In Nelly Reifler's new novel, we're introduced to a diminutive protagonist with a good heart and a robust furry belly. A widower, and, yes, a mouse, H. Mouse loves his two daughters, Susie and Margo, with a profound and sometimes melancholy adoration. His campaign for State Judge, based on his generous philosophy that "we are, each of us, born in a state of grace and innocence," has strong public support. In darker moments, though, when his past slips out from the shadows, it is hard for H to include himself in his belief "that no matter what someone may do, even if it causes great harm, it is the result of stresses and abuses that tainted their basic, innate moral sense."
When members of the Sunshine Family, a radical religious cult, kidnap his daughters on the day of the election, H. knows better than to call the police. In his world, there are only two characters that can handle a job like this. When he arrives poolside at the Dream House, Barbie and Ken are already furiously busy; ecstatically penetrating each another as their teenage ward, Skipper, looks on. Reifler wastes no time in exposing the seedy underside of their world. Here and throughout the book, the idea that children's toys are intended to represent a simple, sanitized version of our grown world—yet they often embody our darkest impulses—is explored to delightful effect.
In three narrative threads, we follow the travails of H's children, Margo and Susie Mouse, as they are indoctrinated by their captors; H's election and full-time worrying about his children; and Barbie and Ken's hilarious and sordid path through the under-realms to find Margo and Susie, which includes a sex shop blackmailing, a human trafficking operation manned by G. I. Joe, and lots and lots of sex.
Margo's relationship with her father is at the center of the book. In her, we witness the devastating and ordinary burden of the precocious girl-child, who finds herself privy to, and subsequently protector of, her parent's vulnerabilities. H. Mouse, as she keenly observes, has "no idea how fragile he [is]—and sometimes, when she look[s] at her father across the room at a library fundraiser or teatime meet and greet for his constituents, she half expect[s] him to crumple into a helpless and rumpled pile of cloth, like a pillowcase that's been left in the dryer." Reifler's sentences are as simple as blades, and some of the most affecting moments are the quietest, such as H. Mouse's revelation that, "Susie might be fine, even if she wasn't. And Margo might not be fine, even if she was." Indeed, it is as finely wrought a portrait of a father, and of sisters, as any I've read.
Those who read Reifler's first book, See Through, will recognize the particular kind of spooky sweetness that is her trademark. And though the depth of humanity demonstrated by these characters is the book's most striking quality, unfortunately, much more will probably be made of the book's superficial aspects—Barbie and Ken are having sex! What gives?
So, eager to label the book, many will reductively call this "experimental fiction"—again, it's toys we're talking about. Slapping such a reductive label on this book, and dismissing its basis in universal human quandaries, is an unfortunate impulse. Such habits ultimately ghettoize literature that finds new ways to de familiarize the "real" so that we can see it anew.
Here is one definition of art: Using the imagination to name aspects of our experience that a literal definition fails to encompass. And doing so in a way that mesmerizes its audience, that casts a spell beyond truth's gravity. Call it beauty. The definition of an extraordinary work of art? One that defies classification. By this definition, or perhaps any other, Nelly Reifler has created a true and extraordinary work of art.
Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010).