All Too Human
Elect H. Mouse State Judge
Faber & Faber (2013)
I’m a fan of talking animals. Not the benign Mr. Eds of the world, but more like the monkeys and mice of Kafka, the goldfish of Etgar Keret’s dark and magical “What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” and the super sunny piglet of Babe (both movies) (seriously). What I mean to say here is the animal represented in possession of a complex human consciousness is about as uncanny as it gets—as familiar, as it is alien—and when done especially well can deepen our understanding of humanity. Think of Eden’s talking serpent in Genesis, and how it happens he’s a whole lot more interesting than Adam or Eve, possibly even more human. If not for him, neither would ever come to know doubt, regret, imperfection, or death; which is to say they would not be human at all. In Elect H. Mouse State Judge, Nelly Reifler’s totally twisted and perversely wonderful debut novel, she goes one further by removing humans from the story altogether. Actually, make that two further because Reifler adds creepy talking dolls.
The story sort of goes like this: H. Mouse (yes, a talking mouse) is running for State Judge and we meet him just prior to Election Day. Things are looking promising for H., he’s ambitious, well meaning, and well liked; except, like all politicians (and non-politicians), he’s got skeletons in his closet. Can he keep them secret while the public casts their ballots? Now add to this a kidnapping. H.’s daughters are nabbed by members of some violent apocalyptic cult, a family of four, actually (mom, dad, daughter, and son), and forced to live in a van hidden back in the woods. Can H. save his daughters? And perhaps more importantly, to H.’s regretful surprise, will the kidnapping mar his election? Is this really what worries him, after all? I mean what kind of father has he become? Now imagine this same manic scenario, but peopled by not only talking mice, but at least one chatty lizard, plus fully animate Ken and Barbie dolls, G.I. Joe’s, and Sunshine Family figures that fight, kill, and fuck with abandon:
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 I move it like this?”
How can anyone read such a scene—it keeps going—and not see the sexual act in a totally new and frankly refreshing way? Not to mention the ensuing apocalyptic rituals, the semi-automatic gunfights, and the sex trafficking. This is a very dark comedy.
And yet for all its mad action there are quiet moments like this one from Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister, mid-revelation, in which she ponders the truly sad and static state of perpetual youth:
Outside it was warm and she could hear the parrots chattering in the driveway. She gazed out at the moonlit landscape. She tried to remember the first time she’d ever seen it, but nothing came to her. But she knew she had a past, because she remembered a different time. It had been a time when she’d believed she was in some kind of transitional phase and that she would soon become like Barbie. This had not happened.
Peppered throughout are nuggets like this of, dare I say, meditative questioning and philosophical pokes that are genuinely moving: What does it mean to be alone? What does it mean to change? What does it mean to be a “real”? What does it mean to be good? H. Mouse himself wonders about this very question, even as he steps away from the podium “sweaty and spent,” “his disembodied voice echoing through the room,” and not quite believing his own campaign speech. Elect H. Mouse State Judge is not so unlike real life, it turns out, albeit a distorted and exploded version: a strange and freewheeling trip graced with occasional notes of meaningful awareness.
SCOTT CHESHIRE is the author of High As The Horses’ Bridles. He is the interview editor at the Tottenville Review, a co-host of The Workshop podcast, and teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop.