• Frances Whorrall-Campbell

(REVIEW) Large Animals, by Jess Arndt

Frances Whorrall-Campbell reviews the experimental fiction of Jess Arndt's Large Animals, originally published by Catapult Books in the US and more recently by Cipher Press in the UK. Exploring the lively registers of Arndt's highly physical, scale-shifting and out-of-joint prose, Whorrall-Campbell finds many encounters with queerness, porous bodies, anxiety, desire and metamorphosis.

> In the opening story of Jess Arndt’s latest collection, Large Animals, the narrator remembers an art class spent painting the Taj Mahal. The ‘dome had a nice full onion shape but those moon-facing spires that lined the central tomb had confounded me […] I looked at my spires, their tips lopsided and heavy, tugging down toward earth. Boobs, I’d thought’.[1]

> This character is binding: the resolutely earth-bound mausoleum is a self-deprecating stand-in for their compressed chest. Just as the spires fail to convey the eye unilaterally heavenwards, the narrator feels their flattened tits to be similarly terrestrial in ambition. Despite deep discomfort with both their body and the binder, they are unwilling to go under the knife; their perpetual distress instead manifesting itself as a pathological aversion to change. They seem to be experiencing a failure to launch, tethered by the sense that things will never properly align: their body, the spires – everything is always an unconvincing amalgam of masculine and feminine, the phallic and the mammary.

> An uneasy resignation to this fact – the feeling that ‘nothing matches’ or ever will – permeates Large Animals.[2] Ardnt’s narrators seem to inhabit a world with which they are wildly out of joint. Detached and disproportionate, their bodies and minds stumble through the stories that contain them without much social or spatial grace. The awkwardness of existing is expressed in painfully literal images that still somehow slide past its reality: Ardnt’s characters share a bed with a horny walrus, converse with authoritarian parasites, and wake up with immobile, wooden faces.

> This uncanny mix of the bestial and abject has its own naïve charm. Arndt’s visceral style is gauche, tacky (often quite literally given the amount of bodily and other fluids encountered in the course of the collection) – the very opposite of the refined elegance or high theory of a work like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), to which Arndt’s collection has been compared. While Nelson has the whole canon of feminist, motherly and queer literature to pick from in composing her writing, Ardnt – like other trans and gender non-conforming writers – finds a scarcity of language adequate to describe their experiences.

> More vulture-like than magpie, Arndt scavenges absurd odds-and-ends from real life, grappling with the verbal effluence of sensual knowledge in the hope of pushing it into some serviceable shape. In ‘Jeff’, the narrator’s struggle with language aligns with the author’s, via several worried asides. Describing some ominous palm trees, Arndt writes: ‘now I write moribund – it sounded plausible, but who knows? Better to have said doomed, expiring, or how about at the end of one’s rope?’[3] Although directed here at an external object, this fumbling for the correct words is symptomatic of the illiteracy many trans folk face when verbalising their own sense of self.

> A large part of the blame for this linguistic deficit can be levied at a mainstream literary culture which has routinely handed over the reins of representation to cis-gender people, leaving trans readers at a constant distance from their comrades. Even in The Argonauts, despite Nelson’s best efforts to faithfully recount her partner Harry’s gender trouble, her writing still talks over him and his opposing relationship to the power of words. But there is also a larger problem: that of the fundamental illegibility of such lives in a cis-heteronormative society that demands strict adherence to its mythic gender binary. The narrator of Jeff falls victim to this in an unexpectedly revealing case of mistaken identity. As their more feminine name is misheard or misread, they find themselves shunted to the other end of the gender spectrum – an imposition that is both disconcerting and strangely exciting.

