Ambiguity as a Daily Experience: Talking with Jess Arndt


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.


Author photograph © Johanna Breiding.

Melissa Wiley is the author of the essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in places like DIAGRAM, The Offing, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob's Tea House. She lives in Chicago. More from this author →