Jess Arndt is like a queer Kafka who perambulates the surreal container of the body by dealing almost wholly in non-sequiturs

Large Animals: Stories by Jess Arndt
Jess Arndt, Large Animals: Stories, Catapult, 2017.

“Jess Arndt’s Large Animals is wildly original, even as it joins in with the classics of loaded, outlaw literature. Acerbic, ecstatic, hilarious, psychedelic, and affecting in turn, this is an electric debut.” ―Maggie Nelson

Jess Arndt's striking debut collection confronts what it means to have a body. Boldly straddling the line between the imagined and the real, the masculine and the feminine, the knowable and the impossible, these twelve stories are an exhilarating and profoundly original expression of voice. In “Jeff,” Lily Tomlin confuses Jess for Jeff, instigating a dark and hilarious identity crisis. In “Together,” a couple battles a mysterious STD that slowly undoes their relationship, while outside a ferocious weed colonizes their urban garden. And in “Contrails,” a character on the precipice of a seismic change goes on a tour of past lovers, confronting their own reluctance to move on.

Arndt’s subjects are canny observers even while they remain dangerously blind to their own truest impulses. Often unnamed, these narrators challenge the limits of language―collectively, their voices create a transgressive new formal space that makes room for the queer, the nonconforming, the undefined. And yet, while they crave connection, love, and understanding, they are constantly at risk of destroying themselves. Large Animalspitches toward the heart, pushing at all our most tender parts―our sex organs, our geography, our words, and the tendons and nerves of our culture.

“[A] bold new literary voice, borderless and brave.” ―O, The Oprah Magazine

"Reading Arndt is like walking toward a shimmering desert mirage and being met with a cloud of acid instead of an oasis of cool water. . . . A deeply transgressive, riveting shot out of the gate. Arndt is one to watch." ―Kirkus Reviews

"Arndt’s short stories are delicious flights of fancy, or obsession, or fertile curiosity―or, more accurately, some beguiling combination of all three...This is a playful and provocative collection, full of sly, deft turns of phrase and striking imagery." ―Publishers Weekly

"Arndt tells stories that resemble handfuls of ribbons―vibrant, overlapping, tangled, seemingly more middles than beginnings and endings. . . . Arndt’s keen, wild stories are truly original, and readers will hope for more." ―Booklist

“Arndt’s vivid, rollicking stories represent a new kind of American outlaw literature, of transgression and nonconformity and queerness and heart, all told in a propulsive, original voice.” ―Literary Hub

"The stories and the characters within defy description and deal with identity, gender dysphoria, and body dysmorphia. They’re stories for anyone who refuses to conform, or struggles with a changing personal narrative, to the point where even language can barely express the way they feel. Often hallucinatory, sometimes transgressive, usually queer, and always human, these stories about bodies go straight for the heart." ―Brit + Co

"Strange, smart, and probing... an important voice on timely questions of the body politic." ―Elle

“Each time I pick up a book, this is the voice I’m hoping to hear. Honest, agitating, queer, visionary. Arndt refuses binaries, haunting the space between. The pleasure of Large Animals is in the bite.” ―Justin Torres, author of We the Animals

“Jess Arndt has crafted a queer uncanny, an eerily recognizable landscape of dark magic and darker humor where the instability of bodies, desire, relationships, and the self take on a supernatural dimension. A tremendously exciting collection.” ―Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave

“Metamorphosis―of time, of space, of character―is exposed in every playful sentence of Large Animals. Language will not be kept in its form. Life, poetry, gender are always in the process of transformation, and this fundamental condition is at the heart of Jess Arndt’s stories. Large Animals is a strange and beautiful must-read.” ―Dorthe Nors, author of Karate Chop and So Much for That Winter

"[Arndt's] stories don’t map with the intention of revealing a destination, but rather at illuminating the nebulous territory that precedes it." ―The East Bay Review

"Jess Arndt’s writing is so strange and imaginative that it provides release from the real world." ―Dayna Evans, The Cut

