Flawed, but Believable: Kristen Arnett’s ‘With Teeth’ Poses Interesting Questions about Identity, Family, and Societal Expectations

Kristen Arnett’s sophomore novel, With Teeth, opens with a harrowing scene: a four-year-old boy is nearly kidnapped from a playground when his mother, Sammie, briefly turns her back. By the time she realizes what’s happening, it’s almost too late; the man who took Samson’s hand and led him to the parking lot is already luring the boy into his truck. She sprints in their direction, screaming wildly, and manages to snatch Samson just in time. The man claims he only wanted to show Samson his CB radio. Sammie doesn’t buy it and calls the police, but the man gets away.

This brush with disaster would be terrifying enough on its own. But what really unsettles Sammie is that her son seemed so willing to go — he even smiles (an aberrant behavior, for Samson) as he’s being abducted. Sammie is so horrified by her son’s apparent enthusiasm to leave her that, even years later, she’s still haunted by the memory of his “full-on toothy grin.”

Is Samson’s susceptibility really so hard to grasp? Children are gullible, often quick to trust. They are — many of them, at least — easily charmed. But Sammie’s inability to understand her son hints at where Arnett is leading us. With Teeth is a novel about alienation: from the world, from oneself, and especially from the little human you helped to create — perhaps the most distressing kind of alienation there is.

As her son ages, Sammie grows more and more troubled by his conduct, not to mention his unsettling mien. He’s not just quiet but creepily so. He rarely shows emotion.  He bites a friend so viciously he puts the kid in the hospital. At one point, Sammie looks at Samson and is reminded of Carrie — from the movie Carrie, that isjust after she’s been doused with pig’s blood in front of her fellow prom-goers. The comparison seems hyperbolic, but then he throws a cat off a balcony, and we’re forced to reconsider. Sammie and her wife, Monika, fight about their son’s disturbing behavior; their parental philosophies are mutually exclusive, for the most part. Monika isn’t even convinced there’s anything wrong with the boy. But that’s far from the only fracture in their marriage. Sammie carried and gave birth to Samson, and left her job to care for him, but Monika, a lawyer, is still yoked to her profession, and leaves most of the childrearing and housework to her increasingly aggrieved wife. Even if this is the life Sammie chose, it’s not quite what she expected.

In the novel’s early pages, we feel a justified sense of dread. Is Samson a psychopath? Will he begin torturing animals, or shoot up his school? Thankfully, things don’t get quite so out of hand. By the time he’s a teenager, he has merely graduated to spitting in a female schoolmate’s soda and urinating in public, in full view of strangers — gross and offensive behaviors, to be sure, but not quite monstrous.

By this time, Sammie and Monika have separated, but are still living in the same house. This half-assed divorce is emblematic of how Sammie’s inability to commit to a course of action – to make a bold change to improve her life or connect with her son – leaves her stumbling every time. She makes all sorts of poor decisions, many of which leave us little room to feel sympathy for her. She drives drunk with her ten-year-old in the backseat. She cheats on Monika with another woman when it’s nearly certain Samson will walk in on the act (he does, of course). While driving a van loaded up with her son’s swim team friends, she stares pensively into a texted photo of her new girlfriend’s genitals, risking the boys’ lives as well as their sense of parental boundaries. In these ways, Sammie is downright dangerous, but often she’s just childish and bratty. When she serves an overcooked chicken for dinner — a bird so charred it’s “smoking and nearly inedible… bone-dry and gristly… [and tastes like it’s] been doused in kitchen cleaner” — her wife and son, understandably, don’t want to eat it. Sammie reacts to their hesitance by throwing her plate in the garbage, “utensils and all,” and swearing off cooking for life (an oath she forgets about shortly thereafter, very much like a child).  She tells herself these behaviors are acceptable — if she eats a heaping plate of nachos, the chips and cheese will offset the many beers she’s consumed; texting while driving is okay as long as traffic is light, the weather is fair, and the road is nice and straight— but these rationalizations aren’t very convincing, and it’s difficult to enjoy Sammie’s company when she’s behaving so recklessly.

In a recent interview, Arnett acknowledged that her protagonist isn’t very winsome: “Going through that first draft,” she said, “it was like, ‘God, this asshole’ sometimes whenever Sammie would make a choice that seemed terrible.” And it’s true: Sammie is not a great person, and certainly no exemplar for responsible parenting. Part of her wants to be these things, but again and again she sabotages herself, and when, occasionally, she tries a new tactic – as when she visits a lesbian bar she used to frequent in her pre-family days, hoping to meet someone – the results are disastrous. That is to say: she’s a flawed – and therefore believable – human being.

Arnett is best in this novel when she’s exploring the disorienting plight of embodying queerness in the context of traditional, nuclear family life. Sammie worries that “the odds were stacked against them as a lesbian couple, [because] people were already judging them, sure that a boy with two mothers wouldn’t turn out right.” She’s afraid that, as a “Gay Mom” – a woman trying to find her footing in two realms that much of the world sees as incompatible – society will conspire to ensure she fails on both counts. She pines for “normalcy,” but doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what that would mean for her and her family. On top of this, she feels like a stranger in her own home, unable even to share more than a few moments of real conversation with her son. It’s no wonder Sammie is a mess.

With Teeth may lack some of the lyrical pop and flamboyant characterization that made Arnett’s bestselling debut, Mostly Dead Things, a remarkable work, but it brings to the fore many dilemmas we need to contemplate, even if they’re uncomfortable: How do we carve out an identity when the world has already decided who we are? Do we truly know the people around us, or are we really just enthralled to convenient, comforting illusions? Is Sammie, for all her bewilderment, one of the few among us who see the world as it actually is? With Teeth doesn’t provide any satisfying answers – nor should it. It’s enough to pose the questions. They’re quite enough to chew on.

With Teeth
By Kristen Arnett
Riverhead Books
Published June 1, 2021