Short Story Club: “The Heart of a Mouse”

The story is here; let’s kick off the comment round-up with Matt H, this time.

Boiled down like this, this seems like a parody of the post-apocalypse genre. This apocalypse makes no sense whatsoever, but really, do they ever? Meanwhile it literalizes what is usually implicit in the subgenre: the loss of humanity, the emergence of animal instincts, and the destruction of the artifacts of civilization. It’s a situation, and in fact a whole world, that the reader can’t possibly take seriously. Even the characters–the hard-edged father, the naive son, the mother whose death haunts both of them–are right out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

But the story is completely deadpan. The cartoon world around the characters isn’t even remotely as frightening as McCarthy’s, but the relationship between the narrator and his son is far more dysfunctional. […]

An interesting story, and well written I thought, but while it’s clearly a story in dialogue with the rest of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I don’t understand what it’s saying. It feels a little like steampunk, having fun indulging in unusual scenery, but ultimately telling an overly familiar story.

It didn’t work for Pam Phillips:

Ugh. I feel like I’m being hit over the head. Even a talking animal can’t overcome my hate for depressing post-apocalypse settings. Sorry guys, I really don’t want to read this one.

Lois Tilton also sees echoes of…

It’s impossible to read this without hearing overwhelming echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is a slightly more humane, less desperate scenario, in that there actually is an economy of sorts and cannibalism is not the only food option, despite most of the creatures at large being predatory. There seems to be unexplained purpose at work. Still, while the author treats the narrator’s mouseness seriously, the echoes of the more realistic work make this one less credible.

And apparently Chad has posted about the story here, but I can’t get the page to load. While I hit refresh a few more times, over to the rest of you.

19 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “The Heart of a Mouse”

  1. I think the tension between the imagery and the emotions is the key to this one:

    Now, I won’t say who’s having the last laugh, because none of this is funny.

    Except that this is funny, it can’t help not be:

    I may be a mouse as big as a bear–the Paul Bunyan of mice–with opposable thumbs and an AK to hold with them, but there could’ve been any number of dogs up there, and I can’t shoot for shit in the dark.

    I think the management of the tension between the two modes, comedic and horrific, is very well done and very interesting.

  2. ScienceBlogs had some sort of horrible server problem this morning, so everything was down. If you want a pull-quote, this is probably it:

    Compounding this is the fact that the narrator is a thoroughly unpleasant person/mouse/whatever. Yeah, fine, you don’t survive the magic apocalypse without breaking a few eggs, but I have approximately zero interest in sharing headspace with anybody who hits a child hard enough to leave bruises. Maybe I’m just hyper-sensitive because SteelyKid is walking around with a black eye after a tumble down the stairs this week, but this does not endear me to the character. Put that together with the artificiality of the world, and the moment of quasi-redemption toward the end of the story just isn’t enough of a payoff to make me glad I read it.

    In other words, I’m back to agreeing with Matt.

  3. I thought that the tone of the story was a real winner: funny, tough, and expertly executed, and yes, a spoof of the post-apocalypse genre. The first-person narration constructed the characters and events without breaking the narrative personality or tone, something that’s not easy to do. I thought that the creative, semi-unintelligible surroundings were intriguing, and the mysteries were fine in a short story.

  4. Interesting that Lois calls it more humane…I actually thought it was bleaker than The Road because the narrator and his son, as far as they can tell, are unique in retaining even a semblance of agency. In The Road you have to assume there’s scattered pockets of reasonable survivors banding together, but here there’s no evidence that anything else human has survived.

    Also, I forgot to mention it, but the world reminded me of an old video game: Tons of dangerous enemies all cast from just a couple of high concept types, infrastructure that supports these mindless enemies for their own sake, and no sense the next level is going to really anything different, just the same enemies and scenery reshuffled to be more difficult. The Road meets Super Mario Brothers.

  5. I don’t want to get into the agency thing, but I think the pig farms make the scenario more humane [not human] by offering neutral ground.

  6. I’m wondering where to begin on this one. I’m not quite sure where to focus.

    There’s the father-son relationship, which is interesting – total commitment combined with absolute despair. There’s the runt’s tragic worship of his mother – which might be holding him back from dealing with reality, or the only thing left for him that gives him a reason to live. I found those to be interesting relationships, well-explored and with interesting interactions, and I enjoyed the story mostly on their strength.

