I came home from AWP with a lot of books, but the one I like best is definitely A Jello Horse by Matthew Simmons. Distributed by Publishing Genius, A Jello Horse is a novella about a young man whose friend’s brother dies. The protagonist agrees to drive his friend, known only as DEV, to the funeral — the book chronicles the ensuing road trip and bizarre tourist traps along the way. The novella is told in the second person in a style reminiscent of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City in that the “you” quickly becomes a stand in for “I”, allowing the narrator some emotional distance. These second person narratives are usually difficult to sustain, but Simmons does so with considerable skill. His prose is clean, effortless, and packs a lot of emotion in sixty-odd pages.
Simmons nails home the emotional gravitas in the realistic scenes of the book. It’s hard not to be affected as DEV tried to drink away his suffering while getting stoned and listening to old Traffic songs, or when the protagonist discovers he’s contracted a wart that causes cancer in women. But Simmons really hits his stride towards the end of the book during a series of practically George Saunders-esque diversions involving two bizarre road stops. The first is a seemingly abandoned Jackalope Village populated with, of course, dying jackalopes. Simmons writes: “The jackalopes approach you, noses going because they can smell the food pellets. These are sick animals. They have hairless patches, scabby and red and brown. They, some of them, limp because apparently they have sores on their feet, or fused joints. They have bitten-up ears and they smell sour.”
There’s an otherworldly eeriness on the page that elevates the material from being a standard twenty-something coming-of-age tale to something more. Equally wonderful is the House of 2000 Telephones, a museum filled with phones of all shapes and sizes connected to random numbers. Many of them are ringing when the protagonist enters, and previous tourists have left behind summaries of the conversations they’ve had—one even talking foreign policy on Iran with Ronald Reagan. Â These two scenes, along with a slightly less successful section about giant animals wandering outside the protagonist’s childhood bedroom, do much to round out the work emotionally and aesthetically. These diversions grow in power when Simmons returns to the dead brother plot, climaxing at the boy’s viewing where his parents have chosen to play his favorite TV theme over loudspeakers. The protagonist peers at the corpse as the opening song from The Simpsons plays.
A Jello Horse does have a somewhat predictable ending, but overall it is filled with promise, grace and an impressive control of prose. There’s sincerity here, and wonder; and that’s a lot more than I can say for much of contemporary literature. Matthew Simmons is a contributor to HTML Giant and the publisher behind Happy Cobra Books, and A Jello Horse establishes him as an important presence in the world of emerging fiction writers.
1. In your novella, A Jello Horse, you chose to use the second person. Why second over first or third? What narrative opportunities does it afford? How does it affect the book?
The one word answer is “distance.” When thinking about a story, it’s important for me to decide the distance the narrator has from the story. Even if I don’t make it explicit in the text, I have to know how long it’s been since the events of the story happened to the storyteller. In this case, the second person is a masked first person, and the narrator is too close to the story to reveal how raw the events are. So the second person becomes a way for him to tell himself the story and not feel the consequences of reliving it.
2. A Jello Horse often juxtaposes the gritty and realistic with the utterly fantastic, for example, the scene in the dying Jackalope Village adjacent to the young boy’s funeral. Why combine the two? What do you enjoy about mixing tropes from both the realistic and fantastic?
Because fiction gives me the opportunity to mix them. The page is a place where metaphor can come to life, dreams can invade reality and reality can invade dreams, and imagination can find voice; while the story—because the story has, at least hypothetically, a reader—demands some anchoring for the audience to tolerate it.
It feels like the right choice, and I like letting myself find the boundaries of writing intuitively.
3. How did you get involved with Publishing Genius?
I think I read Blake’s PG ebook first, and that put Adam on my radar. After that, I was ecstatic to see Shane’s book had found a home there, as I was an admirer of the Light Boxes manuscript. I sent Adam A Jello Horse hoping it could be a serialized ebook. Adam, though, decided to make it a perfect bound softcover and I was, and am, humbled by his faith in it. I assumed A Jello Horse would sit on my hard-drive and never see a reader other than myself.
4. The novella seems to have come back into prominence over the last few years. Why do you think that is? What attracts you to the genre?
I like a book that can be read in one or two sittings; something a little longer than a short story, but still a thing that can be, with a little persistence, tackled in an evening. Short books appeal to me. Maybe I’m lazy.
I tend to write sort of short, as well. I wrote a lot of flash fiction early on because that’s all the time I had: I wrote on breaks at work, or for an hour after work. And I had lots of directions to go or voices to explore. I wasn’t focused on one long narrative, just lots of moments. A Jello Horse was written over a vacation: a little more time, a little more story to explore. I still have a day job, and I still struggle to find the time and the energy to write when I’m at home. If anyone would like to give me a grant or a fellowship, don’t hesitate to contact me.
5. You’re a contributor at HTML Giant. The site seems to get linked to by every other lit blog you read. What do you think accounts for its popularity? Is it tapping into a new literary zeitgeist?
I’m really not sure. Blake gathered a diverse group of really smart writers. Gene has designed something visually compelling and easy to interface with. Amazing new writers have been added. I think it has taken off because the people involved have really interesting things to say, and highbrow or lowbrow, it always feels like the subjects are things that the writers are passionate about. God knows how a jackass like me got involved.
6. What are you working on next? Do you see yourself writing a novel or do you think will concentrate primarily on novellas or even shorter work?
I have a short story manuscript finished…mostly. I think I’m fiddling with it too much, so I have promised to put it aside. I recently made a folder on my desktop that I call “Do These.” It has I think five files on it. Two are novellas, I think. One is the story manuscript. One is something long. One is a secret. I think “something long” and the secret are the next two pieces I will focus on. I had a breakthrough—I think—on the long one a few days ago.
Beyond that, I’m helping find the stories for On Earth As It Is—a web journal of stories that use prayer as the frame for narrative—with my buddy Bryan Furuness. I’m still searching out interviews for Hobart’s web journal. And I’m still trying to update my old blog whenever I can. There was a time when it was updated weekly. Now I have other places I need to invest my creative resources, so sometimes it sits dormant for a few weeks. This is both a good and a bad thing, I guess. Things change.