Sunday, April 17, 2016
Book 29: Wherein a mouse makes me ponder the philosophy underlying my basic beliefs, as good parables do.
The basic storyline is this: on Election Day, H. Mouse (a village councilman with some sordid events in his past) has his daughters abducted by religious fanatics. H. decides not to call the police because they would have to investigate him, to clear his name, and he doesn't want them to find out about some of the things he's done. So he hires operatives Barbie and Ken to track down his daughters, who are being held in a van by a toy called "Father Sunshine" and indoctrinated into something called "The Power" that is sort of a religious pyramid scheme.
That's all weird enough, but, as I said, the main character is a literal mouse, as are his daughters. Barbie and Ken are toys who live in their dream house with Skipper, and the rest of the 'people' are toys or small animals who nonetheless have county elections and run pornography and sex-slave shops and drive ATVs.
While I read the book (which is really short, just over 100 pages) I kept trying to figure out whether it mattered that H. Mouse was a mouse, that Barbie and Ken were actual toys instead of people named Barbie and Ken. For most of the book, I thought it didn't really matter, that it was just something thrown in to make the story weird, like how indie movies throw in some sort of magical realism or something, a way to in effect put a bird on the story
But after I finished it and thought about it for a while, I decided that making the characters be mice and lizards and toys actually worked really well on an almost subconscious level.
One of the best and most hauntingly creepy short stories I ever read was Melt With You by Emily Skaftun. You can read the whole thing here, but in summary it's a story in which everyone in the world has been reincarnated as knickknacks, garden gnomes, yard ornaments, and small toys. They have the ability to move and think but otherwise are limited to their physical forms. The story is told by a man who has become a plastic flamingo, together with his wife. They hop around on their one metal leg and try to make a new life until a group of religious fanatic garden gnomes starts a holy war.
It's a story that is terrifying on an almost primal level, mostly because of the ending, but also because of the sheer madness of the world it posits: a world in which people believe in God and do vicious things in his name, but a world which could in no possible way be one created by a God with any sort of gentleness or love in him, given how horrible that kind of ... "life"... seems to be.
If we believe in a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, can that God be all-good, too, while evil exists? I know that's a question that's been pondered by smarter people than me. There is an argument about God's omnipotence that goes like this: If God is all-powerful, are there limits on what that power could be? For example, could an all-powerful God make a rock so heavy that God himself could not lift it? On the one hand, if he is omnipotent, then he can make such a rock -- but if he could not lift that rock, then he is not omnipotent.
I bring that up because both Melt With You and Elect H. Mouse State Judge deal with moral and religious issues in an offbeat way that allows them to discuss the message without being didactic. The message I think they are discussing is the question of whether everything happens for a reason. This is something that I believed for a long time, but have begun lately to question. In one sense, yes, everything does happen for a reason: earthquakes occur because the continental shelves are moving and create areas of friction. You end up working a certain job because of where you went to school and what you studied, which in turn is a result at least in part of where your parents decided to live and how they raised you. I often say that the only reason I live in Wisconsin is because my grandfather settled here in the 1930s, so my parents were raised here and stayed in Wisconsin which meant that I could get cheaper tuition and automatic admission to the Wisconsin bar when I graduated law school.
In that sense, my being a lawyer in Wisconsin happened for a reason, but that's not how people (including me, in the past) meant it. We meant that God had a divine plan that made it necessary for me to be a lawyer in Wisconsin for some higher purpose.
It's nice to think that. It's nice to think that people get cancer or have autism or are poor or die in a tornado at age 3 because it's all part of a greater plan. But is it true? Can it be true?
Do we want it to be true?
I mentioned in an earlier review of a book that the phrase in a song I found out I am really no one was sort of a relief for me: the idea that we are nobody and that our every action is not laden with portent can be a relief to people. Could you imagine living every moment of your life as though it was your last? Who would ever do laundry or clean the kitchen or show up to work? If we all act like we'll die tomorrow none of us would be blogging or reading blogs. Similarly, if everything you do affects the vast machinery of the universe in some important way, if choices you make this morning might mean that history turns out differently 50 years from now, the burden you would have!
I frequently point out to people that their absolute positions are absurd when taken to absolutes. When my brother said he would never go shopping at midnight on Thanksgiving I said "What if they were giving $1,000,000 to first 10 people through the door?" He said well of course he'd consider that -- so never went out the window.
Any position you take as an absolute can almost immediately be contradicted. I would never punch a baby in the face, you say. Unless doing so was the only way to save 100,000 people from immediate horrible death.
Everything happens for a reason is an absolute: it sets up the absolute meaning of every single thing we do, makes every choice meaningful, but at the same time it defeats the idea that choice is meaningful or even exists: if everything happens for a reason then you are freed from any moral responsibility for your choices. I shot those two bank security guards for a reason.
In Melt With You, many of the characters believe in God, but God has allowed them to have a startlingly freakish life -- and one that gets so much worse at the end of the story that I can't hardly think about it but also can't stop remembering it. It's easy to say everything happens for a reason but it's hard to see what the reason could be for that type of thing.
These are modern-day parables, fables, helping us understand our beliefs better by setting up something so outside the norm that we don't feel as though our beliefs are being challenged -- something that makes our minds close up -- even as the story itself does attack those fortresses of certitude we've erected.
H. Mouse is widely believed by everyone in the county to be a great moral character. He is a shoo-in for judge, almost hand-selected by the retiring state judge. They are wrong. There is a scene in the book where H. Mouse is sitting at his kitchen table, tired, and nearly drowsing. He is a day away from being sworn in and his daughters have not been found; he hasn't told the authorities about them, relying on Barbie and Ken to find them by his inauguration. He thinks to himself how sad he is with them missing, and for a moment tells himself that he would give anything to have them back safe and sound.
Then he realizes that, no he wouldn't because he opted to continue the election and not go to the police rather than have his past uncovered.
He is not a great mouse, H. Mouse. Barbie and Ken, as idealized toys that work in a morally ambiguous world -- at one point Ken suggests that if they can't find H. Mouse's daughters, they should go to the child slavers and buy him two more to fill in-- set up a contradiction in thought that helps demonstrate the moral vacuum people can exist in, convinced they are doing good even when they clearly are not.
In the end, as I've written this, I went from thinking this was a pretty good book to it being a great book. I think that by putting these horrible situations into the lives of mice and toys, Reifler has created a story that allows us to think about the meaning behind the story. If it were simply a basic story of a man whose daughters get abducted, no toys or mice or lizards, it would still be a pretty good story. But by putting it firmly into the unreal situation it is, Reifler makes the questions behind the story more real.
Reifler doesn't offer answers to the questions, either. Like Melt With You, and like many great books, the story just serves up questions. When I was in college, taking a writing course, the teacher said that one way of looking at writing is that we write the things we will never understand. I think the same can be said of reading.