    The world-building did not work well for me. The division into well-defined, homogeneous classes, felt very artificial, and none of the classes or details felt to me particularly distinct or interesting. I don’t think the story was trying to present a cohesive or gripping world (and it certainly *was* going for “artificial”), so this isn’t necessarily a big drawback. The feel of the setting – an artificial and highly dangerous food chain of bizarre creatures – came across clearly enough.

    The ending felt a bit empty to me. Classic “overcoming physical adversity to represent emotional growth”. True, survival and the runt’s ability to take care of himself (and recognize others) are central here, but I didn’t feel this ending addressed even that for much beyond the momentary situation.

    The most interesting parts of the story for me were the narrator finally willing to lie to his son to set him in the right direction, and his consideration that living solely for survival might be less worthwhile than being at greater risk, but trying to actually settle down and live. These were intriguing concepts, and I’d love it if they came up in our discussion.

    Being the last intelligent remains of humanity, when all the others were converted to something so inhuman, was an interesting point, but I didn’t feel much was done with it directly. It’s certainly useful so that survival will be difficult; so that the narrator has total responsibility for the runt; so the runt’s obsession can run so rampant. But specifically here, I felt there was a world concept with few survivors that was more interesting than a desolate desert, and not much use was made of the fact.

    I think that’s all for my opening shot…

  7. I think people are making a mistake in seeing this as purely post-apocalyptic fiction when it is more of an uncanny tale in the lineage of, perhaps, Lovecraft or Dunsany or others whose names escape me. I’m not an expert on weird fiction so please forgive the vagueness. Quite coincidentally I’ve come across some critical work looking at fantastic and uncanny tales, and one definition by a theorist called Todorov seems appropriate here:

    “”What is the “fantastic”? It is, Todorov explains, the hesitation of a being who knows only natural laws in the face of the supernatural. In other words, the fantastic character of a text resides in a transient and volatile state during the reading of it, one of indecision as to whether the narrative belongs to a natural or a supernatural order of things.
    [According to another source, this transient state applies to both the protagonists AND the reader.] The “pure” uncanny amazes, shocks, terrifies, but does not give rise to indecision (of the kind which we would call ontological). This is the place of the horror story which presents occurrences that are frightful, extraordinary, but nevertheless rationally possible…The fantastic-uncanny already gives occasion to the vacillations that evoke the sense of the fantastic. This is a tale the events in which are, as its reader at first supposes, brought about by the intervention of the Supernatural. Its epilog, however, furnishes a surprising rational explanation…The “fantastic-marvelous” work is just the other way round—it supplies in the end explanations of an extramundane, irrational order…”

    This quote is from Stanislaw Lem’s discussion of Todorov’s ideas at Lem also discusses examples of the purely ‘marvellous’ in Todorov’s system, but these are less relevant as such stories don’t provide the sort of indecision about the nature of the fictional world that the fantastic-uncanny or fantastic-marvellous stories do.

    Lem then goes on to say about Todorov’s idea: “For a work to manifest its fantastic character, it must be read literally, from the standpoint of naive realism, thus neither poetically nor allegorically.” I certainly can’t see a way to read the story poetically or allegorically, which again makes me think it fits in with Todorov’s definition of the fantastic. Everything is presented as if definitively real and not metaphorical within the story universe. There is certainly a lot of ‘hesitation’ and ‘indecision’ by the main character, and by this reader, about the nature of the fictional universe – EG whether it or the protagonist’s or reader’s response to it can be rational – which makes it either fantastic-uncanny or fantastic-marvellous. However, I’m not sure where Parker’s story fits into this model, as there is no resolution at the end that is either uncanny [rational] or marvellous [irrational]. The reader is left hanging, and perhaps that exposes the main flaw – the story mostly fits Todorov’s definition of the fantastic-something but gives no clear resolution of the cognitive tension induced by the uncertain nature of the story’s world. It perhaps falls between the two stools of what we might call the weird tale and the traditional (dull?) character development story.

    Lem bashes Todorov’s ideas in general, but T’s definition of the fantastic does mostly apply to this story, apart from the unresolved (in an ontological sense) ending. What all this implies, I have no idea, (Parker wasn’t aware of what s/he was actually writing and so couldn’t use the best tools/structure?) but I thought it might spice up the discussion.

  8. Sean, I think the problem with the story is that the author doesn’t give the reader anything to do with the fantastic element, which throws us back onto the mundane. Reading a story like this, the obvious thing is to look for the ways in which it is not what it literally seems to be, whether poetical or allegorical or something else. We think, it MUST be something else. But the gravitational pull of the literal here is too strong; it constantly pulls us back from the possible departures and minimizes the differences until we [I, at least] have to conclude, no, there is nothing else really going on here. Perhaps the gravitational pull overcame the author, too.

