Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth Sinks In | #tinder | #pof


Imagine a line of traffic slowing to gawk at a car crash: two banged-up vehicles hauled to the side of the interstate (no casualties). Now imagine both cars are on fire. And add a juggling act in front of them. That’s roughly what it feels like to read Kristen Arnett’s second novel, With Teeth, out this week from Riverhead Books. It’s a story animated by and delighting in chaos, like watching a terrible Tinder date unfold across a restaurant. And it rides on a main character so stuck in toxic cycles that she can’t help but contaminate everyone around her. In Arnett’s words, “She’s so funny to watch fuck up.” 

Her name is Sammie, and she has a son named Samson—who grows from a toddler to a teenager over the course of the book—and a wife named Monika. They live in Orlando, a sort of queer nuclear family; Monika is a lawyer who brings in the big bucks, and Sammie works freelance gigs and plays the role of primary caretaker. The story follows their life together as it begins, deteriorates, and eventually (spoiler alert) comes apart completely.

Samson is, in a word, a nightmare, at least through Sammie’s eyes. He’s uncommunicative, uncooperative, and often outright hostile. In one memorable early scene, Sammie leaves the room where she and Samson are working on a school project together and returns to find her child, the walls, the table, and the floor completely soaked in gold paint, his eyes looming out of the mess like a swamp goblin’s. In another, Samson throws a tantrum in the back of the car on the way to a therapy appointment that ends with him sinking his teeth into Sammie’s forearm, drawing blood and leaving a scar that she worries about for the rest of the novel.

The real surprise comes when Sammie bites Samson back, locking eyes with him as they break each others’ skin and leaving a matching scar. She doesn’t tell Monika or anyone else, and her silence condemns Samson to silence as well. It’s an early indication of just how twisted Arnett’s version of a family story will be. “I was thinking about the idea of how stories morph inside a household,” she said. “[Like], ‘Here’s the story, and here’s a version of the story we tell.’” She recalls an instance when she and a sibling were chastised by her parents—with whom she no longer has a relationship—for breaking a toy. “My parents remember it as being some funny thing that happened. I was like, ‘This was not a funny thing; this was a really traumatizing thing that we converted into a narrative.’” 

“They’re shared stories, and they become this narrative constructed with care by everybody taking part in it,” she continues. “Becoming an adult and trying to dismantle it, it’s fascinating because I’m unknitting the narrative structure that’s been formed.” 

Arnett also drew inspiration from her time as a librarian in Miami Shores, Florida, where she observed the “messy slop of humanity” coming and going. “Not once, but twice, someone asked me for the gum out of my mouth,” she says. “Somebody once asked me for my used toothbrush, because they said they were doing a science experiment. It’s pretty ordinary to see people doing extremely wild things. [You might think] people don’t act like that, but people act like that all day long.” 

Another part of her library gig involved running a children’s story time, where she got a close look at the mothers who attended it: women who lived their lives from house to car to kid-friendly activity to car to grocery store to house again. She watched them interact with their children and listened to them discuss their days. What she came away with was a “sense of intense claustrophobia”—an idea of a cyclical existence in which “the only outside [they’re] seeing is through the smeary windows of the car.” 

Sammie was derived from that sense of too-closeness, layered with a queer partnership devoid of a community to belong to or a model to follow. Plus, “a lot of internalized grief and weirdness” that she doesn’t know how to process. And on top of all of that, she’s kind of a crappy person. “I think there’s value in seeing the level of toxicity that exists in queer marriages [and] queer parenthood,” Arnett says. “This person is never going to be a good mom; she’s never going to be able to relate to her kid in a way that will be meaningful.”

There’s a palpable anguish to reading With Teeth; it leaves your brain feeling like your mouth after a long night of drinking IPAs and failing to brush before bed. A scene in an Orlando lesbian bar—modeled, of course, after “the one lesbian bar in Orlando,” Arnett tells me—is particularly gnarly. And there’s a twist of the knife at the very end that, as others have mentioned, feels like something out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. 

But the winner of the cringe awards occurs when Monika; Monika’s new (and much younger) fiancée, Megan; Sammie; and Sammie’s new girlfriend, Myra, go out to dinner together. It’s a painfully familiar scenario to anyone who happens to be queer: two ex-partners arrange an intentional meet-up to get to know the others’ new person. In this iteration, everyone is uncomfortable. And things go even further south over several pages of stilted, rapid-fire dialogue in which Sammie learns that Monika is moving Megan into her home—which means Sammie will have to move out. (Despite being separated, Sammie and Monika are still living together.) Naturally, she shatters a wine glass. 

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