Large Animals: A Maggie Nelson–Approved Book for Wild Creatures

Jess Arndt. Photo: Johanna Breiding

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.

Large Animals: A Wild, Maggie Nelson–Approved New Book