Interview with Jess Arndt, author of Large Animals

Public Domain.  [Image description: a drawing of an elephant skeleton in motion.]

Public Domain. [Image description: a drawing of an elephant skeleton in motion.]

A human is an animal too. In Large Animals, author Jess Arndt reminds us of that fact. The short story collection, published in May, considers our baser nature through a constellation of narrators — all unnamed, many of them queer—who grapple with requirements of daily life as domesticated human animals.  

At one point, a narrator considers top surgery. They imagine a breast-free future, one in which they have become a perilously famous author. Their goal? “Writing books that made not just people but their cells cry.” Arndt herself succeeds at that wish. Large Animals is a teeming catalog of people and their cell-deep selves, an account of how anxiety and desire can bubble up out of the body and ooze, miasma-like, to shroud a relationship, a career, a life.

Arndt and I spoke about body trouble, storytelling, and what the two have in common. 

Your narrators often chafe against the boundaries of their bodies, which—and this is something you describe really well—often feels like a problem of legibility (“How are others reading my body?”) as much as one of psychology/interiority. Yet there’s also a certain porousness in these stories: On a literal level, there are characters who struggle with parasitic infections, and on a metaphorical one, there are others who confront the boundary-dissolving sense of self-annihilation that goes along with intimate relationships. The idea of boundedness and porousness being two sides of the same coin really struck me. Is it fair to say that the boundary/breach relationship is one that you’re mulling over here?

Yes, (I think) there is a place where illegibility and porousness merge. The shape outside of, if not readable—is it a shape at all? Tree falling in forest kind of stuff. I really don’t mean to be glib. I think after a certain amount of lived time—not being recognized, or, floating in between periods of recognition, makes maintaining a consistent body hard. Conversely, being “too affirmed” in a singular body identity is also a stuck deal.

The folds of what you describe are so turbid and complex. Edge-walking (in an identity way) produces porous bodies partly because some residue of the imprint made by how others see you, no matter how “off” it might be, also sticks, begins to inform your actions, your sense of self.

Of course, I want us all to be porous. A kind of painful empathe-ness still feels like it might be the flashlight illuminating other ways to have bodies (that are both more and less “our” bodies, i.e., that refuse at the spirit or cellular level to be capitalized on and defined by others), and as a result, might offer more full ways to love.

But really, how do you solve a problem like the body? Body trouble is something that a lot of queer people (myself included) reckon with, but part of me thinks that I’d hate being in a body no matter what—that it’s really a more universal or essential problem. What are your thoughts? Are you ever wary of readings of your work that are capital-Q Queer, to the potential exclusion of others?

These questions are really so lovely and astute that I barely think they need my answers. But yes, how DO you solve it? For years I refused the gender-oriented double-mastectomy that I desperately wanted because I hated the idea of, as I saw it then, “buying into the equation: surface (CAN EVER) = what swarms inside.”

The beautiful, terrible thing is, it can’t. We can always go places more terrifying, more multiple, more astounding when we don’t need our skin to follow that shape. But then also, what subtle ways does the “meat” of our bodies shift, reflect, what’s happening inside? Is my protoplasm different because of that dream I had where I? You know the one? Suffused with…? That reckless…?

As you say, this body problem is a queer thing. We often mark it out as “our” terrain. But it’s also an everyone thing. In that way, I hope this book keeps that door wide open for a kind of motley experience of identification. People always used to ask me “who’s your audience?” which felt like another way to ask: “Who do imagine will read this stuff??” I hated that question. I long for anybody to read this stuff and respond at some level—especially those whose body containers seem least like my own.

(In any case, I had the double-mastectomy and I was beyond relieved and still nothing matches and mostly that’s ok.)

That said, I am still so happy to encounter works that describe queerness with a certain frankness, that don’t tiptoe around the mess of it all. There’s a passage in the first story, “Moon Colonies,” in which the narrator doesn’t want to reveal their chest (in their words, “the slack mounds that on good days I pretended were giant pecs”) to their partner. “The next time it happened,” they recall, “she stared at me from far away. ‘Why don’t you just cut them off?’”

On one hand— ouch. On the other, I feel like I’ve had that conversation, or the spirit of that conversation, countless times. Similarly, I think back often to the opening of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, where she offhandedly mentions her lover’s “pile of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall.” Writing like yours, and like hers, always gives me a welcome jolt of familiarity.

I love that pile of cocks scene. It leaps off the page at you. There’s some essential smell of “real” about it. Not because I have a shower stall of cocks. But…it’s in the posture of the sentence. The treasured thing. The discarded thing. The necessary thing. The ashamed thing. The thing we are beyond. The thing we are never beyond. The sweaty condensation on the shower tile. And then maybe most importantly—someone noticing it. Writing it down. Making it (for that brief line) a known entity. Sometimes the want of recognition is painful above all else.

Speaking of Argonauts (in the mining-for-gold sense of the word), most of the stories take place in a range I’d call “near-past to present” except for “Shadow of an Ape,” which is set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. It’s a delightfully particular setting. What draws you to it?

I fought so hard for that story. It’s a little like a tooth with an overly long root. Before Large Animals, I wrote a short novel set in Gold Rush San Francisco. Really, the novel was about the historical practice of indentured servitude (that also haunts Shadow of an Ape) that used to be called getting “shanghaied.” Sailors were in short supply, and as a result, at that time, were often poisoned or beat up, then stolen away to serve on ships. To me the metaphor was very strong.

