Elect H. Mouse State Judge
Faber & Faber, 2013, $11
Nelly Reifler's Elect H. Mouse State Judge is a smart, deep-hearted page turner of a novelette. Forget any doubts about reading a book with a mouse at its center. Reifler, who lives in Malden-on-Hudson and teaches at Sarah Lawrence, has skillfully packed big elements—childhood, suspense, sex, longing, violence, religion, love—in one small, swift-moving, adorable package. If that last descriptive tidbit seems just a bit mouselike, it may not be unintentional: Reifler easily works on many levels at once, mini to meta. Within this dollhouse-scaled world dwell very human extremes.
Running his successful campaign on a platform of progressive idealism, local politico H. Mouse is privately flawed, a man haunted by past acts. On election night, his two daughters are kidnapped from the Mouse residence, a small and tidy house in a small, tidy neighborhood. Taking a page from the universal playbook on political damage control, Mouse eschews the police for the more discreet services of a couple who work as private eyes. The couple lives with the woman's younger sister in a fancy, two-story house complete with elevator, palm trees, pool, and inflatable chairs.
That the Mouses are actually mice; that the kidnappers, a family of backwoods-dwelling religious fanatics, are Sunshine dolls (a '70s line of hippy-ish, calico-clad dolls); that the private eyes are Barbie and Ken, and the sister is Skipper—is not entirely beside the point. Those little details that make them recognizable as mice, or dolls—furry, round stomachs, bendable legs— underscore their emotional lives. The Sunshine family have "hinged arms that clicked back and forth"—a primitive rigidity that also underlies their unwavering, scary fanaticism. H. Mouse sits on his porch in a "real wood rocking chair" and is usually hungry—he often seems to find tangible reality too novel to take action, and he has a hungry, yearning soul.
The most enjoyable characters may be Barbie, Ken, and Skipper. Barbie, apropos to her many real incarnations, can wear many hats (all of them cute). She's an unapologetic narcissist with fabulous accessories. She and Ken are drawn to each other like pink magnets. "Poolside, they humped, slamming against each other, grinding, wedging their legs into each other's crotches. Skipper watched in her plaid jumper, bored," Reifler writes. I remember, at seven, using Barbie and Ken to act out my bizarre misconceptions of how sex worked, and one can almost see a seven-year-old puppeteering them together here. Reifler also nails the dim self-awareness of poor Skipper, condemned to preteenhood: "She couldn't decide if she was missing something, or if she was the one that was missing."
The book's narrative structure suggests childhood as well: Every chapter is loyal to a singular point of view, so each character can only move forward in time, and plot, so much at once. Such is the way I remember playing: Set up the dolls, enact something, be interrupted, leave them just as we put them, come back and pick up where we left off. Apparently, Reifler based the book on stories she made up in her own childhood, involving a family of mice, the Sunshine family of dolls, and Barbie and Ken. What began as a private project turned into a book. I'm glad it did, and you will be too. Part Beatrix Potter, part Kafka, it's a total delight. Appearing 8/17 at 5pm, Golden Notebook.