Teetering between the everyday and the surreal, Arndt’s debut collection investigates narratives of the queer body.
Many of the unnamed narrators in Arndt’s stories defy categorization. Even in their own thoughts, they skitter up to the boundaries of language and glance away, unwilling—or unable—to put a name to their identities. “I’m like know,” attempts the narrator of “Been a Storm” during her brief roadside encounter buying fishing bait from two backwoods misfits. In the sardonic “Jeff,” a chance meeting with Lily Tomlin, who calls Jess by the wrong name, sets off an imaginary battle between Jess and Jeff, the alternative identity she both loathes and longs for. In “Third Arm,” the narrator obsesses over the feeling of “carrying around something that wasn’t mine,” while in “Together,” a couple deals with an intestinal parasite taking up room—literal and figurative—in the dregs of their relationship. Nothing in Arndt’s worlds is straight. Through the haze of alcohol or drugs or self-loathing hallucinations, characters elbow for space with frightening visions that exist just outside what is real. They morph into animals or become literal representations of figurative language; they flee the instability of inner turmoil only for their existential fears to manifest as larger-than-life visions. Reading Arndt is like walking toward a shimmering desert mirage and being met with a cloud of acid instead of an oasis of cool water. You’re not sure what just happened or whether you’re the same now that it’s over. Maybe you were never there to begin with.
A deeply transgressive, riveting shot out of the gate. Arndt is one to watch. - Kirkus Reviews

Arndt’s short stories are delicious flights of fancy, or obsession, or fertile curiosity—or, more accurately, some beguiling combination of all three. All 12 pieces in her debut collection are written in the first person. It could arguably be the same narrator in each, perhaps the author herself—or not. Often the stories seem to end abruptly, albeit usually meaningfully. “La Gueule de Bois” riffs on a trip to Paris, “the city whose sole monument is a comically upturned syringe.” “Jeff” features a brief encounter with Lily Tomlin. “Can You Live with It” juxtaposes musings on Raskolnikov and Crime and Punishment with a kind of pub crawl through various colorful bars. “Moon Colonies” explores tacky, yet strangely beautiful Atlantic City: “In the morning the waves glowed like uranium, a deep sweat coming up off the seafloor.” In “Third Arm,” which is full of puckish phrases—“the gag of cars,” “a pudgy dark had descended”—the narrator feels herself at odds with her rebellious body. And in “Together,” the longest and most plot-driven story, a couple contracts a mysterious malady that slowly breaks them apart. This is a playful and provocative collection, full of sly, deft turns of phrase and striking imagery. - Publishers Weekly