  9. I thought that this was cleverly written, but too diffuse or uncertain of its own intent to really convince. It works best for me read as satire rather than maximal fantastika or what have you, but that may be bias as I am aesthetically opposed to post-apocalyptic stories in general.

    I think the general lack of critical traction here largely rests on the fact that there’s just not a lot there. One unlovely character and a world ground down by a simplifying and mythologizing lens. The temptation here, for me, is to flesh out the satire by inventing some frame wherein it works more completely, but I suspect that it would be over-reading the story to have something to say.

  10. I think the general lack of critical traction here largely rests on the fact that there’s just not a lot there.

    I’m more inclined to attribute it to story club fatigue, personally. ;-)

    And sometimes I think we talk about what a story says, or doesn’t, too lazily. (This is we the community in general, not this thread in particular.) Sometimes stories may indeed be written with a message in mind — perhaps even more often in this field than in others, though I wouldn’t want to stake much on it — but to me the rhetorical position “this story says…” should mean “this story says to me“. That is, it should be a way of getting at our response, rather than putting the burden of coming to a conclusion on the story under discussion.

    In the case of “The Heart of a Mouse”, it’s clearly written with some care and flair, and we’ve identified at least three major ideas the story is playing with — the father and son relationship, the fantastical transformation, the apocalypse journey. There’s stuff there to make something of, if we choose. In that vein, I need to digest Sean’s comment a bit more, and Lois’ response, but my sense is that he’s on a useful track.

  11. You may be right, there, about the fatigue, although with all of the skipping I’ve been doing lately, I should be one of the least tired (we finally have internet out at the farm, so I should be able to participate more).

    You’re also right about the laziness. I’ve spent a large amount of time thinking about the story over the last couple of days, and I haven’t really come up with anything, and it’s foolish of me to imagine that a low volume of conversation means that my experience is the general one.

    So, to restate and reinterpret: My lack of traction here is two-pronged and mostly personal:
    1) I find non-social stories uninteresting. That no other individuals seem to exist in this world robbed it of a great deal of its interest for me. The world of the story has definitively ended. The actions of the characters are the final shudders of a corpse. Unfair of me, perhaps, but I am wired how I’m wired.
    2) With the above said, and the difficulty of focus that comes with it, I can’t find a way to make any of the three major themes you’ve identified connect, not without adding something to them that I don’t think that the text contains. Perhaps that’s what the author is reaching for, to get the reader to bring something to the table, but the matter of the story means that I have less to bring than usual.

    I liked the story, for what that’s worth, although not as much as her other story this year.

  12. Sorry, coming in late again. I enjoyed this one well enough: I felt for the kid and his dad, and their struggle to survive, and the world was an interesting one.

    I had trouble leaving The Road behind me, but maybe that’s on purpose? The father son relationship absolutely seemed to be echoing McArthy, except perhaps thinking “imagine, instead of this saintly guy he got this borderline arsehole looking after him”! I mean, the guy clearly cares, in his roughtough way, but he’s not doing a great job of nurturing.

    As in The Road, I don’t think you can write about fathers and sons without commenting on the nature of such relationships. It looks like Bishop is thinking about another fatherly reaction to kids – they are slaightly gross, a drag to be around, always frustrating with their dumb questions and disappointing with their ineptitude (and in case you’re wondering – yes, two, aged five and seven, godamn their shiny little souls).

    I’d agree that the background is deliberately absurd. Cartoonish is an apt description – brave anthropomorphic mice fighting murderous cats is just too Tom & Jerry to ignore. In fact, it reminded me of old fashioned underground comics – Vaugh Bode, eg, or, tangentally, Robt. Crumb – which played around with twee cartoon imagery in brutal new contexts, but it lacked a little of the contrast because the tone is a little dry for this aspect to really come out. We’re never really given permission to laugh, I don’t think (maybe I am dense) – a few proper jokes might have helped in that regard.

    On the grimness of the setting, I think that the pig farms implies instituionalised cannabilism. Given that Our Hero has turned into a mouse, well, where do you think them pigs came from?

  13. Oh, no doubt that the pig farms are cannibalistic. But the whole world is – as in the McCarthy story.

    When I call them more humane it’s a relative thing, because they offer a safe place [if you aren’t a pig] where a truce is maintained. There’s no such place in the McCarthy scenario.