> It is ironic that the satisfaction of finally being recognised comes at an instant of misrecognition. In Large Animals even happiness doesn’t quite line up but must be snatched from the jaws of contingency, resignedly accepted when accidentally bestowed. The narrator’s new name ‘felt like a consolation gift. Like the universe saying, Hey, sorry about that boob thing. Oh, and we kind of flubbed in dividing the world in half, and language as an enforcer of binary divide? Yeah. Not to mention bathrooms. OOPS. But gosh, well… here’s Jeff.’[4] A kind of uneasy passivity reigns in Large Animals. Characters find themselves stuck between one falsehood and another, unable to live out either expectation ‘correctly’ – whatever that might mean.

> The result is a kind of existential purgatory: a state of rippling anxiety in which Arndt’s narrators are constantly buffeted by the tides of other’s opinions. Withdrawing into this limbo is a kind of paradoxical safety mechanism: a way to reduce the external friction of existence that has the unhappy side effect of ratcheting up internal angst. It is as though the narrators are seeking to pre-empt any potential discomfort from strangers by drawing it tightly into themselves, in an act that is not so much of generosity or submission (though it might be shamefully felt as such) but protection – an attempt to avoid the reprobation and violence that can come with being out in the open.

> Unsurprisingly, bathrooms make a return as the site of this internal conflict. It is refreshing to read an account that confronts so frankly the daily dance many trans people have to do in this arena, and I appreciate the black comedy of the particular kind of toilet humour engendered by Arndt. The story ‘Been A Storm’ presents ‘holding it in’ as a bodily manifestation of internalising other people’s bad feelings. Stopping at a gas station on the way to a funeral, the narrator is unable to relieve themselves without either revealing their assigned gender or entering a potentially dangerous space. Forced into loitering awkwardly in the back lot, they end up buying a Styrofoam cup of fishing tackle. Rather than unburdening themselves, they come away with something added: a nest of tubular bodies twitching on the passenger seat – companions in abjectness.

> Arndt is preoccupied with the problem of navigating one’s own fraught sense of self alongside the projected image received from others. They put the stakes of this conundrum plainly in an interview with Argot Magazine: ‘a certain amount of lived time not being recognised, or, floating in between periods of recognition, makes maintaining a consistent body hard.’[5] One has the sense of the body as both porous and sticky – picking up the visions of others like burrs that cling, or a parasite working its way under the skin, compromising this boundary and changing its shape. The embodied self is a restraint against which the narrators of Large Animals chafe, as though they have got stuck putting on a turtleneck (or a binder perhaps) – pulling the material outward, stretching it to breathe.

> This squirming is reminiscent of Gayle Salamon’s pronouncement that the production of all gender (whether normative or not) relies on ‘a disjunction between the “felt sense” of the body and the body’s corporeal contours’.[6] Salamon identifies a ‘productive tension’ that exists between one’s physical materiality and liquid consciousness, a tension trans people often seek to resolve through recourse to the body’s potentiality and engaging a speculative self-image – projecting (or assuming) a body.[7]

> Arndt’s desire in Large Animals to push against the borders of the body is a similarly imaginative act. They speak of how their characters are ‘edge-walking (in an identity way)’, straddling that same chasm between felt and physical, interior knowledge and external perception.[8] Pressing this edge outwards, widening it into a path or a new dimension, is perhaps the work of this collection. Arndt’s writing has shape-shifting, kaleidoscopic qualities. The reader barrels through dizzying shifts in scale – zooming from miles of mute desert to microscopic sperm in a matter of sentences.[9] These leaps are reminiscent of nature documentaries, and Large Animals might at times be described as a strange zoo as objects and people take on bestial characteristics. Fridges bare their chilly ribs, blankets stare back with woolly faces, whilst the ‘human’ characters squirm and shit and eat in full view of the reader.

