Publishing Genius, 67 p.
Reviewed by Tobias Carroll
Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse is the story of a road trip, a meditation on mortality, and an evocation of a consciousness prone to free association. And yet, with one structural exception, Simmons’s novella neatly shifts from exhausting realism to portraits of a surreal America where artifacts and large-scale animals abound. It’s also a long-form work written in the second person that uses that form effectively, even essentially.
A Jello Horse begins with news of a death, and with a road trip to a funeral — specifically, that of the protagonist’s housemate’s brother. The protagonist here is simply “you,” while the other characters are named by strings of three letters (DEV, LEM, etc.). It isn’t clear whether these are nicknames, initials, or something else, and it’s one of the few places where Simmons’s stylization weighs more heavily on the story than it should. Simmons’s use of the second person to effectively alienate his protagonist from the people around him is, ultimately, much more effective. His protagonist’s alienation is mirrored by the prose and, ultimately, by that disconnect between the “you” of the reader and the “you” making his way through the book.
The circle in which the protagonist finds himself is a close-knit one, and as the novella moves to Nebraska, that close-knit circle merges with another one, with “you” finding himself himself on the outskirts of both. Eventually, he makes his way elsewhere, through a series of surreal roadside encounters with telephone museums and jackalopes. This mundane surrealism contrasts with a more vivid dreamlike imagery that arises throughout the novel in intervals, sometimes as a result of slumber, sometimes arising out of hallucinations. It serves as a bridge between the protagonist’s childhood and his restless twenties, and range in temperament from a massive lion tearing through bedroom walls to a tortoise “the size of a minor league baseball stadium” paying a visit to a rest stop. These are creatures that have stepped out of creation myths, dwelling in a book that takes as its epigraph a lyric from Mudhoney. Simmons has made a creative space in which almost anything can be (and, generally, is) incorporated.
By the end of A Jello Horse, Simmons’s imagery has converged, unifying the primal with the familiar. Throughout, he pairs seemingly uneven sets of events: dates and death announcements; diseases and awkward flirtations. And while much of the protagonist’s real-world experiences have a kitchen-sink realism to them as A Jello Horse begins, the lines between the concrete and the surreal grow less distinct over the course of these sixty-seven pages. Those disparate elements, the mundane and the mythic, dovetail in a surreal yet emotionally appropriate fashion. The result becomes, at least for this reviewer, deeply moving — the pragmatic walking beside the miraculous in a place where a sense of wonder feels rightly earned.