  14. I had trouble leaving The Road behind me, but maybe that’s on purpose?

    I find it hard not to read it as a direct parody of The Road. Others have mentioned this connection and its general subversion of the post-apocalptic story but it also seems to be specifically aping McCarthy. Consider this exchange:

    I point to a squirrel running up a birch trunk.

    I ask, Do you eat those?

    No, he says.

    Right, I say.

    That seems like a pure take-off of The Road. But then, at the same time, it is nothing like The Road (that cartoon absurdness). But it sort of is (that dryness of tone).

  15. @Martin – Yeah, I agree (and that’s a helluva comparison to invite! Talk about guts!) It doesn’t have The Road’s laser-like focus because Bishop’s having too much fun with his setting. The Road pretty much eschews setting in exchange for ambience, if you catch my drift, and so the comparisons quickly come unstuck, I think.

    “When I call them more humane it’s a relative thing, because they offer a safe place [if you aren’t a pig] where a truce is maintained. There’s no such place in the McCarthy scenario.”

    Yeah, totally agree. There’s a whole social structure going on here that they could surely tap in to if they wanted to. Again, I kept coming back to The Road on this one and wondered if Bishop was saying “even in these times there’s a structure you can become part of if you let yourself.” The father in The Road is perhaps overly cautious, but Mouse Guy seems totally paranoid given that there is some kind of social sturcture that’s not entirely beastly, if you’ll excuse the expression.

    Given this and The Road I wonder if Bishop’s trying to say “this isn’t an apocalypse, in fact there is no such thing as apocalypse, there’s just a changed set of circumstances that you accommodate or not”. In this way The Father isn’t a heroic survivor, he’s a kind of psycho (and I’ve read these interpretations based around the Good Guy at the end who seems to have been avoiding direct contact with them until the father dies). In Mouse Guy, Bishop is perhaps making this more clear?

    I don’t know, though. If that’s what was going on, I would have thought he would make more of the safe havens… hm!

    And the father in The Road is a godamn hero and I will fight anyone who says otherwise (sob!)

  16. I’m more inclined to attribute it to story club fatigue, personally. ;-)

    Indeed. While I’ve liked Bishop’s writing a lot in the past and was looking forward to reading this one, I started trying to read it twice last week and my thoughts were, oh no, not another inevitably overlong travelogue-monologue. It was only this weekend that I managed to get myself in the mood to read the whole thing.

    Boiled down like this, this seems like a parody of the post-apocalypse genre. […] But the story is completely deadpan

    Reading a story like this, the obvious thing is to look for the ways in which it is not what it literally seems to be, whether poetical or allegorical or something else. We think, it MUST be something else. But the gravitational pull of the literal here is too strong

    I thought that this was cleverly written, but too diffuse or uncertain of its own intent to really convince

    I think the management of the tension between the two modes, comedic and horrific, is very well done and very interesting.

    This unresolved tension of genres and modes that everyone points to, with different degrees of approval, is very much an attribute I associate with Bishop’s writing in general–and I see it as a feature, not a bug. It’s not quite Todorov’s hesitation, but it incorporates a similar refusal to settle into a definite space. As Niall suggests, it is a mode of storytelling that resists thinking of the story as existing to say something specific; to express something beyond, perhaps, that tension. Or at least: there are stories whose elements are all aimed to give focus to something–the Watts story “The Things” being an example, along with most idea-driven SF–to shine a spotlight on something. And then there are stories where the light shone is more diffuse, by design. The diffusion of this story strikes me as more novelistic, in that it starts to change the world, which sets up a whole host of questions and associations that we’re free to make of what we will. I like Matt Hilliard’s evocation of video games very much, but in those terms this is something of a sandbox game. Do you focus on the metafictional aspects, what the father mouse says about stories and the impact they are shown to have? (And is that impact positive or negative?) Does it mean anything that the story ends with them killing a dream? Do you think that Bishop “treats the narrator’s mouseness seriously,” as Lois does, or do you wonder if he isn’t exactly the same person he was before–part of the story to me is the question of how people respond to external change. Do they change, too, or do they become even more themselves? How much of that “external change” comes from the way our narrator saw the world already: a catty wife/girlfriend, common people/volk who go around mindlessly reciting slogans, dogs who prey on the weak, dreams that float out of reach, angels up in heaven….

    The parts I like most about the story, then, were the yearnings of the papa mouse for his son to understand him, his constant hope for and interpretation of events as moving toward this, which I found moving in their futility; and his wondering, fearfully, whether he might be becoming too smart to survive in the new world.

    Bishop’s having too much fun with his setting

    KJ Bishop, BTW, is a she, not a he–and not the uncertain she of the other KJ.

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