Picture this: You’re driving down a Florida highway. It’s nighttime, although if you put the windows down, you’d never know. The air is hot and heavy, sits on you like an old dog would: completely. Depending on which of the Florida highways you’re driving along, you see pastures, the ubiquitous orange groves, fields of grass, telephone poles stringing together in an unending daisy-chain. The highway you travel down may be newly paved, or historically old. Perhaps you’re driving through a stretch of the Ocala National Forest—one of three National Forests in the state!—and shitting your pants because driving through an eerily pitch-black forest at night by yourself is terrifying. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to be cruising by downtown Orlando, and you get to see the city on fire, lit up like the only constellation in the sky.
Reading Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth is like taking an afternoon drive down the I-4 of my memory. Is that the gay club…? Is that the Publix…? Is that the…? It’s like putting a View-Master up to my eyes and clicking through my own Florida history. Conservative family. Click. Closeted lesbian. Click. Depressed and stressed and just trying to figure life out. Click.
Not that I find myself identifying with Arnett’s protagonist, Sammie. In fact, I despise Sammie. Probably more for the parts of me I can see in her than not, but let’s change the topic (much like you’ll find Sammie quickly does when things turn uncomfortable for her. See?).
With Teeth is Arnett’s second novel, after the New York Times best-selling Mostly Dead Things, and it doesn’t suffer from the infamous sophomore slump some artists go through after such a spectacular first hit. It’s gripping. At just over three hundred pages, it only took me a night and a half to finish this love letter to the lesbian, Central Florida lifestyle (emphasis mine, because the North Florida, South Florida, and Panhandle Florida lesbian lifestyles are all extremely distinct from the Central Florida one, and I say this with no exaggeration. Florida is basically four states shoved into one unhappy peninsula). I would’ve finished it sooner if sleep hadn’t taken me hostage for a time.
It’s labeled variously as literary fiction or lesbian literature, but With Teeth is more like a horror story to me. Maybe that’s because I’m a horror writer. I’m always looking at things slightly on their side, trying to prise the grotesque from the cracks and corners. But the novel starts with an attempted child abduction and ends on—spoiler—the realization that Sammie is way more fucked up in the head than you’d previously ever thought possible, so I think it fits the label “horror story” quite well. I don’t know if Arnett would label herself as anything other than a 7-Eleven scholar, but I think she’s right up there in the ranks of modern horror writers.
Let’s talk about structure. Micro first, then macro. The novel is told from Sammie’s point of view, most of the time. At the end of select chapters, we get small glimpses into the lives of the people around Sammie, the ones she seems to forget exist when she’s not interacting with them. Other than Myra—who surprised and saddened me with her staying power (she deserved better)—every character given an aside does just disappear. We get to see the events Sammie is witness to (Samson at one point accuses her: “You do nothing. You never do anything,” calling out her life-as-witness instead of participant) from the perspectives of the people who were, let’s face it, almost always wronged in some way by this disaster of a family. My personal favorites were from the perspectives of two different therapists and Monika’s fiancée (she truly deserved better).
With Teeth is broken up into four suites, four seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall. Winter and fall, the shortest seasons in Florida, are of course the shortest sections of the book. Fall, as is typical, is only slightly shorter than winter, but it holds the most for someone like me, who hates the balmy, never-ending Florida springs and summers anyway (yeah, that’s right. I hate Florida’s warm weather. Not the hurricanes, not the gone-in-a-flash thunderstorms, not even the occasional tornadoes. I hate the heat, the humidity, the sticky way the weather clings to you. I moved to Chicago for the cold).
Winter and fall exist like cages bracketing the lives of married couple Sammie and Monika, and Samson, their son. We never fully experience those colder months with any of them—winter is a memory of a stiflingly hot December, when Samson was almost abducted as a child, and fall is a set of emails from Sammie to Samson once he’s off to college, trying to discuss the events of that day. We’re dragged through the swampy humidity of spring as Sammie’s relationship with Monika crumbles and breaks apart; we swim through the syrupy heat of summer while Sammie tries to recognize the person she’s become and Samson makes his way through high school. The years slip by like floss through teeth, not because they’re important, but because they represent the stifling repetitiveness of living a life that makes you so profoundly miserable.
And miserable that life is. Sammie is no longer in love with her live-in, almost-ex wife, just with the idea of what she was at the beginning of their relationship. She quasi-hates her son, can’t seem to relate to anyone around her, and keeps making the same mistakes over and over again (something her therapist, Aja, comments on in her aside). Monika spends more time out of the house, piling more and more of the house’s upkeep and their son’s upbringing on Sammie, finding ways to keep her cheating somewhat covert. Samson is possibly the antichrist incarnate, if we view him through Sammie’s eyes. Of course, we can’t trust anything seen through Sammie’s eyes. At least, that’s how I felt after finishing the book. I thought, maybe this is someone who’s redeemable, maybe she really was just fucked-up and couldn’t control what was happening. But as I read the last e-mail Sammie sends Samson, literal chills went up my spine.
To me, Sammie is like that quintessential internet legend: Florida Man. You know you shouldn’t keep watching the train wreck that is Sammie’s life happening page after page, but much like each new article about Florida Man you see on your Twitter feed, you’re helpless to the pull. You wonder, could Florida Man have really done all that? Could Sammie have really semi-stalked her neighbor? Could she have really bit her son so hard around the wrist that it scarred? It’s all too much for one woman, surely. Much like Florida Man, there’s almost no good in Sammie, and you just have to brace yourself to see what she does next.
