Jess Arndt’s debut story collection “Large Animals” (144 pages; Catapult) is intellectual but not above bathroom humor, morbid yet always in service of troubling divisions—between genders, between oneself and another, between different versions of oneself. The stories are richly metaphorical but their strangeness is presented matter-of-factly, as if events are taking place in an enhanced version of the world we know, one where the façade of propriety has been stripped away to reveal reality’s grotesqueness.
Though all of the stories are in the first-person, the identity of each speaker is malleable: They’re in states of transition along with their surroundings—if not on the edge of change, then they are longing to change, or are suddenly, irreversibly changed. They’re concerned with how to tell others about their change, and afraid of the permanence of it, afraid to undergo change alone, but also afraid to do so in the presence of others.
“La Guele de Bois” is set in a “city whose sole monument is a comically upturned syringe.” For the last week, it has smelled like linden trees—which smell like the “blossomy funk” of semen—one of many perfectly evocative details in the collection. “I’d woken up with a wooden face,” the protagonist says in Ardnt’s typically deadpan tone. This begins as a crisis but by the end of the story, the protagonist is distraught when another character fails to recognize the face’s difference.
In “Together” (which opens, “We had it together but we also had it when we were apart”), a couple has returned from a trip to Mexico with a “relative of giardia partying in our now shared intestinal tract,” which has given them both diarrhea-like symptoms. Though the speaker is supposed to be taking pills to treat the infection, he instead buries them in the garden—a way to stay connected to his partner—if only fluidly—even as their romance is floundering.
Arndt’s prose pushes the limits of grammar and sense even as it perfectly depicts her characters. Her sentences are colorful and condensed, strange and beautiful, often deriving their emotional effect from clever combinations of image and sound. The opening sentences of the first story, “Moon Colonies,” embody the alienation of the protagonist, a transgender man considering sexual reassignment surgery: “In the morning the waves glowed like uranium, a deep sweat coming up off the seafloor. It was beautiful but it was nerve-wracking too, being that close to the future.”
Similarly, Arndt captures the odd humor of the asparagus-like weeds growing behind the couple’s apartment in “Together” in the way they are “pubing skyward.”
Arndt is linguistically nimble, sometimes pivoting the focus of a story, once well-established, on the sudden appearance of a new proper noun. “But this isn’t even what I wanted to talk to you about,” says the speaker of “Jeff”—a story which, until this point, has chronicled her fascination with the Penthouse 808 Ravel, seemingly the narrative’s crux—“There’s something more pressing, something I call ‘Jeff.’” It’s as if, with a single word, Arndt drops a lens onto the camera-eye of the reader. This is her strength as a prose stylist and a storyteller: reshaping the way we see.