The Big Idea: Cassandra Khaw

In Nothing But Blackened Teeth, author Cassandra Khaw looks at the ties that bind us… and why we might not cut them even if we have the tools to do so.


Nothing But Blackened Teeth is about zombie relationships. The shambling half-things we all find ourselves stitched to by circumstance, its body rotting, oozing infection into the places where they’re bound to our own flesh. We’re brow-beaten by Hollywood into thinking that relationships all have a singular outcome: either they endure, or they shatter because of death and nothing else. There are no other options, no palatable alternatives. Anything else is just repellent.

So, we stay.

We stay because those relationships are familiar. We stay because of sunk costs. We stay because we have good memories of the person and because we’re tied to them, because our identity includes the phrase ‘we’re also friends with X’, we make excuses for their new belligerence, their recent obsession with conspiracy theories, their nascent politics, their nastiness. We stay, we try so hard to stay.

Except sometimes, that’s the worst thing we can do for ourselves.

As I get older, I’ve come to value the time investment of relationships more. I’m pushing forty, and with that number, I see where the horizon ends, where it empties into a perfect black stillness. It’s nowhere near an immediate concern as of yet. My family is excruciatingly long-lived and to date, exactly one female relative has died and she keeled over at the grand age of one hundred and two. I have time, but I am increasingly aware of how limited that time is. And with that awareness, I’m realizing how ferociously I want to guard what I might have.

We don’t get back any of the hours. None of them. Every moment we’re allocated, every second, every minute, all of them are finite resources. Once spent, they’re gone forever. And more importantly, the same is true for everyone else. What’s worse, we have no idea as to how much time any of us have. For all that we might live to be a hundred, there is no guarantee the same will be true for our friends and our loved ones. We all adhere to the idea that the general life expectancy these days is about seventy-something or so, and go about our lives safe in the knowledge we should be able to, statistically speaking, expect those calculations to be true.

But outliers are surprisingly common.

Shit happens. Disease happens. Cancer, heart attacks, aneurysms. Hell, COVID, for fuck’s sake. There are a million ways to die and there is no guarantee that Death will wait until we’re seventy-something to inflict such things on us. Given all that, it feels almost blasphemous to me to think about wasting that time on people I don’t care for and people who don’t care for me. Especially if the reason behind such expenditure is, ‘we’ve known each other for a long while.’

Life is short. It is always getting shorter.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a little bit of me grappling with that understanding of the world, and it is also me looking at relationships that have necrotized, and the ways we try to accommodate that rot, how we pave over things, how we smile over each other, how we apply blush and powder to the moldering skin, and try to frame everything in the best light.

There are relationships worth saving, relationships that improve because people talk and people go to therapy and people listen when they are told, “This isn’t how it should be.” Those exist and god help me, they’re some of the best relationships you can have, romantic or otherwise. Then there are the ones in this book, where the friendships have dimmed into ghosts, and well, we all know what happens when we fuck around with the dead.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “read excerpt” link). Visit the author’s site. Follow them on Twitter.

6 Comments on “The Big Idea: Cassandra Khaw”

  1. Fantastic Big Idea summary, but would like to know a bit more specifics of the book itself, including plot and characters. Not asking for spoilers, just a bit more concrete info.

  2. Relationships that have just gone quiet – both people being busy – I’ve found to be valuable on resurfacing. There really is something about people-who-knew-you-back-then – as long as they are doing good and not evil with that knowledge.

    But yeah. Not the dead ones.

  3. The flip side of this is also Hollywood, the view that you are owed perfection in your life and that the people around you are characters in your drama. There is a lot to be said for settling for what you have, even if the people you’re settled with don’t live up to your personal standards for their supporting roles. There’s a pretty good chance that if you leave you’ll never find the perfection you’re looking for, and will have lost the things you have.

  4. I am still not sure what this book is about but I bet it’s creepy, yet in a way that uses beautiful phrases that you can’t get out of your head. At least that’s what the other books by this author are like (the ones I’ve read anyway).

  5. Yeah, I’m also confused as to the plot of this?

    But this did trigger some stuff for me re: friendships. I’ve lost some friendships I really wanted to keep during the pandemic because those people have drifted off and stopped communicating, and I don’t feel like we’re going to be able to reconnect later (if there ever is a later) given how things are going.

    Meanwhile, I have one friend who wants to keep me, but she’s…difficult…and honestly, I wouldn’t mind if this friendship ended or at least wouldn’t be bothered, but I stick with it because at least someone wants me.

    I have a lot of friendship angst in pandemic, is what I’m saying.

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