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A Jello Horse and Your Rightful Home

Yesterday I read Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse (Publishing Genius, 2009), immediately after finishing Alyssa Knickerbocker’s Your Rightful Home (Flatmancrooked, 2010).

I remember when A Jello Horse was first published. There was something about a bunch of telephones. There was that cover, which is not my copy’s cover (mine is the one with the pink and the animal’s legs. See above).

I do not really remember when Your Rightful Home was first published, but I think I remember maybe meeting Alyssa in Denver this past April at the Flatmancrooked party. The reason I have a copy of Alyssa’s book is because B. L. Pawelek sent it to me. Thanks, B!

These two books, oddly, have much in common. First, you see, there are the maps on the covers. These are important. Both of the books’ protagonists leave home. Both are travelers.

I remember thinking A Jello Horse would probably be weird. I don’t know why I thought this. Maybe because of that Leni Zumas blurb.

I remember receiving Your Rightful Home and wondering if the pink lips by Alyssa’s signature were color ink or lipstick. Lipstick. Smeared. I closed the book. Put it down. Didn’t go back to it. Sort of freaked out by touching paper Alyssa’s lipsticked lips had touched. Felt weird touching that book.

I have no idea why I read these two books yesterday, what compelled me to pick them up. They were both on my stack, yes, but not on the top. But I remember this very clearly: I said, in my head, to myself: Finish a goddamn book from cover to cover already for fuck’s sake.

Trust me. It’s been a long time since any book has made me want to finish it.

But I remembered when I was in school and had to read books. (I was an English major.) I finished them. Didn’t matter if I liked them or not. I read them, cover to cover. Quickly. Even the bigfat ones.

Neither A Jello Horse nor Your Rightful Home are bigfat books. They’re little guys. Must be why I chose those two.

And am I glad I did. What a welcome back to the world of fiction, the world of books. These may be short reads, but they’re bigfat stories. Both are real. Rooted in realism. With sad, lonely protagonist narrators.

Both are told in the second person. Both succeed in this usage, I think. If for no other excuse than I can think up except their stories are sometimes too painful for “I,” and thinking “you” instead allows them some emotional distance. It’s not my life; it’s yours. You know? And it also makes us them. Makes the reader implicit in the confession. Both protagonists have confessions. It’s hard to judge them when we, the reader, are the confessors.

(Both have three-word titles. A one-syllable word followed by a two-syllable word followed by a one-syllable word that begins with “H” and ends with “e.” And did I mention the maps on the covers?)

Here’s another similarity:

Your Rightful Home spends a lot of time with the protagonist as a child, and then, about two thirds to the end, fast forwards into her adolescence with the simple statement: “You grow up.” And then speeds right into adulthood, just as gracefully, with:

“You smoke Camel Lights like everyone else. Next year you will go to Spain on a study abroad and learn to smoke Galoise, and you will henceforth look down on American cigarettes. But when the five cartons you bring back from Spain run out, you will be forced to slink off to the nearest gas station, and there you will switch to Parliaments, which you will smoke until you meet the man who will become your husband, who points at the passing billboards that read, Kissing A Smoker Is Like Kissing An Ashtray–a huge picture of a lush lipstick print on a glassy surface smeared with ash–until you finally break down and give them up. You will be nearing thirty. You will have been smoking for almost fifteen years.”

And here’s the next paragraph, because it’s my favorite:

“You never stop missing it. You want a cigarette each time you drink a cup of coffee or a beer, each time you climb into the driver’s seat of a car, each time you get off an airplane. You crave one desperately after your daughter is born and you realize that in addition to squeezing out a cheesy, purple infant, you have also squeezed out a perfectly round bead of poo. The only thing that could make this better, you think, is a cigarette. Your husband is holding your hand and crying, and you are disgusted with him for his tears, and also for his foul coffee breath which he seems to be huffing out in order to torment you.”

In A Jello Horse, the protagonist does not fast forward into the future, but sometimes slips into the past, into childhood, into the depths of his imagination (or, perhaps, drug-induced hallucinations. Your call). The book opens in the present with a possibly heartbroken narrator who says:

“And then she left, and it seemed like (to you) the only thing that really made any sense at all was if you decided to go back to doing what you were doing before her. It seemed like (to you) that the best thing would be to just go ahead and let yourself go back to getting worse.”