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. -

For the first time in my life I paid extra to have legroom in an airplane. I was getting over a cold, but also I wanted to stretch out and fully enjoy Large Animals by Jess Arndt. You see, Jess Arndt is like a queer Kafka who perambulates the surreal container of the body by dealing almost wholly in non-sequiturs.
Many a great story in Large Animals, Arndt’s debut collection, has a strong resemblance to Kafka’s shorter fiction — which, unlike his longer work that deals with bureaucracy, are rather works of gorgeously, painfully strange portraiture in which one is irredeemably ill-made for the world. Arndt is fond of creating a constellation of small desires for her characters that are hilariously specific, and as with Kafka’s shorter work, her stories turn on the heel of making one seemingly insignificant obsession lie in wait and then ambush the biggest questions of selfhood.
There is no question Jess Arndt would have made Kafka blush.
To wit: in Third Arm, an English Professor drives around touching herself while avoiding her love life and pretending to be largely endowed. “I only liked jerking off while driving — otherwise the sincerity of the act completely killed me,” she quips. This unnamed character sees healers at the Authentic Process Healing Institute, and also, she carries a bit of unspecified gore in alcohol in a jar.
Arndt’s stories are built like this—in as many compelling directions as possible. But invariably, one direction rises above the others. The bit of gore — described as apricot-sized, mostly made of fat, and with darker globs — finally turns allegorical. As you are busy ticking off options for what the jar could possibly contain (an amygdala? definitely an organ?), Arndt continues breathlessly: “It made me think of a bar I’d been to near Joshua Tree.” It is here where you get an answer of a different kind as the unnamed character recounts what she told the bartender: “Scientists have proven that matter doesn’t exist. You see a foot but when you get past all that skin bone squishy stuff et cetera, nothing’s really there,” which is a subterfuge lobbed at the mysterious jar, but also to the feeling of being mismatched with your body which artfully haunts this entire collection.
Arndt’s imagination is amusing and far-flung. Her characters are amorphous and refusing of a gender binary, and the construct of each story is a delight. In Together, two lovers share an STD, in Jeff a misheard name introduction (Jess to Jeff) drives a low-key identity crisis. In the title story, Large Animals, a man who is perceived to be a lesbian whiles away his time in the desert where Walruses seemingly materialize by his bed at night. (Only one story in this collection was a miss for me, Shadow of an Ape, which details the rather confusing ordeal of a man in 1860’s San Francisco gold rush.)
There are some eerily stunning sentences in this collection, nonetheless, foremost of all in Moon Colonies, the opening story where a threesome haunt the Vegas strip chasing after myriad temporary playthings:
In the morning the waves glowed like uranium, a deep sweat coming up off the seafloor. It was beautiful but it was nerve-racking too, being that close to the future.
The great unresolved discomfort of perception and body punctuates the landscape in all the stories in Large Animals, and each character finds themselves at the mercy of a conniving version of the self that is overpowering, stacks the deck, and ruins the possibility of what is precisely most desired. In this sense, Large Animals is a collection of humanity reaching toward what might be graspable but remains painfully out of reach. At one point, Arndt writes:
Then it’s spring break. I go on a wine tour. We stare into the big sweaty vats of red. “Wine fermentation,” the expert says, “happens when all of the individual grapes explode against the walls of their bodies.” How nice, I think, for them.
This is a delightful read, perfect for the burgeoning summer, where the fact of the body is always at odds with the life of the mind. -

It’s easy to get sentimental about animals. There’s a fantasy, explains writer Jess Arndt, that they will “somehow redeem us, or return us to our sinless selves. I don’t think I buy it. I listened to my cat torment a giant bug all night.”

The narrators in Arndt’s new story collection, Large Animalswhether an uneasy bartender serving Lily Tomlin or a gardener fighting irascible weeds — are surly, out-of-bounds, staunchly individual. The collection explores lives that tend toward violence and transgression. Maggie Nelson called the book “outlaw literature.” Arndt told me that she hopes “that the book’s line of inquiry holds open a little space for a different kind of multiplicity. A multiplicity that stretches or pokes at everything, including species.” (“Yikes,” she added. “That’s a big claim.”) As a whole, the book sometimes seems to capture one of the most satisfying elements of a nature documentary: dramatic shifts in scale. There’s a micro-assessment of a small beast just trying to find shelter, and then a zoom-out to reveal ideas about a whole species.
Below, Arndt talks about writing in alternative forms, wanting to be an arctic creature, and the animal books of her childhood.
There’s a lot in Large Animals about growth, nerves, membranes, plants, animals. Do you have a particular interest in biology?
I’m definitely not a scientist but I think part of what you’re picking up is a general sense of feeling at a strange distance from my own body. There becomes an observational quality. Can I be in it? Am I in it? Am I looking at it from outside? What if my body wasn’t my body but actually attached to another body, like plant or animal, would it be easier? Where are my borders? Where is the natural world’s borders?
Someone says in the last story, “Animals are only animals because they are observed.” It reminded me of the mind-blowing college-y idea that the idea of “nature” was a construction that came after urban density. For every new concept there’s going to be an “other.”
Who is part of the group and who’s not part of the group? I think that that’s a feeling I’ve had in my own body as early as I can remember. Not knowing anything about sex or gender, except that I didn’t want to be labeled as I was, as the world was labeling me. That flattening effect, where it’s not totally comfortable to be in the human body or the human gendered body, I think pushed me outward into an exploration of other surfaces or a hope of finding connection in other surfaces.
Is there something about observing animals or nature that particularly causes you to question human form or human nature?
There’s a fantasy about animals that they’re not so caught up in the human conundrum that’s so judgmental and cannibalizing of self. In some ways, animals are more a ball of impulses. I don’t think that’s totally ethically where I stand when I think about the animal kingdom. My narrators reach towards that — I feel animal and because I feel animal, I’m worried about what I might do. For instance, in “Third Arm,” the narrator is having visions and dreams about having a bear form, and that that bear form is a representation of violence of otherness. Even though it’s moving towards human connection, it can’t actually realize that human connection.
Do you anthropomorphize animals?
Oh, totally, but I also anthropomorphize objects, if that’s the right term. I’m trying to make sense of this 3-D world that we’re in. Everything I think — to me and to many of the narrators in the stories — has a loaded, latent sensory feeling to it, that is something pleasurable and also something possibly dangerous. Everything seems like it can hurt and be hurt and that makes a challenging landscape, I think, for the narrators to know themselves in and also to move through.
Some of these stories follow characters scared of their own power — tell me about writing that tension, that self-awareness about being a little out of control.
I’m sure my therapist would say that that worry comes from the opposite, feeling little access to power. I do think that there is something that is hopefully changing now that was embedded very early in me about being different and being different in a way that didn’t have a very articulate form. My earliest memories were of getting a sense of how the world worked and also getting the simultaneous sense that I didn’t work that way.
I’m 38 now, so that means I was coming into the those feelings in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. That was really scary. I had a sense if I shared any of those feelings that something bad would happen to me but also, somehow conversely, that people would be worried that I would do something bad to them. That by association somehow, they would be hurt, they would be tainted. I think that that is somewhere in the threads you see in the narrators — the capacity for a nameless wormy grotesqueness that they might inflict on others.
Do you see a connection between writing about nonconformity and the style of your stories? They tend to be unconcerned with genre or traditional structure — is that something you find helpful in exploring the theme of queerness, or is a coincidence of aesthetics?
Yeah — I was talking to Maggie Nelson the other day and she called the stories disobedient and indifferent to form. I totally agree and this probably is their form! [Both] having a queer content, but more deeply arising out of trying to explore and give language to something that is difficult to talk about. I don’t think that that is only experienced by queer subjects, but more basely around having a body, being in a body, being in the world being uncomfortable with being in the world, realizing that you have an impact on the world and also knowing that it impacts you.
Language has always been hard for me. Coming into language as a subject, who has a lot of contradictory feelings that our culture doesn’t necessarily support, is difficult. This is my first book to come out as a collection, but I wrote a novel before that and I really struggled with gender in that novel. Not because I wanted gender to be the main subject of the novel, but because it was hard for me to give the narrator a place to stand, pronoun-wise. I rewrote it like four times — he, she, they, I, you. It was everything, third person, first person, somewhere in between. What I realized what I was doing in that work was using a story to cover myself up. Somewhere along the way I hit this form with the short story where I could really start to dissect myself and my inarticulateness. So the stories are really as much as gender and selfhood as they are like coming to language. That means that the weird form that they’re in, is just as much a part of the story as anything.
Did you grow up reading all the animal literature — you know, Watership Down and The Call of the Wild?
The Velveteen Rabbit killed me as a child and I still can’t even look at it or pick it up. I was raised on those books and the adventure novels, like Jack London. Julie of the Wolves was a really big book for me, where she becomes part-wolf or they become part-her. I think many of the characters have fantasies, whether negative or positive, about somehow merging with an animal source.
I’m jealous of a book I haven’t read, a book called Memoirs of a Polar Bear. Without me even picking it up, that book is singing to me. I’m like, I’m a polar bear. Not in all of the cool ways of being a polar bear, but in all of the “lost in the wastes” and “in danger of becoming extinct.” We find that blur in the animal world. It’s a place of wildness or aloneness or possible safety because you’re not like being judged by human beings, but then it’s ultimately fragile and in peril because of where we are in our world right now. - interview by

Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (131 pages; Catapult) traps its characters in self-constructed cages and puts them on display, presenting a bevy of cultural concerns about identity, sex, and the human body. Ranging from the 19th century to contemporary San Francisco and New York, the twelve stories in Arndt’s first book prove startling in their variety and verisimilitude, and challenge our notions of gender and the binary divides that too often fail to define us.
In “Beside Myself,” we witness the austere life of a woman attempting to impregnate her wife by using her brother’s sperm. Here, as in many of the stories, the reader inhabits the aching body of the protagonist, and empathizes with her while questioning one’s own physical insecurities as the narrator morosely remarks, “among all life-forms, humans alone [are] defenseless-vulnerable blobs clothed solely in skin.” A blend of the bizarre and believable, every story in Large Animals is voiced by individuals battered by the daily toil of living as outsiders. No story captures this motif more than the title story, wherein the narrator’s mundane life is disrupted by recurring nightmares of animals in her bedroom. As the animals become a burgeoning obsession, they develop an order in her dreams, a kingdom with a bestial hierarchy in which the “massive, tube-shaped” walrus reigns. When the walrus speaks, its words are obscene but devoid of context. The narrator’s nocturnal encounters rapidly deteriorate her life, revealing her dormant sexuality and animalistic lust towards a fast-food worker even as she struggles through a vicious divorce.
And in its short shorts like “Containers,” where a decision to stay home and smoke weed rather than party with friends compartmentalizes an identity crisis in less than three pages, Large Animals proves wickedly entertaining. These are modern fables of the body exposing a naked perspective on femininity, masculinity, and the need — or lack thereof — for human relationships.
Carnal and experimental in tone, expressed in Arndt’s beguilingly casual and frequently colloquial prose, Large Animals is equally vivid in its depiction of human vulgarities as in its exploration of the body. It prowls through our preconceptions of the sexes, paring back its fallible, idiosyncratic character to render a raw and unnerving portrait of the self. “Animals are only animals because they are observed,” one character says, and here Arndt observes the largest animal, exhibiting our fears and our instincts. -

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. - Noah Sanders

I heard a lot of hype about Jess Arndt’s collection of short stories, Large Animals, that centers the body, and was excited for its arrival. It did everything that was promised—but turned out just not to really be my thing.
Arndt’s collection confronts the weirdness of having a body. Arndt digs into gender dysphoria, into illness and parasites, into transness, queerness, and the struggles of being a biological being in our world. The characters speak with an ambiguity that allows queerness to flourish in a formal way, in a way that refuses to be binary and avoids labels. All those are good things, and they’re why I pushed through this collection to the end. In some of her stories, that ambiguity and centering of the body results in absurd and darkly almost-funny tales. My favorite was “Together,” where a parasite haunting a couple mirrors their slow falling apart, the main character’s self-destructive tendencies flowing to the front of their struggles. But I also really appreciated “Moon Colonies,” where a gambler hits it big in Atlantic City; “Containers,” a short story that packed tons of great social commentary into just a few short pages; and “Large Animals,” where the main character sees “walri” in their room at night.
This collection was an “It’s not you, it’s me,” problem. From the first few pages, I knew I’d delved into a kind of story that I recognized and didn’t personally like: the semi-vulgar bodily tale of sex and failings where the main tone is some sort of shame or confusion, and where the language is heavily pretentious (not necessarily in a bad way). There’s nothing wrong with those, and I would also say that Large Animals was obviously going to have the explicit descriptions and bodily absurdity, and I was ready for that—but I find stories with that heavy secondhand embarrassment, that physical and emotional shame, difficult and unenjoyable to read. Maybe the point is for me to feel uncomfortable, but it’s never been a kind of story that I’ve wanted to read, and so I found some of these stories hard to get through and enjoy. -

