Matthew Simmons - How is it possible that this is the saddest thing you have ever heard anyone say? You don’t know, really. You just know that it is

Matthew Simmons, A Jello Horse (Publishing Genius Press, 2009)

“Matthew Simmons has found a beautiful and extraordinary way to tell a story about the sweetness of sadness and the aloneness of loneliness.” - Michael Kimball

"In Tom Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction, we’re welcomed to “Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve,” a combination hot dog stand and zoo that’s described as “a little roadside attraction sitting out in the rains of isolated Northwest America, enticing passing motorists with a sausage smile,” that has “sunshine juices for mildewed tummies and exotic exhibitions for jaded eyes.” At one point the establishment is suspected as being a front for something greater, “some evolutionary religious awakening.” While Robbins’s novel is a vehicle for a scathingly satirical attack on “churchianity” and religiosity in general, Matthew Simmons’s A Jello Horse—with novelty sites of its own — is a horse of a different color. Its “psychic frontier,” to use another phrase from Robbins’s novel, is one filled with fantastic childhood visions, Xanax-fueled hallucinations (maybe), depression-drenched reveries, and just pages of wonderful weirdness.
Like Attraction’s colorful cast of various dropouts, crazies, and a baboon, A Jello Horse is stocked with a motley crew of its own, including people enigmatically known by their three-lettered names, i.e., the troubled trio LEM, DEV, MEG, and also TAD who “is a she, but she lives mostly as a he,” and then a whole assortment of animals like a Russian bear named Boris, a Canadian caribou named Mick that makes “thundering, smacking noises with its mouth,” a snake, a lion “that sleeps next to the house, disappears, sinks into the world,” and a herd of giant antelope, the so-called royal court of ungulates,grazing on the buildings of the city. They were chewing roofs, and walking slowly north to south. They were devastating the city, eating all the tallest buildings, and then bowing low to grab at chimneys on the houses.
In the midst of all this zaniness, however, is a simple and sad story of a young man’s trip to a friend’s memorial service. At one moment the troubled hero of A Jello Horse recalls how someone mentions “the saddest thing you have ever heard anybody say in your entire life.” Reminiscent of Ford Maddox Ford’s famous opening line “This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard,” it is one of the many pitch-perfect moments in this novella. And the saddest thing?
“DEV says I’ll never be able to call him up and recommend a movie to him ever again.How is it possible? How is it possible that this is the saddest thing you have ever heard anyone say? You don’t know, really. You just know that it is.”
Simmons writes with a pellucid quality that makes you think of summer lakes, winter skies, all kind of glass: windshields, windowpanes, and whatever invisible box whose ceiling you want to shatter. Even when he’s talking about fog everything seems clear:
Raindrops cut through the fog on the window, like rivers on maps, like highways on maps. You stared out the window, watching the fog on the window disappear, watching the antelope devour Madison, and then you went to sleep right there on the floor, next to the window, with the corner of the curtain peeled back.
You get the sense in A Jello Horse that Simmons is always peeling back the curtains, that he’s giving you an intimate glimpse of people collapsing, despairing, bolstering themselves with booze and each other. And as you travel with him along the same unremarkable roads and highways, past drab buildings, strip malls, motels, fast food joints, and chain stores, and away from the heaviness of mourning to outlying roadside attractions like “Carhenge” (where supposedly a tornado threw a bunch of cars in a configuration mirroring Stonehenge), “Toadstool Park” (where he meets a desert tortoise that’s as large as a stadium), “The House of 2000 Telephones” (another magical place, where the plot—which is necessarily skeletal—twists), and other places, you can’t help but lose yourself in wonder, and agree that you too are
day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second, given choices to make, and you make them, and off you go. And also, you don’t make choices, but those possible paths move off in their own ways, anyway.
This novella is a quick read but at the end of it you will feel winded from its ennui, its anxiety, its sadness, while also feeling buoyed by its magical interludes and its end-of-the-road reaching for connection, security, and maybe even, to use a much abused word in recent days, hope." - John Madera

"I see this text consisting of a heart and appendages.
The heart = the funeral.
The appendages = the memories (of what it’s like to be a kid & of previous dating experiences) – plus the experiences at the roadside attractions.
Oddly, the heart (the funeral section) seemed to be of tangential importance. What seemed to hold the most significance, for me anyways, were the appendages. But perhaps that observation says more about me as a reader – and what I see as a tension between reality and imagination – than about the text itself.
As a reader, I generally tend to dislike conventional realism because I find it uninteresting to read a transcript of a situation that could feasibly occur in the ordinary reality in which I live: in the case of A Jello Horse it would be what I am calling the heart — the transcript of driving to a house party, playing pinball, going to a funeral, going to a health clinic, etc. And to be honest, I can’t really understand why other people don’t feel the same negative reaction to this kind of realism. I mean, we already share this ordinary existence, why would I want someone to tell me about their version of it? That would be like someone giving me a running commentary while I’m watching a Lakers game. It’s like: dude, I’m watching it with you, I don’t need you to tell me your version of it – I already have my version, which I will always value greater than anyone else’s version. What I don’t have is whatever strange imaginary things other people hide in their heads, which is one of the primary reasons I turn to literature in the first place.
So what I find most interesting is when a writer writes something unfeasible slash unordinary, be it linguistically, conceptually, formally, etc. And I think Simmons accomplishes this triumphantly in the sections I have identified as appendages. In the unfeasibility/unordinariness of The House of 2000 Telephones, where every phone works and has a separate line. In the unfeasibility/unordinariness of the Jackalope Village, and the curious conversation the narrator holds with the wife of the owner. In the unfeasibility/unordinariness of the childhood dreamscapes. These things are really superlative, really interesting, imaginative, creative, and engaging. What I find less interesting, imaginative, creative, and engaging is the transcript of ordinary reality at the heart of the text.
So this is what I’m thinking when I finish reading A Jello Horse: the heart is eh and the appendages are sweet. I contemplate writing down my initial reactions but decide to think about it for a while, give the book a chance to sit in my brain.
That was yesterday evening.
And now I’m wondering about the relationship between the heart and the appendages. Do they need one another? Would the book be more satisfying without the heart, since I’ve indicated my affinity for the appendages. My answer is: I’m not sure. Part of me wants to say that the realism gets in the way or drags the piece down. But then part of me wants to say that the realism gives the work an anchor from which the appendages can bloom: i.e. maybe craziness without an anchor might not always be sufficient. This gets me thinking more about the heart.
It’s easy for me to locate the appendages as the fun and interesting aspects of the text, sort of like how you can locate the fun and interesting aspects of a potential lover. But sooner or later, if that lover is going to become anything more than a lover, there needs to be something substantive. Maybe this is the role of realism in A Jello Horse. Maybe the text needs that anchor, that substance, that realism, to give it a kind of gravity it would not possess if all were appendage, if all were unfeasible, if all were imaginary.
I’ve decided to reconsider my initial reaction. I think the heart is important and vital to the complexity of the text and without it something important would be missing. I still don’t think the heart is the most interesting part of the text, but I think the fact of it being there actually works to make the appendages as interesting as they are.
The heart as counterbalance.
And in the case of A Jello Horse, I have to commend the counterbalance for resisting the contemporary urge toward hipster irony. That is one really strong aspect of the realism in this text: it feels honest and sincere. For that I am ever thankful. None of the characters are trying to be cool. None of the characters are phony (as Holden Caulfield would say). They are just people. Not remarkably interesting people, but then again so few real people are remarkably interesting.
One final thing I wanted to mention was the choice of using the second person. I think the most productive thing a critic can do is try and explain how the text is working without judging its effectiveness, on the basis that if the critic can explain the mechanisms clearly then a potential reader can deduce the efficacy for themselves. For my part, I see the second person working as a way for the narrator to distance himself from the story. Maybe it’s a way of saying “I” without admitting culpability. Maybe it’s a way of being in the world without admitting that one is in the world. Or maybe, because of the reminiscent (nostalgic?) quality of the text, it is functioning as a tool of/for memory. By saying “You” the narrator can address a former version of himself. Like how if I were talking about the 21-year-old version of myself, which feels nothing like the 31-year-old version of myself, I would call that Chris “You” because he doesn’t feel anything like “I” feel. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it is a way of showing that the narrator is telling a tale that transpired many moons ago, to a version of himself far removed from the version who is actually typing the words. At any rate, I think the use of second person in this text is interesting and important and shouldn’t be dismissed as gimmicky. It’s not for nothing that he chose to use the second person. It’s not for nothing.
In the end, I appreciate the challenge Matthew Simmons presents: combining the feasible and unfeasible, the ordinary and the unordinary, reality and imagination; and I believe reading and thinking about A Jello Horse has pushed me toward becoming a better reader and thinker." – Christopher Higgs

"Dear Matthew Simmons,
I am writing today to ask you a question about your book, which I read with great pleasure: what is it? Forgive the directness of the question, but after reading A Jello Horse I feel as though I know you a little bit. Of course, I realize the “person” I have come to “know” is not you per se but a construct, a protagonist. That said, your use of the second person is clearly a ruse meant to throw the reader off: “You’ve taken a lot of road trips, most by yourself, some with friends, and this just feels like a road trip like any other. Like you’re going out to see a roadside attraction. Like you’re not going to a funeral.” When you say “you,” you mean “me” (meaning you), right?
Nevertheless, your story about taking a trip across the Midwest to attend the memorial service of the brother of a close friend feels honest. I say this in perfect sincerity, but I really have no idea if it’s honest or not, honesty being a word we use to describe prose that faithfully describes the human experience. After a declarative sentence or two the reader starts thinking: This writer knows road trips; I know road trips. This writing feels real; ergo, it must be honest. How then do you explain the giant desert tortoise, “large as a minor-league baseball stadium”? Or the herd of humongous antelope “grazing on the buildings of the city”? Or visits to clearly fictional roadside attractions like Jackalope Village and the House of 2,000 Telephones?
The animals are introduced as childhood fantasies, then when the protagonist is stressed or overtired or poleaxed by grief, they reappear. So are they real, or the hallucinations of someone who has been driving too long? I think the title is the key to the book’s slippery relationship between fact and fiction: gelatin is mythically derived from ground horse hooves, so if I construct the likeness of a horse out of Jell-O, I’m making an image with materials that contain the essence of the thing being represented. You seem to be saying that my story may be strange, but its raw material is the truth. Am I way off here?
It would help clarify things if I knew what to call your book. Postmodern picaresque? Neo-magical-realism? Meta-memoir (with jackalopes)? Yes, I saw the disclaimer: “All details are drawn from the author’s imagination,” but nearly all books say that now. We live in an age where fiction is lawyered up and fact-checked.
In spite of my confusion (or perhaps because of it), I was drawn to the way the narrator questions his grief. The tragedy of his friend’s brother’s death isn’t his own, so he’s at somewhat of a remove from the inner circle of suffering. This is what happens when people die. The ones left behind are thrown together by the terrible event, and everyone sane enough to think rationally wonders if they’re behaving appropriately. It’s a fascinating problem for a protagonist: it’s his story, but the story doesn’t belong to him, and who hasn’t been there?
When the affairs of the dead consume the living, the line between “fact” and “fiction” gets, well—let’s be honest here—there is no line. It gets obliterated as we relinquish the dead to that fiction-making machine called memory. Would knowing that you lost someone, that you found someone, or that the someone who was lost and found was you, Matthew Simmons, really make a difference?
I think I just answered my own question.
All best,
Jim Ruland"

"At a recent reading at the College Inn Pub for A Jello Horse, someone in the audience asked local author Matthew Simmons how much of his novella is based on real experiences. It's a tough question for any author, and it was especially tough for Simmons: Horse is a road story about a young man taking a trip through Wisconsin and Kansas, with Seattle looming on the edges of the book. Simmons is a young author who lived near Madison and is at least fairly conversant in the roadside culture of Kansas. The answer took a little while to stumble out, and people in the audience fidgeted with their just-purchased copies of the book while they waited for the answer.
Horse should be read in one sitting. It's a tiny slip of a thing (only 67 pages, with generous margins) composed of a delicately constructed monologue; an interruption could well explode the story into senselessness, and you only get one shot to make the experience work. Told in the second person—Simmons, who has an MFA in creative writing, admitted during the Q&A that the book was an attempt to do everything that his teachers had told him not to do—Horse's painfully blunt internal monologue careens around the weird tourist attractions of middle America. The protagonist refuses to listen to a song that a former lover wrote about him: "You know that you deserve this song that says bad things about you, so you will avoid it to live with the possibility that it is a nice song. This is how you get by. It is not perfect, but often it works." Instead of confronting his issues, he diverts himself by contemplating jackalopes and pinball and wondering what he should do with his life.
But the people who attend readings want to know: How much of it is real? Simmons would only admit that the climactic House of 2,000 Phones that appears in Horse is based on a House of 1,000 Phones that used to exist in Kansas. "The rest of it is made up," he said. That's probably a lie, but it was a polite answer to an impolite question, and none of it mattered: The reading quickly turned into a drunken pinball competition, anyway." - Paul Constant

"Matthew Simmons’ delicate prose in his book “A Jello Horse” is a wondrous read on a quiet night within an hour of lying around relaxing. After reading each pretty paragraph, going back and reading it again out loud is recommended to add to the magic of listening to the unraveling of a heart-touching story of a man dealing with a traumatic suicidal event affecting himself and his closest friends. On the road, we observe his recollections of past love’s failures. We are also exposed to his vivid perceptions of the world through the mind of a child who has grown; who continues to grow through death, disease, and empathic observation. His search for absurd beauty between nights in cheap hotels and pinball, takes us through stretches of dreamlike images from an imagination filled with fierce but friendly creatures: the famished antelope grazing city rooftops, slack-eared Jackalope in a Village discovered by roadside billboard, and a flying lion named Richard--all melting into the stark contrast of circumstances in the human condition. “A Jello Horse” is an inspiring coming-of-age tale which is well-worth reading repeatedly." - Sabra Embury

"Ooo, just finished consuming Matthew Simmons’ A Jello Horse, and I really liked it. I saw a review that went gaga for the quirkiness of the novella, but I think the real power comes from the way Simmons uses "familiarity"--that sounds boring, so yeah the book is quirky as hell. It’s not a scary book, but it’s loaded with uncanny imagery. Oddly, the best parts are when the narrator is least interactive with the characters who know him, who have prior history with him. It’s when he is alone, or encountering new characters, that the book hits its highest notes. If that's too vague, how about this: there are BIG ANIMALS in it. I hear it’s going into a 2nd printing.
So a lot of interest in the Vips on very short fiction blog, and I’m delighted to say that new entries are forthcoming from Tim Jones-Yelvington, Michele Reale, Lauren Becker, Tiff Holland, and Molly Gaudry (if she doesn’t implode). Other contributors are more tentative—turns out real editors don’t stalk/pounce on people via Facebook chat. I think would have a tough time being a real editor, simply because I want to post EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW. As opposed to delivering new content in a measured, sane fashion." - Laura Ellen Scott


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