And on the next page, in the very next section, we get this:

“This is what it’s like when you’re little:

“When you’re little, you lie in bed and look out the window. [. . .] Out there, in the falling forward world, in the rotating something, the animals gather.

“They are huge.

“They are animals of enormous, impossible sizes.

“They move at night only.

“There is a bear. The bear is Russian and it swam across the Pacific Ocean, and walked across the country to Kansas City, kansas to live outside your window. You have named the bear Boris, because that is the first Russian name that you can think of. (Because you are little.)

“There is a caribou. It is from Canada, and it walks by your window sometimes, and it makes thundering, smacking noises with its mouth. You call the caribou Mick, but you can’t remember why.

“There is a snake, but you do not know what kind, and you will not name it. You refuse to name it. [. . .]

“There is, finally, a lion. [. . .] His great paw crashes through the ceiling. His great paw smashes through the floor. The hair is gold and smells like dirt. The paw sits for a moment as the lion gets his balance. His muzzle is at the window. A black lip is the hem of his mouth, and it is moist. You touch his leg and it is soft. The hairs are as thick as gym class climbing ropes. The leg stirs, the paw begins to pull up, and you grab hold of two of the hairs. You hug as close as you can to the leg of the lion, and the lion pulls you up and out of the house.

“There is just enough room for you to squeeze through the ceiling without getting hurt as the lion jerks its paw out. Through the roof, to the open air above the house where the lion stands, its paw raised, and then you’re out in the sky, being pulled up, clinging to the lion’s paw, rising up over the house, hanging on to the rope-like hairs that swing you back and forth, over the house, over the yard, over the trees, and the clay bank behind the house that drops to the little creek where you and your friends play sometimes, the creek that you and your friends walk along, that leads to the ball field behind the elementary school. The lion stands and shakes its paw. And you hold on.

“There’s your house and the bank and the creek and the trees and the world below, and the lion above with its shuddering mane.”

Whew, that was a long excerpt. But worth retyping, no? I think if I’d read an excerpt like that instead of this review in The Believer (yep, now I remember why I thought it’d be weird), I’d have bought A Jello Horse a long time ago, like, when it first came out. But, then again, if I had, I probably wouldn’t be writing this review now, comparing it to Your Rightful Home, which I am also glad I was able to retype in part here. I mean, come on: look at my precious ugly purple baby I just pushed out! And this perfect piece of poo! And why is my husband breathing on me like this! Someone give me a cigarette!

I mean: This is the kind of realism that makes realism worth reading.

Little books. Bigfat suckerpunches to the throat. So buy ’em. Here and here.

6 thoughts on “A Jello Horse and Your Rightful Home

  1. Sounds like a nice 4th of July, enjoying some narrative fireworks. Interesting post, Molly.

    This is a potentially naive question (since I probably read far less fiction than maybe everyone here), but is there something about the second person point of view that makes it somehow “not realist”? I know you say at the end that these books represent a certain kind of “realism” but I’m just wondering what you think about how these two aspects interact…

    1. Hi Michael,

      That these are written in the second person and are also realism, I think, is coincidental.

      Before your question, I wouldn’t have thought there was a relationship between realism and the second person, necessarily, in fiction. But now you’ve got me thinking.

      I wonder if others can chime in here: Is there a relationship between the second person and realism?

      1. I guess I don’t really think an awful lot about realism per se…but I associate the experience of reading realism (maybe I’m being reductive here?) with being absorbed into the narrative frame while, looking at the excerpts you chose above, the use of second person pov seems to make you always aware of the artifice of the frame…I’d be interested to see what others think…

        1. I like what Michael says about the second person making us aware of the artifice of fiction. It can be odd for readers to conceive of themselves as the main character of a story – as opposed to conceiving of an “I” or “He” or “She” or “They” as the main character. We might be more likely to pause when we read “You,” and to consider our relationship to the book in our hands.

          Whether this oddness undermines the relationship of the second person perspective to realism might depend on how willing one is to overlook nuances in the reader’s experience. For instance, I think the use of the second person makes the suspension of disbelief slightly more difficult for the reader, but I don’t think the matter of perspective (first, second, or third person) is involved in the question of whether a work is described as realism or as something else.

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