Life within a body is hard. In Large Animals, Jess Arndt takes a truth so obvious that we tend to ignore it and renders that truth absurd, hilarious, and a little bit redemptive. As someone who defines the body as essentially “a swarmy, queasy place,” Arndt revels in the body’s inconvenient needs, its instability as an identity marker, and the gender ambiguity that trails her narrators from Atlantic City to the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles. She also has a fair amount of fun allowing them to morph into the odd walrus or share an inner emotional world with a chair, to dip their toes in transcendence. You could call this collection transgressive, but ultimately Arndt is after something deeper, revealing the raw emotions that surface in every kind of human container, the feelings always scratching at the skin, waiting to make contact.
There’s a kinetic restlessness afoot here as these characters wrestle with their own lovability while going to dare-deviling lengths to get love or sex or hopefully some of both. Their longing inevitably outsizes the bodies that contain it, but that’s no reason for them to stop trying to make it hurt less. Throughout all these stories, Arndt is as skilled at blurring the boundaries between external reality and that of the body as she is between male and female, natural and unnatural. She distills the awkwardness of simply being human into a primordial world where nature dissolves and intermixes seamlessly with urban artifacts and ruin. For all its lush weirdness, I found this world deeply familiar.
The Rumpus: In “Beside Myself,” the narrator’s girlfriend says at one point, “You always put yourself through stuff like this… trying to write.” I’m wondering what you’ve put yourself through to write this book as well as what your general practice is like. What have been the unavoidable costs to you of becoming a writer?
Jess Arndt: I love that you pulled that quote out. These are my favorite parts of writing—arriving at a weird little promontory or cliff of a mini-realization. The things you can’t plan for. Of course, I didn’t set out to say this or that in the story about “my” life, but when something emerges like this, that does feel true, it’s always nice. Maybe this is a way into saying that I usually hate composing and am terrified of writing fresh work. I’ll do mostly anything to avoid it, and sometimes it gets so bad that I really start to loathe myself, and even all the extra yoga and other kinds of hard-to-manage-health fixes won’t solve it. Then I know the only way out of the pit I’ve dug is: try to write.
This book has been so long in coming. I started it while living in New York—teaching in the day, often bartending at night, breaking up with somebody. And it wasn’t until I fell in love again and moved out to the Mojave Desert, as a way station to LA, that I had the mental and physical space to finish it. I do feel very porous to the world around me, and I do think I begin to feel very obligated to whatever life I set up, the people in it, the relationships, the plants, the animals, the things. So moving to the desert, where it was nothing but dry and the landscape basically said—“You can try to hunch here if you want, but I CERTAINLY don’t need you and also, good luck buddy”—was, at least temporarily, an immense relief. This feeling, of the tension between the life you kind of intuitively create as a support system and the room you might need to create your work is something I think artists are so often struggling with. It was helpful then, as you noted by pulling the above quote out, to try to deal with some of that uncomfortable vertiginous “come close, get away from me” feeling, by actually letting it pop up in the writing explicitly.
It’s painful to try to take the space to write, at least for me. It’s also funny looking back at that quote now. In one way, it still feels very true. But really I think how it works is: I put myself through stuff living, and then somehow rescue it/myself by employing it in my stories.

