceptics can be just as bad as those they criticise: holding fast to your ideas and impressions just because they are your own is no less dogmatic than holding onto ideas because you learned them in school.

For Hegel, real scepticism means being willing to let go of whatever ideas you have, however you acquired them. Few people are willing to be sceptics in this sense, because it means following a path of “despair,” where every belief you hold and cherish is held up for questioning and will, most likely, be cast aside as you progress.

But Hegel warns us to take care as we progress. It’s not as simple as throwing everything away until you are utterly free of beliefs. Nihilism can be a form of dogmatism. It can be a comfort to reject every truth as having no value altogether. Life becomes easy for the nihilist, who only has to find the negative in a thing in order to cast it aside, and never has to find the positive in anything.

Scepticism has value only if we also keep in mind the principle of “determinate negation,” which means looking for the positive in every negative. No idea or belief or impression is so false that it has no value whatsoever, and every negative result, every failure of consciousness to find the truth, can itself be turned into a new starting point. In other words: we can learn something from every wrong turn we make.

Determinate negation is the principle of the Phenomenology because it allows Hegel to proceed along the sceptical path of doubt while also constructing a systematic account of all the various errors that human consciousness can run into as it searches for the truth. Every time consciousness is proved wrong a new starting point is created from that failure, and so consciousness’s adventure can continue from where it left off, and the Phenomenology can recount its story.

(Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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