Noir in Toyland
Only ephemerally does Nelly Reifler's short novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge maintain a degree of innocence—the title might at first sound like a children's story (well, for children whose parents hope they'll enter into politics one day, perhaps), then you see the cover: a dress discarded in the mud, pants flung over the hood of a jeep, two sets of legs entangled, the silhouette of a mouse, presumably watching the unfolding sexual scene. Even when learning that the main characters are in fact a mouse, Barbie, and Ken, the illusion of purity is gone—and this is precisely the point. As Claire Cameron writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books:
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?
While the question may seem strange—and perhaps it would be better altered to, "How does the essential nature of childhood toys change as we age, when we look back at Barbie's molded breasts and Ken's plastic bulge as adults?"—it is an unavoidable one given then themes and characters of Reifler's novel, one that Cameron describes as "Barbie Noir." Even if a critic was to only look at this novel as an absurdist tale of crime and corruption merely peopled by children's toys and pets, the preoccupation is undeniably with children: H. Mouse's children have been abducted and he hires the private investigation team of Barbie and Ken to track them down, fearing police involvement would expose the skeletons in his closet. An irony that Cameron overlooks, however, is that in Reifler's novel children's toys are entrusted to safely recover children, to save them from the failings of their parents, yet another strange layer I haven't quite unraveled, but one that I hope to return to in the future.
If someone on your Christmas list has a healthy appreciation for noir and the absurd, you could do a hell of a lot worse than picking up Elect H. Mouse State Judge for them.