Rumpus: You have an enviable way with verbs: “… a line of sweat slurred along my chest binder,” “… it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me” etc. And your stories, in general, contain a lot of movement. What do you think this says about your narrators? Did you consciously try to inject a sense of restlessness into them as characters?
Arndt: Throughout my life, people have said to me (and probably say to most writers): “You’re a writer, so you’re obviously good with words.” I couldn’t feel farther from that (of course awesome, enviable) truth. To me, talking is hard. Committing to meaning via marking words down is almost impossible. Each time I enter language I’m embarrassed; I fumble around. Bodies, at least mine, feel like these big inarticulate lumps. But there is so much to feel—so much raw feeling. I think in these stories I’ve reached for a kind of maximalism of undigested feeling, but tried to arrive there through a highly controlled approach. Maybe somewhere deep down inside, I think the less words on the page the better, i.e. the less risk. So it is true—I’d rather have a verb than an adjective. If that verb can imbue the sentence with an electrical current close to what the body that is intertwined with that sentence might be feeling, even better. Best, to me, is when language isn’t allowed to describe. I like it as part of the human meat grinder: mixed up with the body it’s come out of. Also, I find with verbs, I often hit a moment of panic. It goes like: (yelled very loud in my head) “CMON HOW CAN YOU SAY THIS BETTER? MORE ECONOMICALLY? WITH MORE PUNCH?”
In terms of restlessness: yes. The narrators are not exactly restless like wanderers (although they do wander), as much as restless like: where can I rest in a world where I don’t easily find myself represented? What are the strategies—often, at least in this book, self-destructive strategies—if I cannot rest, to keep myself moving? Huge caveat here: I think this can apply to almost anyone who has a body.
Rumpus: I love how the narrator’s gender inserts itself into these stories almost seemingly at random, as when Tamara in the final story, for instance, assumes the narrator is a lesbian because his Adam’s apple isn’t big enough. You seem to be having fun with ambiguity throughout the book. How much was that at the forefront of your mind when constructing the plot of each story? Or did some of that insert itself later?
Arndt: Ambiguity is a daily experience for me. Yesterday, for instance, the parking attendant guy at the chiropractor I go to called me “sir” what seemed like fifteen times in a five-word interaction. Maybe that doesn’t seem ambiguous! But, in my everyday, I never know how someone will read me, or what they are reading “of” me. This has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember—a gender negotiation that often seems hyperbolic or arbitrary. Add to that a kind of “imposter syndrome”—i.e. what if they find out? Find out exactly “what” is never clear. I like that you bring up story construction because I do really believe that, for me, stories can’t come out apart from this or on the side of this. They’re kind of built through it. If a compressed effervescence, or gallows humor, sometimes emerges too, that’s great. I do think it’s funny (the whole system), when looking at things from the outside, if the outside is where I already am. I also think it’s crushing. Both—pretty equally true.
Rumpus: Simply being nonbinary or fluidly gendered now seems to make a political statement. In these dark days of Trump, do you feel pressured to represent a certain community through your writing? Is this—potential political readings of your work—something you’re comfortable with as an artist? Something you want to encourage?
Arndt: I think what you mean is that just “being” means something political, in our current climate. I agree. But terms like “nonbinary” and “gender fluidity” also seem like places of language arbitration. They all have their particular historical hue. I am happy to be an LGBTQ artist, a gender nonconforming artist—someone who writes up close to these things. But also, something I think you’ve quite astutely pulled from the book, is that I’m even more comfortable the blurrier it gets. The body is such a swarmy place. At least it is for me. And I have to believe that much of what I’m feeling is possible to be felt by much of this planet’s population. Don’t get me wrong—I believe in the specificity of experience, especially with regard to minority subject positions. But also, when I think: “Ugh you said ___, and it made me feel seen and also it made me embarrassed and (to approximate a line from my book because I can’t seem to make up a new one) ‘I felt like red construction paper was stapled to my throat’”—I might be feeling that way because of gender, but haven’t you also felt that way at some point? You who have bodies?
Rumpus: To me, all of your stories feel like tightly constructed collages. You’re a wizard at creating friction and movement through juxtaposition of dialogue, for instance, with kinetic descriptions of cityscapes. This has to take some intensive editing work. So I’m wondering how the revision process works for you. How much material do you have to cut to get to the final product, and how painful is this?