> Animality is a way to warp more than just the constricting boxes of gender. The binary that divides human and beast, animate and inanimate is pulled out of shape, pressed on both sides until it breaks in a torrent of cross-contamination. Large Animals is literally ‘visceral’ – as in, full of viscera – blood and guts bursting from bodies, leaking from orifices. In the story ‘Third Arm’, the narrator experiences an explosive transformation into a black bear: ‘My pulse was ragged. My gut hurt. Then it gushed at me: I was hornier than I’d ever been. Feeling the [lawn] mower near me, sensing him completely, cell by vacant cell, I was going to bust, discharge molten spunk, cave inward, fuck anything in sight.’[10]

> The metamorphosis is liberating; rushing across species, detonating the body, provides a freedom far in excess of any other transition. The narrator is given permission to be more than themself, to unleash their instincts and appetites to run wild without the shackles of human self-censoring and inhibitions. Yet this revelation is felt as something terrifying, and the story’s ending of reads like a scene from a horror film. Arndt paints a lurid, cinematic image: the narrator bearing down with gore-covered claws as the college dean backs away in wide-eyed fear. It is full-on Hammer horror camp, uncomfortable in its exposure of an anxious mind’s automatic script brought to its illogical conclusion.

> The mutuality of the dread that runs through Large Animals is striking. Narrators are afraid of own freakishness, afraid of the danger they might visit on others just by being; afraid of dissolving, of killing, of going too far. Yet whilst this fear is deeply rooted its source seems to be external – found in the terrified eyes of a colleague or the mispronunciations of a stranger. One has the sense of a redoubling of the anxiety around gender and queerness, only pushed into a new, creaturely shape. There is something very raw and painful about reading such monstrous characterisations, the familiar recoil internalised as a sense of our own potential danger to others as queer people – never mind the real asymmetry of violence at play. Becoming animal is not an escape from the opinions of others, but we are made so through these veryjudgements: as Arndt reminds us ‘animals are only animals because they are observed’.[11]

> But what is reading other than observing? Large Animals extends this fraught dynamic to its own relationship with the reader, resulting in a text that is ill-at-ease with itself. The collection is like a pot of water on a stove: at times a rolling boil, at other times a simmer. Arndt goes to the difficult places and then pulls back, leaving the reader foundering in a vortex of bold revelations and backpedalling. It seems that the writer’s embodied anxiety has leeched onto the page; agonising about the body of the text becoming a distraction from Arndt’s inability to pronounce finally on their physical form. As the narrator of ‘Beside Myself’ describes: ‘even when editing, for instance, 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.’[12] Realising that one has the power to shape a text or a body leaves one with only more dilemmas.

> Returning to the opening story ‘Moon Colonies’, the narrator’s vacillation over top surgery resonates differently. Their resignation to the meaningless nature of any of their decisions is compounded by (or perhaps even covers) a maddening sympathy for their own discarded flesh. Binding their chest tightly, trying to make the appearance of pecs from breasts, is an analogous act of fitting material into a preferable replacement. This overlap between the body and the body of the text in Large Animals is its final trick in discomforting the reader. It is as though Arndt’s words have sidled up close to breathe in my face, dissolving as much as they can the cage that keeps the text at a safe distance, implicating both author and reader in the itchy anxiety of the world they present. Large Animals chafes with the discomfort of living on the edge of identities, and reading it you will too – if you haven’t already been rubbed raw by these same experiences.

[1] Arndt, J., Large Animals (London, 2020), p. 15-16. [2] Adler, S. E., ‘Interview with Jess Arndt, author of Large Animals’, Argot Magazine (2 November 2017), https://www.argotmagazine.com/journalism-and-discourse/interview-with-jess-arndt-author-of-large-animals (28 September 2020) [3] Arndt, Large Animals, p. 25. [4] Arndt, Large Animals, p. 28. [5] Adler, ‘Interview with Jess Arndt, author of Large Animals’ [6] Salamon, G., Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality (New York, 2010), p. 2. [7] Ibid., p. 2, 4. [8] Adler, ‘Interview with Jess Arndt, author of Large Animals’ [9] Arndt, Large Animals, p. 133. [10] Ibid., p. 79. [11] Arndt, Large Animals, p. 148. [12] Ibid., p. 139.


Text: Frances Whorrall-Campbell Image: Cipher Press Published: 6/11/20