But because With Teeth was written by Kristen Arnett (everyone’s gay dad ready to welcome you to the party with a beer), sometimes Sammie comes up with golden nuggets about being queer that take your breath away:
[Sammie] learned early on that it was important to build her own family… It wasn’t until later that she realized that these women were queer, too—that the reason she’d felt so understood and embraced by them was that they’d gone through the same problems she was experiencing. To be queer was to build your own community. To embrace the people who loved you for yourself and didn’t expect you to change to suit their hang-ups.
Then she tends to ruin the profound moment and warm feelings garnered very quickly thereafter:
She’d thought about that day so often that it felt like a dream, wondered how her life would have changed if he’d succeeded. If she’d just let him take her son.
This moment of reflection—which comes after Sammie arrives at the church she had gone to with her parents growing up, pretends a baby is hers for an unsettlingly long amount of time, and then disappears—is immediately followed by an aside from a church office worker who thinks about Sammie with pity and empathy. She reflects on the horrified way she reacted to Sammie, that she couldn’t reach out and offer help to the strange woman who wandered into the church she loves. She wants nothing more than a chance to do better by this mysterious woman she’d never met before, and (as we know) will never meet again. Sammie spares no thought for the people around her, though; all she can focus on is whether she should’ve let her child walk away with an abductor over a decade before.
Sammie’s relationship with Samson is at the heart of everything in this book. It’s not called With Teeth for no reason. Her love for Samson only exists with teeth attached. It’s bloody and painful and leaves scars behind. Most of the time, she doesn’t even really seem to love him at all:
[A]nd, my God, as she watched her one-year-old clamber around, drooling onto the tile and the clean front of his red corduroy overalls, she realized she hated him, too. She hated her baby and she hated her wife, but most of all, she really hated Sammie.
As the queen of drag, RuPaul, herself asks us, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” I’m not sure if I believe that, but it does seem pretty evident in this case that if Sammie fundamentally hates herself, how could she love her wife or her child?
I’m not exactly sure why Arnett chose to go this route with Sammie’s character. She feels irredeemable to me. I can make some educated guesses, though: Sammie was raised by extremely conservative parents in an overwhelmingly religious community. She doesn’t understand how to have a relationship as a parent, because she never had a relationship with her own. Sammie doesn’t know how to function on these basic levels because she was never taught to. I think it’s a real testament to the reality that found families are so important to queer people, because we often have to give up our birth families when they no longer accept us. But when we isolate ourselves to a romantic partner, when we’re unwilling to work on and through our trauma, we perpetuate the same cycles we lived through ourselves.
She hates herself so much that sometimes it feels like Arnett has taken the words right out of my own self-critical teenage thoughts:
Sammie let her gut resettle again over the lip of her pants. No use sucking it in if nobody was even paying attention. Her body was never really her own, was it? It was always for the benefit of somebody else’s gaze. A body was really only ever on loan, Sammie supposed.
Sammie’s whole life feels like it’s on loan, at least from the way she tells it. She spends the entire novel obsessing over a twin that Samson reveals he cannibalized in the womb. A girl, she says, even though Monika only ever calls the baby-that-could-have-been it. She resents Samson for the way he consumed her baby girl, her Hope. She constantly imagines what her life would be like if this twin hadn’t been eaten, certain that it would be better in every way. So much so that she almost always misses the best parts of the child she actually has:
She felt a gentle pressure on her shoulder and she started, dropping the blanket. It was Samson… His face had the same impassive look, but his hand on her was soft. He kept it there as she wiped at her face and pulled herself together.
“I’m sad,” she said, unsure if she was telling Samson or herself. “I’m really fucking sad.”
“Let’s make the bed,” he replied.
It wasn’t the first time that I sat back and reconsidered how I felt about Samson. He does some incredibly shitty things, too—how could he not, learning from the moms he has—but this moment is so soft and tender that it hurts. Her honesty, his gentleness, the way they make the bed together. It’s a scene that sat next to me as I finished the rest of the book.
Of course, that’s not how I ended up feeling by the book’s end. Arnett sets you up for things changing for the better: Sammie is in a relationship with Myra, Monika is engaged to fiancé Megan (Sammie makes a joke about all the M-names that I have to assume comes directly from Arnett; she must’ve shaken her head at herself by the time she realized), Samson is doing incredibly well with his swimming and is preparing to head to college in the fall. Maybe this is everyone’s second chance at a new beginning.
All of that is ripped out from underneath us in the last few pages of summer. I don’t want to tell you exactly what happens, because I think you need to be caught by just as much surprise as I was (and even that feels like saying too much. As Roy Trenneman says from The IT Crowd: “Oh! Now I know there’s a twist! I’m going to spend the whole film guessing what it is! Damn you, Dominator”). I’ll just leave you with the sentence that describes exactly how I felt, exactly when I felt it: “Sammie saw a hole open up on the floor in front of her, a big, dark sinkhole, and realized she was on the cusp of blacking out.”
Suddenly, I was second-guessing everything I’d assumed throughout With Teeth. I’d just read almost three hundred pages from the point of view of a character whom I was trying to like, or at least to empathize with, and suddenly those last few pages hit. Once you read them, you’ll understand when I say Arnett has a gift for the Shyamalan-style twist. You will question every single thing you just read, everything you thought while reading, everything you’d decided was set in stone. Was anything you read real? Did any of it happen the way you thought? Are you losing it? Do you really have to go back to the beginning and try again to get it this time? To see it?
Or should we just do what Sammie tells Samson to do in the last lines of the book: “So let’s just agree to let all this go, all right? We’ll just drop it. Like it never happened.”
And maybe it never did.