I was also very interested in captive narratives from the 1700s around “going pirate.” A kind of “it’s not my fault” disclaimer. Basically, in both cases—some kind of undertow lifts you from your more purposeful (read: proper, moral, accepted) destination, and pulls you away. You protest. Or do you? Enough? To me, that will always be a queer narrative. Both the initial undertow and the complex swell of guilt, disavowal, and desire that accompanies it.

Your characters are often described in terms of their appetites: for sex, for booze, for self-annihilation (and also for things like understanding, companionship, and love). In that gustatory vein, something I noticed early on was an abundance of body-as-food metaphors, for example: banana-peel lips, macaroni fingers, a celery-colored foot, baloney-colored fists, a clammy palm like clotted cream. Why food, do you think?

(My own thinking here is that food works to keep us in a sort of primordial register, a place of sensation and cells and appetite.)

Ha I never noticed that, but I like that idea a lot, of trying to keep the work in the sensorial body. There’s something flabby, almost embarrassing about food. It’s around—in the sink drain, stuck on your gut, flapping out of a sandwich wrapping on the street.

I’ve always loved Francois Rabelais’s scatalogically-obsessed 16th century tome Gargantua and Panatagruel, which at certain points evolves from narrative into long lists of incredibly strange metaphors about the body: “his eyebrows were a drippings pan,” for instance. There are pages and pages of food metaphors and an insistence on the body as full of holes (ass, mouth, nose, vagina, other?).

As you know, I think “the body” is a hard place to be. So anything that keeps the reader in the tissue of their body/ies for a minute longer, even when my assumption is that everyone is literally crawling to get out, seems helpful. At the level of language I want something 3-D that interrupts, that smears, that stubbornly doesn’t go away. 

You also describe non-human objects in bodily terms (e.g. “the refrigerator’s chilly rib cage,” a blanket’s “wooly face”). One narrator, in “Together,” seems to have a whole theory of objects: that pairs should be kept together, that pathetic objects, say, a saucer without a cup, should be discarded or destroyed out of mercy. Are you a real-life anthropomorphizer? It seems like this would be a handy disposition for a writer.

Oh. Yes. One thousand times one million percent. We have a new baby and just traveled cross-country for the first time. Rushing to catch the plane we lost a blanket, a blanket—stuck torturing myself on the plane—I knew I should have realized had been left behind. The sense of betrayal was abject, equal to if I had killed something. Hours later the blanket appeared, totally fine! crammed in a bag, but it was hard to shake the mourning I’d already mounted, the feeling of the blanket: dejected, at the too-early end of all good possible things, tossed in the trash at 3 a.m. by an overtired Jet Blue employee.

In “Beside Myself,” the narrator, a writer, describes the agony of the editing process: “… if I wanted to change a word I tried to keep as many of the original letters on the screen as I could, fitting them into their replacement so they wouldn’t lose their place, get infinitely lost.”

Here I see an echo of that sort of object orientation I talked about before (in this case, treating words as their own beings and needing to respect some greater natural order of their letters), but I also see a kind of parallel between anxieties about physical embodiment and those about the requirements of authorship. In constructing a body of text an author has to make specific and final choices regarding their language, thus enacting textual boundaries may feel one day false or imperfect or incomplete, much like the trepidation that goes along with making permanent changes to one’s physical body.

Assuming that these are writerly anxieties you share, how do you quell them? I imagine that with short stories (versus say, a novel) the stakes can feel pretty high, since you have fewer words and proportionally less room to maneuver.

Well…yes! Firstly, with regard to object orientation—I think you say it so well: “treating the words as their own beings, needing to respect some kind of greater natural order” is kind of anthropomorphizing urge. Anthropomorphizing sounds like an action a subject enacts on an otherwise neutral environment. But for the anthropomorphizer (myself), the relationship is flipped. The world is always already teeming with feeling. How to tread lightly enough? How not to disrupt all of the complexly intertwined and subtly vibrating threads? Last year I planted a Meyer lemon tree in our sun-blasted L.A. front yard. Excited, I shook out the root ball, as, in another life as a hack landscaper, I’d learned. Two months later the tree was still vibrant. Six months later it was dead. Upset, I spoke to a tree specialist who told me it takes months for a tree to fully feel, or display a response to, a traumatic act. I was blown away. The idea that things are living all around us, feeling things at vastly different speeds than we do, is potent.

When writing, I’m much happier editing than composing and I do it with almost desperate urgency. For me editing is a way of composing. And, as you point out, some of this does have to do with the conversation we’ve been having about holes, boundaries, the impossible but very real hope of shoring up a container (in this case, the body of the story), while at the same time, feeding the opposite urge, i.e., privileging a kind of openness or refusal of containment altogether.

In this way, it was somewhat of a torment to turn in the final draft of Large Animals. My editor Julie Buntin was EXTREMELY patient with me. Then, when I received the long-awaited finished object, I couldn’t open it for at least a week—worried about what sentence might already be begging for a different shape. Authoring (defining the borders of, promoting, standing with) anything is hard, and often my less-navigable quagmire is off the page, where I wish I could intervene on my everyday in-person life in the same writerly way as I edit a story. Luckily we can’t and instead exist here in the more rugged, immediate, provisional zone! 

Finally, about the story “Jeff,” I have to ask: Did you really meet Lily Tomlin? And did she really call you Jeff?

Yes. She was so nice! She called me Jeff.

Sarah Elizabeth Adler is a writer living in Washington, D.C.