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Latch-key Fantasia or Noir Subversion? Nelly Reifler’s Elect H. Mouse State Judge


Latch-key Fantasia or Noir Subversion? Nelly Reifler’s Elect H. Mouse State Judge

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Latch-key Fantasia or Noir Subversion? Nelly Reifler’s Elect H. Mouse State Judge


Published on August 6, 2013


The first signs that something’s amiss in Nelly Reifler’s debut novel come in the opening scene, as H. Mouse sets up his ballot box in his front yard, looking up and down his street at his neighbors’ houses. “All had real outlets with real electricity,” Reifler writes, “in which you could plug real lamps that really lit up.” The houses have other things inside, as well, but it’s hard to shake that initial unease: Why do we have to specify that some things are real?

Elect H. Mouse State Judge unfolds perhaps not so much like a dream, but like a perverse playdate with the contents of a 1970s toy box dumped onto the floor. When H. Mouse’s two daughters are kidnapped by a religious cult modeled after Mattel’s Sunshine Family dolls, he can’t call the police—an official investigation would halt the election and derail his judgeship—so he turns to Barbie and Ken, private investigators/freelance enforcers who spend most of their downtime having sex with each other by popping off their partner’s heads and limbs and sticking their hands in the holes as Skipper, left to her own devices, watches…

But what keeps Reifler’s story from being simply an increasingly baroque game (“And then Ken and Barbie went to GI Joe looking for information…”) is the narrative’s elaborate underpinnings. When children act out stories with dolls, action figures, toy soldiers or what have you, the characters’ psychological motivations are largely simplistic, if they’re ever consciously acknowledged. But Reifler probes deep into her characters’ interior lives. H. Mouse has a complex backstory filled with guilty secrets. As his youngest daughter, Margo, resists the Sunshine Family’s indoctrination techniques, she begins to recognize uncomfortable truths about her own family dynamic. And while Skipper deals with the frustrations of being forever on the cusp of puberty, hard-boiled Barbie faces her own dark night of the soul…

Or maybe it is like a playdate, if you can imagine a child left unsupervised with her toys for the afternoon in front of a television with a particularly dark programming lineup, absorbing all the stories about brainwashing cults, human trafficking, government corruption, and noir fatalism and re-expressing them through her toys.

However you want to think about it, Elect H. Mouse State Judge is a seriously unsettling short novel. Though I grew up in the 70s, I don’t remember the Sunshine Family—we were more of a Fisher Price Adventure People household—but now I can’t ever think of them without Father Sunshine’s dark theology of Dodecahedrons and Vessel Bodies bubbling up to the surface. I can only imagine what the effect would be on somebody who actually grew up playing with those things.

Ron Hogan is the host of The Handsell with Ron Hogan &…, a video series where authors and independent booksellers offer reading recommendations based on the books you already love.

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