On Kristen N. Arnett’s ‘Felt in the Jaw’
This perfect collection centers on queer women in normal circumstances, and microaggressions made unique by Arnett’s stunning storytelling.
Kristen N. Arnett
Fiction | Short-Story Collection
6” x 9”
Review Format: Paperback
ISBN # 978–1974186044
Split Lip Press
The thing about Kristen N. Arnett is that she is one of the funniest people on Twitter. Arnett (or her public persona, at least) is very transparent with the ins and outs of her personal life, tweeting self-deprecating jokes about navigating the queer dating world, heartfelt praises about her local 7/11, and adorable pictures of her pets in different outfits. (Her dog in a little raincoat is particularly gush-worthy.) It’s no surprise then that humor finds its way into Arnett’s exceptional debut short story collection, Felt in the Jaw; what is surprising is the difference between Arnett’s Twitter humor and the subtle black humor of her fiction. While delving into this incredibly meaty, satisfying collection, I thought that there was no way that the Twitter Arnett and the author of these stories was the same person. This just goes to show what a marvelously versatile, audience-conscious writer Arnett is, as she is able to blend her humor seamlessly with the darkness of her collection.
You never fed your daughter from a bottle. You heard it might cause NIPPLE CONFUSION. This was a term you whispered to each other, you and your wife, back when she was still breast feeding. It had seemed like the most awful thing you could experience.
The collection is centered around women and girls, primarily those coded as queer. When it comes to fiction with queer characters, the trope is that the story will be about coming out or searching for an identity or being bullied by family or friends. (This isn’t even accounting for queer characters who are written as caricatures to serve as a sounding board for the heterosexual hero. See: literally every Hollywood film ever.) Arnett, being a queer woman herself, fills a space in contemporary literature by exploring the more neglected aspects of queer fiction: long-term relationships, having children, fights and the possibility of break-ups. You know, the things that people think nothing of in hetero relationships. Arnett’s characters are already comfortable in their identities, which allows their anxieties to go to much more interesting, less expected places. That’s not to say that the characters’ queerness means nothing; rather, it’s not the only thing about them that makes them interesting and human.
Politics is inherent in stories of marginalized populations, and Arnett’s work is no different. In “Blessings of the Animals,” Jasmine and Moira go to their local pastor to ask about booking a wedding service at his church. When they show up to the church, it is filled with people and their pets; Pastor Mark explains this is a new thing they’re doing where people can bring their pets in and get them blessed. Jasmine and Moira respond politely to this idiotic idea of the pastor’s. In contrast to their very normal request for a wedding service, Pastor Mark hems and haws, telling the couple that “they’ve never really done this sort of thing before,” all while dogs bark and shed and shit in the sanctuary. A less subtle writer than Arnett would have constructed it so the pastor refuses the service, but Arnett chooses to display the cruelty of microaggression, a much more common signal of prejudice. Pastor Mark reluctantly agrees to booking the service at the church, but insists that they get some other pastor to marry them and that they have the ceremony in the gymnasium, since the occasion seems to warrant a more “casual,” less legitimate space. A testament to Arnett’s versatility, she presents us with a situation that is both hilariously ironic and emotionally devastating at the same time.
And while it happened, Nina waited to finally feel fulfilled, but Anja was silent and made no sound as she was devoured in small, precise bites. When it was over, they lay tangled in the half-drawn sheets. Anja clung to Nina’s waist and Nina’s hands didn’t know where to set on Anja’s skin. She remembered a different day, with a different woman in the same set of sheets and couldn’t tell their bodies apart.
Writing this review is difficult, because there is so much to praise about this damn-near-perfect collection. In a broad sense, what makes these pieces stand out is the sheer fearlessness of the writing. Arnett is not afraid to be sentimental, funny, or dark with the content; most fearlessly, she does not shy away from letting her main characters feel the desire to be petty, and she often lets them indulge in that compulsion. Arnett knows that pettiness, while a mundanely human emotion, often provides the drive for stories to go off the rails. I personally love when young children experience trauma (in fiction, not real life), especially when it is fueled by the intense envy that only children can have. In my favorite story in the collection, “The Locusts,” a group of kids, cousins, play together at a family reunion. Brandy, the oldest, is jealous of her cousin Charlie, who is overly sensitive and beautiful. Secluded in an old doghouse, Brandy pushes the cousins further and further, singling out Charlie, until she finally pushes too far.
On the back cover of the book, Matthew Spektor likens Arnett’s stories to that of Flannery O’Connor, and “The Locusts” is the perfect example of that. As all the stories in this collection take place in Florida, where Arnett is proud to call her home, it isn’t surprising that her stories would take on a Southern Gothic flavor. “Biddenden Maids” embodies the femme grotesque when Bethany becomes obsessed with a lump growing in the flesh of her belly. In “lebkuchen,” Nina and her acquaintances become suddenly voracious for their spooky neighbor Anja, whose mother was suspected of practicing Wicca. Arnett plays with decay and the everyday macabre in “Notice of a Fourth Location,” where the narrator comes across a dead woman in a van and then takes the vacant position at the Dunkin’ Donuts where the dead woman used to work. Some of the stories have a stronger Gothic flair than others, but there is one thing they all have in common: a delicious disquiet that lurks just beneath the surface.
In the dream she couldn’t move, but when Charlie’s mouth finally opened, Brandy could see the locusts. Out of the darkness, a plague boiled over his lips until they flew at her. They climbed into her clothes and shoes, crawling in her hair, turning her limbs into a roiling mass of their dark, thick bodies. She couldn’t shake them off. When she opened her mouth to scream, one of the locusts crawled inside and sat on her tongue.
Arnett’s stories are both big and small, which I’ve noticed is sometimes a characteristic of stories that center on women. Our world is both overwhelming and impossibly limited. Arnett plays with this idea of magnitude by taking seemingly small, insignificant moments and blowing them up until we can see exactly how important and damaging they are. In “See also: a history of glassmaking,” winner of Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction, a lackluster night at a bar with some coworkers and a threat of violence from a man (which any woman can relate to, making it feel run-of-the-mill) is all Arnett needs to paint a crystal clear picture of Patricia’s expansive loneliness. In the collection’s title story, something as mundane as a backyard campout with one’s kids is disrupted when Tammy is bit by a poisonous spider, which requires her to call her ex, Melissa. The creativity of the situations Arnett constructs is amazing. It is a collection that will constantly surprise its reader.
In that moment, she became two different women to me: someone worthy of catcalls, and my mother, a woman who wore sloppy cut-off shorts and flip-flops, someone whose fingernails dug furrows into my arm when she was angry. Women were like that to me: intriguing and exhausting, multiple stories built into a single house that couldn’t support the weight.
(“Aberrations in Flight”)
I’m afraid that, despite my declarations of how fantastic this collection is, this review does not do it justice. Perhaps I am just a picky reader, but I so rarely come across what I’d consider five-star books; Felt in the Jaw is one of those few that has affected me deeply. The stories within this collection are so good that they are unearthly, and Arnett is a master of pacing and giving just the right amount of detail at all times. It is a book that makes reading feel indulgent because of its characteristic richness. Reading this collection was a treat from beginning to end, and I am grateful for the experience.