Arndt: “Collages” is a great word. It might just be how my particular brain works best—“put this next to this, hope some of this rubs off on this, crumple it up and pray the outside observer can feel it.” In terms of editing, though—the more I cut, usually the happier I am. The problem is, ideally (at least, I have this idea in my mind) the best way to work is to create a lot of material and then shave it down from there. I’m the opposite. I’m so afraid of composing that I’ve already edited it to bits before it gets on the page. That said, there were some painful moments when working with my real-life editor, Julie Buntin (who I owe so much to for her vision and perseverance and humor), where she felt I was being excessive, or a little overdone. I think there’s a danger in being too familiar with, or comfortable in, your work. In my case, I’d read these stories so many times. Annie Dillard talks about it in her book The Writing Life. Basically, I’d naturalized the cadences in my head so completely that it became hard to pull anything out. That’s where trust comes in I guess. Often, Julie would say “out,” and I’d say “fine.” Once in a while, though, I’d say “no way!” I’m not entirely sure if this was because I was thinking with my best writing brain, or because I was just overly smitten with a line, or because I was scared. In any case, some stayed. Give me five years, though, and I’ll probably agree with everything she suggested. Somebody said to me: fight for what you believe in because you are really the one who has to live with it. I also followed that.
Rumpus: Your narrators seem self-deprecating to the point of hilarity, though there’s a sadness also underlying this. In “Jeff,” she blames herself for Lily Tomlin misunderstanding her name, admitting she speaks with marbles in her mouth. In “Moon Colonies,” we see her leaving the woman she wants to have sex with alone in the hotel room only to lose almost all the money she’s just won at the casino. I felt most of these narrators had trouble accepting love from the people they wanted it from the most. Is this—a consistent thread of disappointment in love—something you consciously were going for? How much of this has to do with gender ambiguity, and how much with simply being human?
Arndt: I’m glad you get the hilarity. I agree there’s a kind of manic, sad quality to it.
I think it’s almost impossible to accept love from others when you don’t know how to love/accept/be with yourself. Maybe it sounds canned but, at least in my life, it’s felt true. So here are a bunch of narrators, who are really very close to the same narrator, projecting outward in order not to have to deal with themselves. Maybe this gets back to your restlessness question. The itchy, agitated state keeps them from having to fully encounter truths they might not like or know how to deal with. But it also forestalls any ability to make real connections with the surrounding world.
Being checked or challenged at one of the most basic points of entry into society, i.e. gender, makes cohesive subject formation really hard. How to be a self? In this way, “Am I recognizable? Am I lovable?” is a gender question. But again, I do think most people with bodies have felt some shade of this at some point in their lives. It is hard to have a body. To accept the container. To feel, when moving around in the world, that a cohesive, readable statement is being maintained.
(And wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to?)
Rumpus: For the most part, this book is a particularly urban creature. There’s a forceful beauty to your descriptions: “the gum trees chatter their dry long tongues” in “Shadow of an Ape,” for instance; the roots of Japanese knotweed “flanged out at the base like butt-plugs” in “Together.” This seems to embody the tensions between the natural and unnatural while also dissolving them through the vividness of your prose. Blurring the unnatural and natural likewise seems like it may comment on the body, giving us the freedom to reshape it in the same way we do our landscapes. Am I onto something here?
Arndt: I think you’re onto something, in the sense that the narrators of these stories share a permeability with the world(s) around them. And are—maybe as a survival mechanism, maybe as the special lesson they’ve entered the book to try to impart—in an unending series of blurriness-es. The disquiet (I think) comes from a lived feeling that there is no “natural”—or if there is, they don’t have entrance to it. This sounds dramatic but when I think about it, I visualize what I’m trying to describe here in 3D—as a kind of primal yell. It jostles everything. Then, from that electric Jell-O moment, it’s not such a big move to have your sexuality grow from walrus parts or to share an inner emotional world with a chair.
Rumpus: In “Beside Myself,” the narrator says, “Some bodies needed more space,” but there’s an inescapable sense of all of these narrators feeling imprisoned inside a body whose needs subject it to constant suffering. Yet at the same time I feel like this is also the source of most of your writing’s humor. How consciously, then, did you invoke humor to both offset and highlight this pain?
Arndt: Maybe you’ve located the pivot point. I often find being in a body excruciating. It is also true that I want to keep living, and to do so, I need my body. Here I am right here on the couch in the dark while my newborn kid sleeps, using my body to answer these questions. (And hoping, as he grows up, that he feels more spacious in his body than I have yet learned how to be in mine.)
About the humor? Everything is so emotionally close to everything else. Like how real happiness contains a little corner where you are also bawling. Or how everything can kind of be summed up by: I’m crying/I’m laughing/I’m shitting my pants. Humor puts us in our bodies, usually. We have an uncontrolled physical reaction that, I hope, lurches us into new space. But this makes it sound so planned. Mostly, the humor is a way for me to let off steam in a scene. And give a little lateral distance. First of all, for myself, and secondly I guess, for the reader.
Also I just have to say, there are some genius comedians who deal so deep down in the queasy body. Louis C.K. and Dynasty Handbag, for starters. And George Saunders. In my experience, the funniest writers are dealing with the hardest stuff. - interview by  Melissa Wiley

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. - interview by Sarah Elizabeth Adler