For the first time in my life I paid extra to have legroom in an airplane. I was getting over a cold, but also I wanted to stretch out and fully enjoy Large Animals by Jess Arndt. You see, Jess Arndt is like a queer Kafka who perambulates the surreal container of the body by dealing almost wholly in non-sequiturs.
Many a great story in Large Animals, Arndt's debut collection, has a strong resemblance to Kafka’s shorter fiction -- which, unlike his longer work that deals with bureaucracy, are rather works of gorgeously, painfully strange portraiture in which one is irredeemably ill-made for the world. Arndt is fond of creating a constellation of small desires for her characters that are hilariously specific, and as with Kafka’s shorter work, her stories turn on the heel of making one seemingly insignificant obsession lie in wait and then ambush the biggest questions of selfhood.
There is no question Jess Arndt would have made Kafka blush.
To wit: in Third Arm, an English Professor drives around touching herself while avoiding her love life and pretending to be largely endowed. “I only liked jerking off while driving -- otherwise the sincerity of the act completely killed me,” she quips. This unnamed character sees healers at the Authentic Process Healing Institute, and also, she carries a bit of unspecified gore in alcohol in a jar.
Arndt’s stories are built like this—in as many compelling directions as possible. But invariably, one direction rises above the others. The bit of gore -- described as apricot-sized, mostly made of fat, and with darker globs -- finally turns allegorical. As you are busy ticking off options for what the jar could possibly contain (an amygdala? definitely an organ?), Arndt continues breathlessly: “It made me think of a bar I’d been to near Joshua Tree.” It is here where you get an answer of a different kind as the unnamed character recounts what she told the bartender: “Scientists have proven that matter doesn’t exist. You see a foot but when you get past all that skin bone squishy stuff et cetera, nothing’s really there,” which is a subterfuge lobbed at the mysterious jar, but also to the feeling of being mismatched with your body which artfully haunts this entire collection.
Arndt’s imagination is amusing and far-flung. Her characters are amorphous and refusing of a gender binary, and the construct of each story is a delight. In Together, two lovers share an STD, in Jeff a misheard name introduction (Jess to Jeff) drives a low-key identity crisis. In the title story, Large Animals, a man who is perceived to be a lesbian whiles away his time in the desert where Walruses seemingly materialize by his bed at night. (Only one story in this collection was a miss for me, Shadow of an Ape, which details the rather confusing ordeal of a man in 1860’s San Francisco gold rush.)
There are some eerily stunning sentences in this collection, nonetheless, foremost of all in Moon Colonies, the opening story where a threesome haunt the Vegas strip chasing after myriad temporary playthings:
In the morning the waves glowed like uranium, a deep sweat coming up off the seafloor. It was beautiful but it was nerve-racking too, being that close to the future.
The great unresolved discomfort of perception and body punctuates the landscape in all the stories in Large Animals, and each character finds themselves at the mercy of a conniving version of the self that is overpowering, stacks the deck, and ruins the possibility of what is precisely most desired. In this sense, Large Animals is a collection of humanity reaching toward what might be graspable but remains painfully out of reach. At one point, Arndt writes:
Then it’s spring break. I go on a wine tour. We stare into the big sweaty vats of red. “Wine fermentation,” the expert says, “happens when all of the individual grapes explode against the walls of their bodies.” How nice, I think, for them.
This is a delightful read, perfect for the burgeoning summer, where the fact of the body is always at odds with the life of the mind.
Catch Jess Arndt reading from 'Large Animals' on Wednesday, June 7, at City Lights Books in San Francisco. 7pm. More information here.