Second person is like photography. Not only in the sense that saying, “You sit down in the field and look at the tree on a hill,” is similar to a photographer showing you a picture they took of a tree on a hill and asking you to put yourself there. Second person is also like photography in the sense that you often stumble upon it when you’re in your early twenties, start doing it all the time, it unlocks previously unseen worlds to you, you think it’s the key to your future, you think “How come everyone isn’t doing this all the time?”, think it’s what you’re supposed to do with your life, think it will solve all your problems, and then you get bored with it and stop doing it altogether a year or so later.
However there are a few folks that take it very seriously and refuse to drop it, who see it as an avenue to connect with the world, as an easy way to draw a person in and wrap a story around them.
Second person can be volatile. At it’s best, it’s a Being John Malkovich-like portal, letting you experience events like an insider, yet still maintaining that deliciously perverse voyeuristic charm. At it’s worst, it can be commanding and toneless, making you do things that you’re not necessarily interested in doing. Matthew Simmons rolls the second-person dice and comes out on top. But his voice is just one of many things succeeding in this short book.
The protagonist (You), instead of staying with his friend and putting himself through a heart-wrenching, emotional journey of loss, he decides to hit the road. He takes a break from the crushing reality of the situation, that his friend’s brother has killed himself, and instead escapes to a strange world inhabited by gigantic loping circus beasts destroying cities, a beat-down tourist trap centered around beat-down jackalopes, and another tourist trap, the house of 2000 phones, where lives can be changed if you take the chance of picking up any one of the dozen or so phones that ring at odd intervals. It’s these fantastical counterbalances to the heavy loss at the heart A Jello Horse that make it work. Take away the tragedy and you’ve got a saccharine fantasy world. Take away the fantasy and you’ve got a crippling drama.
The balance between fantasy and reality is enjoyable, but the thing that resonates most is this theme of decency. There’s a bit of talk in the beginning of the book about just being a good person, about helping your friends out when they need it, about giving grace where it’s due, and about putting your life on hold so you can support someone you care about. Most main characters are self-centered, concerned only with what happens to them and to what degree it happens. Which is understandable, if anyone should care about the main character, he or she has to care about themselves first. But good people in books are often boring and have to be prodded into interestingness with a deep secret or horrible affliction. Simmons has done an amazing thing by creating a protagonist who’s a good man that isn’t boring. You want to be around him in the same way you only want to make friends with good people. Thanks, Matthew, and well done.