“The Heart of a Mouse,” by K. J. Bishop (2010) E

Date read: 6.11.11
Read from: Subterranean Press Magazine
Reviewer: Emera

Assorted thoughts on K. J. Bishop’s “The Heart of a Mouse,” which recently won the Aurealis Award for Best SF Short Story. All the other reviews I’ve linked below offer good summaries of the story, if you’d like more situational context.

First thought: This isn’t (just) post-apocalyptic, it’s a dystopia. The government just happens to be invisible, unless maybe one considers an amoral universe – strange, brutal, incomprehensible from the individual perspective – to be a “governing body”… But there’s an inflexible class system/food chain:

“Deros and trogs and dogs live in towns, cats roam. Dogs and cats hunt everything except angels and bactyls. Volk hunt big game, raid towns and hold rallies. Pigs eat anything dead except angels, and bactyls eat anything dead and anything alive that doesn’t move fast enough to get away. Dreams hunt everything, eat anything. Angels don’t eat, but they kill, which comes to the same thing for you and me. And that’s all. It isn’t so much to keep in your head.”

and the economy likewise boasts all the flexibility and diversity of the shop system in a low-budget first-person shooter (more on this later). (Also, irony alert re: the role of the “dreams” in the food web.) The system – “mom and pop” shops, pig farms that provide wages and canned pork – keeps running stably enough to keep alive the inhabitants who don’t get themselves eaten by something else, and we’re given no reason to believe it won’t keep working that way. The end of the story sees one of the last few wrinkles in the system being ironed out, in a brief, carefully affectless paragraph of description that I found one of the most moving in the story. Against the backdrop of mouse-dad’s macho sentimentality, it’s the mostly uncommentated incidents that stand out, cleanly foregrounding the story’s surreal horror/beauty. The last image in the story is unforgettable, especially since I’m always a sucker for the kind of monstrousness embodied in Bishop’s many-faced, many-eyed angels and dreams. What is it about nephilim, seraphim, the angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion, that is so uniquely sublime and unnerving?

Second thought: This is what life would be like in a video game, but one without even the comfort of an objective, let alone a glowing textbox at the end to tell you you can progress to the next stage. Just enough rules exist to make it clear how terrifyingly arbitrary it is that any rules exist at all – who’s setting and enforcing them? Weapons and supplies and what amount to NPCs “punch in” at apparently predetermined intervals, and again there’s that disturbingly cartoonish food chain, that reads much like a game manual’s bestiary…

Other thought: Art as working-on-the-universe, imposing or evoking meaning, is a theme:

“As for him, instead of sleeping, he plays with the turds, arranging them into patterns that apparently mean something to him. Art isn’t dead.”

as it was in The Etched City (review):

“It ocurred to Raule that all children were monsters in the world and were instinctively aware of it. They were reminded of their anomalous nature by adults, whom they failed to resemble, and with those habitations and tools their bodies were at odds. This was surely why the little girl played with the sequins so solemnly and with such intense concentration. She was doing nothing less than conjuring, out of pattern and colour, a world that conformed to her desires and obeyed her will.”

If that sounds portentous, compare also with the sentence that follows: “The boy, on the other hand, showed with the whole attitude of his being that he knew there was only the one world and he would kill it if he could.” Bishop is wonderful at thumping down the high with the low like this, often to darkly humorous effect. For that reason I disagreed with Matt Hilliard’s assessment of “The Heart of a Mouse” as being “completely deadpan,” and therefore at odds with a world that the reader “can’t possibly take seriously.” In fact I think that Mouse very much invites you not to take him and his situation seriously, at times. I found the story tragicomical and often caught myself smiling unwillingly (that half-smile, half-grimace thing) at the juxtaposition of the surreal setting with Mouse’s scatological outbursts and hypermasculine bluster. I don’t think these lines work as well out of context, so I’m not going to quote them, but as a prime example, I found the 10th paragraph from the end (“It isn’t dead yet …”) both haunting and hilarious.

I’m predisposed to enjoying absurdism played out this way in fiction, so I might be missing other interesting readings of the story. Hilliard suggests that the story can be read as a parody on the post-apocalyptic subgenre itself, for example. But not being deeply invested in the relevant tropes, I was still most interested in the conflict of seeking meaning in a universe that resists it. Like everything else in the garish yet flattened world that Bishop describes, the two paths presented are cartoonish distillations of ethics or belief systems. Mouse-dad pushes a variation on bushido, while the son performs ritual devotions to his dead Madonna-mother. These Mouse simultaneously sneers at, and fears as a dangerously weak sentiment. Yet they’re not much more pitiably fantastical than Mouse’s manly grandiosity, which only teeters at the edge of grandeur. He finds himself just as much prey to the yearning for spiritual comfort, for something distant and other and shining, and seizes it where he can find it:

“In my mind, this AK here that I’ve been cleaning is a sword. A very clean sword now, but I’m still cleaning it in my mind. I’m not just cleaning a sword, I’m cleaning my spirit, keeping it in working order. Making it as clean as the water in my made-up land.”

And having just seen Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I was also interested simply in seeing another take on a deeply dysfunctional, fiercely devoted father-son relationship. In this case, the son – apparently less human than the father, more of a “monster,” again recalling the above passage from The Etched City – remains more of a cipher, almost as unknowable as the workings of their world, so that the few moments when his and his father’s desires come into accord seem painfully fragile. Like Mouse, then, I didn’t much care to question the tenuous glimpse of redemption offered at the end of the story, when butch bushido and mother goddesses alike are set aside at least temporarily, and attention focused, instead, on family in the present. If not lifted, I felt sustained, and ready to forge on with mouse-dad and his runtship into future uncertainty.

Go to:

Read “The Heart of a Mouse” at Subterranean Online
K. J. Bishop: bio and works reviewed
“The Heart of a Mouse” reviewed elsewhere: Yet There Are Statues (Matt Hilliard) | Uncertain Principles (Chad Orzel) | 365 Days of Women Writers (Chance)

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  1. KJ Bishop’s avatar

    That’s one thoughtful and perceptive review! Thank you for writing it! I’m not so invested in post-apocalyptic genre tropes myself, even when I use them. :-) For me, too, the dystopia angle and the arbitrariness of things were important. The scenario came partly out of living in a developing country, where a lot of people’s options in life are very limited, and also where I don’t always have the context to understand situations — which then feeds back and reminds me that there’s a lot I don’t particularly understand about the West, either, and makes me ask how functional and sane our own systems are, and whether our meaning-making is really of a high quality or not.

    I can’t remember where I first came across the image of scary angels with many faces/wings/eyes, but I’ve found creatures like that compelling ever since. They’re so alien. I see them as intermediaries between the unknowable and us, and pretty unknowable themselves, I guess.

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