In With Teeth, Kristen Arnett Focuses on Messy Queers and Dysfunctional Relationships

Courtesy of Penguin Random House/Photo by Eve Edelheit
Sitting at Books & Books in Coral Gables on a sunny afternoon, life seems almost back to normal talking to Floridian author Kristen Arnett. With her new book, With Teeth, releasing on June 1, and her pre-orders at the local bookstore offering personalized signed copies, the spot feels the perfect place for a conversation about how her work explores the variety of people that exist in this weird and wonderful state.

"When I first started writing [With Teeth], I was still living in Orlando and thinking a lot about queer spaces, which morphed itself into thinking about the lack of queer spaces," Arnett explains. "There's a ton of queer people in Central Florida and barely any gay nightclubs or bars or places to go. This moved me to think about the lack of queer parenting groups or anything like that.

"When I was working at a library doing storytime, there would occasionally be queer parents coming in, and I'd recognize what's going on and notice that the person doesn't feel like they can be completely comfortable. You can see the discomfort in them, and I realized being a queer mother, especially with a son, would be this double-sided coin thing."

With Teeth follows Sammie Lucas, a queer woman who struggles with raising her son, Samson, and navigating her marriage to a distant wife. Putting it this simply betrays just how messy and fascinating the couple's relationship is, but Arnett hits readers with the dysfunctionality of their relationship from the get-go.

"What would it be like to be a queer parent and feel like people already believe you're destined to fail?" was the train of thought that drove the book's writing, Arnett says.

Her previous novel, Mostly Dead Things, also explored a Floridian family through the eyes of a queer woman, but in an entirely different manner.

"With Mostly Dead Things, I was really focused on Jessa and her perspective of her relationships with the people in her family; how she thought they should function and didn't, especially with those who aren't present, and how she romanticizes or has this sense of nostalgia around them.

"With With Teeth, it was having a person who's still kind of doing those things, but the relationship with her wife and son are grounded in an unreliable narrator while also focusing on the fact that that's every family."

The novel smartly undercuts its protagonist with scenes from outsiders looking in, whether that's a stranger in a parking lot or a therapist reflecting on a session.

"Sammie thinks things are a certain way, but having these interjections — this minute of perspective — is really fascinating to me because every person offers a different facet to what they're viewing," Arnett says. "Those felt significant and gave a better sense of perspective of Sammie for myself as the author. It was a hard book to write because she's so aggressively unhappy."

Expanding on her protagonist and musing on the human condition, Arnett notes that people, by their nature, are just messy.

"I am always way more interested in someone being hella messy than someone who’s got their shit together, or maybe even someone who doesn’t learn from their mistakes, as most of us don’t," she says. "It's easy enough to say this is a good person or this is a bad person if we're thinking in a binary, but people are skewed in a hazy mess. Maybe Sammie skews a little nastier than most, but it's fascinating to me and a fun writing opportunity for me to explore tropes in queer relationships, specifically lesbian relationships, and also the way we attach ourselves to them."

Arnett brings up the usual U-Haul jokes as a prime example.

"Plenty of lesbians actually do that shit and lean into those tropes because they feel like they're necessary."

Both Mostly Dead Things and With Teeth also confront how some queer partnerships try to force themselves to adhere to heteronormative standards.

"I'm very interested in how, instead of coming to some healthy conversation or argument how a relationship isn't working for a number of reasons and ending it, [the characters in With Teeth] have a bizarre focus on maintaining a household for this kid until he graduates," Arnett notes. "This is unholy and terrible, but I think it's something that people do quite often. I can think of plenty of queer people who have stayed in relationships and, in a best-case scenario, they become like sisters or family, but quite often it turns into these built-in bad habits with the two people exploiting the things they know can hurt the other person."

The normalization of these situations ties directly into how Arnett writes Sammie and Samson's relationship, which changes as the characters grow older throughout the novel.

"There's this way that adults frame children as though they have no interiority, and the way they behave is some kind of grave issue," she says. "But once they reach a certain age, like a teenager who can express some of the interiority they've always had, it's harder to keep up that kind of thing. For Sammie, it's harder for her to say it's him that's the problem when he's able to vocalize so many issues and put it into perspective."

Sammie's self-doubt and insecurity drive much of With Teeth in a way that may be off-putting to some but all too familiar to others.

"From my own personal perspective, and maybe for others, a lot of people are trying to pass and not be seen as queer when you're young," Arnett expounds. "You're used to being able to fit into situations when you're not like everyone else. You navigate it or put on a costume or different mannerisms. But then after coming out, it's like a second kind of puberty everybody goes through; you try to figure out how to be queer."

Arnett acknowledges that Sammie is self-aware though, noting that she knows she's kind of shitty and not a great mom.

"She has this idea of how she and Samson have to understand each other because he's part of her and sees him as a reflection of herself. She doesn't have control of her own life and takes that out on her child."

Her internal conflicts are as compelling as those she has with those around her, and what makes With Teeth such a compelling read from the first chapter, in which a young Samson almost leaves with a stranger at the park.

"Sammie has this weird fantasy of her reality, how she views things in her life and certain things that she doesn't see at all," implying that Sammie believes everyone around her wants to escape their situations just as much as she does.

Throughout the book, Sammie peeks into her neighbor's window and imagines an alternate life. For the character, it's a form of escapism much akin to watching reality shows like Real Housewives.

"I feel like we've all been experiencing what that was like over the past year. We were contained in a place, and all our escapism has been through a computer screen or phone. I just thought, 'What if watching other people has become our reality now?'"

With Teeth. By Kristen Arnett. Riverhead Books. 2021. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.