The children of a candidate for a statewide position are kidnapped by a death cult. The candidate, not wanting a high-profile media investigation so close to election day, hires a pair of investigators to quietly bring his kids back. From there, things get ugly.
That’s the plot of Nelly Reifler’s most recent novel. The catch is that the candidate and his children are mice, and the investigators the candidate hires are Barbie and Ken. The book is titled Elect H. Mouse State Judge. It’s an intentionally weird mixture of childhood playtime, lurid 1970s sex mysteries, and the fable-like storytelling of Aimee Bender (whose adoring blurb is published on the front cover) and Kelly Link.
The use of childhood metaphors to elaborate on adult concepts is nothing new, and there’s always something a little jarring about it. For instance, in Reifler’s world, Ken and Barbie are really into having vigorous sex:
Barbie and Ken were fucking. They were fucking and screwing and doing it. They did it like bunnies and dogs and horses. Poolside, they humped, slamming against each other, grinding, wedging their legs into each other’s crotches…Barbie popped off her head, and Ken stuck his hand inside the cavity where her neckball had been.
”Oooh, yeah,” said Barbie.
”Oh, baby it feels so good to be inside you,” said Ken. “Do you like this? When move it like this?”
”Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes, I do.
Ken grasped Barbie’s head and lifted his right leg up. He stuck his foot inside her head. Barbie moaned. The whole orange inflatable deck shook as Ken rocked in and out.
The word “neckball” seems to be an unofficial term — it’s nowhere on any official Barbie websites — but it’s pretty much perfect, and this is very likely a realistic depiction of how young girls play with their dolls after they learn the rudimentary facts of life. But Reifler’s conviction is what sells it, her willingness to embrace the language of childhood, even as the descriptions get as explicit as they possibly can when describing two people with no genitalia making a vigorous attempt at intercourse.
The language in H. Mouse plays all this very straight. It often adopts the singsongy cadence of a children’s book, as when H. Mouse considers why he wants to be judge: “He would decide who gets what. And whether this one or that one goes to jail or goes free. He’d talk to the citizens about fines and rewards.” The lyrical, plainspoken English primer voice makes the cruddy side of things feel that much more ugly: “H. always thought he had a clean kitchen; he hadn’t realized it housed a tiny world of dirt and decay.” This is a classic noir setup, a descent from innocence to longing to the horror of knowledge. That it’s set in a world that’s half-Wind in the Willows and half-Toy Story only makes that innocence-lost narrative even more plain.
Of course, when reading a story like this, the question always has to be “what’s the point?” Why graft the lurid language of smarmy pulps with the imaginative play of childhood? With H. Mouse, that point is not entirely clear. At just over a hundred pages, H. Mouse should strike like a polished dagger at the chest of the reader, piercing their heart with a pinhole through which all the blood in their body should pass. But in practice it’s more like a hatchet, instead. It surprises you with its swiftness, and its brutality, but it pretty much makes an unrecognizable hash of its target.
Fiction does not always have to make a point. But when you’re mucking around with symbols as potent as these — ideas like anthropomorphic mice and hypersexualized plastic icons — you are trespassing on the very land where ideas are born. If you don’t have a point, or if that point is not clear, you’re asking for trouble. H. Mouse is fun and it’s funny and it’s weird, but in the end it seems to exist solely for the sake of existing. That’s not a good enough reason to crack open this particular box of toys.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant