by Jess Arndt
Published 2017 by Catapult
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1936787487
By Noah Sanders
There is an abundant feeling of being lost in Jess Arndt’s debut short story collection, Large Animals. The characters in the diminutive volume float through various forms of limbo—emotional and physical to be sure, but also geographical. It doesn’t matter if Arndt’s mostly nameless narrators are roaming the streets of New York or festering in a shack in some hellish desert landscape, they drift from situation to situation, attempting to espouse meaning where none may exist. The stories collected in Large Animals are about characters in the midst of transition, in the long endless moment between Point A and Point B where the boundaries of our lives have broken down and possibilities seem—for better or worse—infinite. These are worlds where the normative rules of existence haven’t been broken, just temporarily sidestepped on the way to whatever might be next. The past has occurred, and the future is inevitably barreling toward these characters, but Arndt’s aim is the often times harsh grey space that lives between them. In Large Animals, Arndt explores what it means and what it looks like to be what we as conscience beings always are, in the process of change.
In “Beside Myself” Arndt writes, “Recently I’d been gripped with a phobia about places. It seemed to me that places were inevitably marked by their future potential.” The fear of what comes next or what happens when someone actually arrives wherever they’re supposed to be, weighs heavily on Large Animals. The collection is replete with characters who aimlessly wander and find solace in skidding to a halt just on the edge of actual arrival. The final destination in Large Animals isn’t an achievement, it’s a burden, a far heavier one than the continued pursuit of a hazily defined existence. More than this, Arndt seems to be saying that there is no actual demarcation of moving from one phase to the next, but rather we exist in a state of perpetual transition. Our arbitrary wants and needs propel us forward, but we do so as a chaotic jumble of thoughts and emotions hog-tied together into a constantly shifting bundle we loosely refer to as our identity.
And there is an urge to categorize the stories in Large Animals as primarily about gender transition, but a reader would be amiss to limit their scope. These are stories about characters who may identify as transgender, but Arndt allows them to be vessels for questions about the general act of navigating the multiple identities contained within. Many of the stories in this slender debut feature characters grappling with another entity—subconscious or otherwise—living beneath their skin. In “Together”, her narrator grapples with both a Mexican-born parasite and her own relationship and identity ennui; in “Jeff,” the narrator fantasizes about abusing a thick-necked, sexually aggressive bro she fears she might be. “Jeff” is the crown jewel in this outstanding debut, an unsettlingly funny tale in which Lily Tomlin mistakenly refers to the narrator as Jeff, hurling them into an identity crisis. The brief story captures both the anxieties of transition—physical, yes, but life’s as well—and how they bleed into our relationships, our friendships, the very core of who we are.
There are times in Large Animals where the writing veers towards the experimental, the overly surreal, and the sense of being lost overwhelms. Arndt’s writing is the compass that guides though, the angular prose darkly humorous and disquieting but still steeped in a warm bath of humanity. We stumble along with these characters, grasping for their coattails, their sense of being lost mirroring our own. Arndt is a cartographer of the steadily changing landscapes of existence. Her stories don’t map with the intention of revealing a destination, but rather at illuminating the nebulous territory that precedes it.