ARE HUMANS INHERENTLY GOOD? Are we born bad or do we become this way? These are old questions, so I give credit to Nelly Reifler who, in her weird-enough-to-be-wonderful novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge, adds a new twist: What is the essential nature of our childhood toys?
The book is a story of serious crimes and corruption as enacted by children’s playthings. H. Mouse, a toy mouse, is running for state judge. On election day, as the votes are being cast, H.’s daughters are abducted. Only the reader knows that the perpetrator is a cult-like figure with squeaky hip hinges called Father Sunshine. After H. wins, he and his daughters are expected at a swearing in ceremony, but there is still no trace of the girls. H. needs help but doesn’t want to turn to the authorities for fear of turning up past secrets. Instead, he hires a pair of vigilantes, Barbie and Ken, who do dirty jobs for a price.
And while the story revolves around the election and inner turmoil of H. Mouse, it’s Barbie and Ken who steal the show. Barbie stomps her stilettos and sucks on cigarettes while Ken sleazes and bullies his way through the murky underbelly of toy town. The two have sex, a lot; the story is almost noir in its unsentimental portrayal of violence and sex. Is there such thing as Barbie Noir? The term describes this work precisely.
Like much noir fiction, a defining characteristic of Barbie Noir might be a self-destructive protagonist. H. Mouse is that. In his campaign, he talks in moral certainties: If we all were given the “proper tools for moral strength and ethical decision-making, theft would end. And abuse. And dishonesty.” But the reader smells a rat (or in this case, a mouse). H.’s actions soon show a private life that is at odds with what he preaches. This tension stretches along the spine of the story.
As I read Elect H. Mouse I started wondering about child’s play. Do all children pretend that Barbie and Ken have sex? As I read, the answer started to feel uncomfortably certain. What else is a child to do with an anatomically exaggerated toy who can scissor her legs? Especially if she has a partner who has a lump for a penis?
Structurally, too, the book also feels like child’s play. The story jumps between the abducted girls, H. Mouse in turmoil and Barbie and Ken’s recovering efforts. The short chapters are quick to start and stop. Each picks up near where it left off, like the toys scattered around the room that are plucked for play by a child’s hand.
At 112 pages, Elect H. Mouse State Judge is subtitled A Novel, but it feels like a novella — somewhere between a novel and a short story. Novellas might be tricky to sell, but they can make for a griping read. In this case, the novella is a perfect fit. There is enough space to develop a dastardly plot and establish atmosphere and theme, but the focus remains tight. At a longer length, the concept could become tired. As it is, I gobbled the story down in the time it took Skipper to make her next batch of cupcakes.
Did you catch the Skipper reference?
Skipper is Barbie’s younger sister, a pony-tailed, flat-footed thing with only small bumps for boobs. If you recall Skipper from your own childhood, this book will make you cringe all the more. Reading Elect H. Mouse will summon up those long-ago memories with conflicting results. The juxtaposition of childhood toys doing nasty deeds creates odd, layered sensations. I was aware this story was a game and I was worried about what might happen next. I knew from experience that children’s games aren’t as pure as we pretend, but that’s and idea I typically ignore. Consider yourself warned: Elect H. Mouse is not for the sentimental-of-heart.
These contradicting feelings — the gap between what we do and say, innocence and experience — are at the heart of Elect H. Mouse. An elected official, responsible for the rule of law, talks about our good nature but secretly acts like no one can be trusted. Is this not the inner turmoil behind many of our current political scandals? H. loves his daughters, but they suffer because of him, his ambitions and his self-destructive behavior.
What is the essential nature of our childhood toys? We make them. We give them to our children. They are us, whether we acknowledge this truth or not. The book uses playthings shows how difficult questions about our essential nature are to tackle in reality. People do bad things. Some crimes do not have a remedy and our experiences often get in the way of recovery. Finding a balance is hard. Even kids know this. More so than we like to think.