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28 march 2015

An interesting dynamic explored in Georgie Carroll's Mouse is that mice and rats, which are definitely separate in taxonomic terms and strongly distinguished in many cultures, run together quite a bit in others; in Japan, according to Carroll, mice and rats occupy the same cultural niche, and often share the same common name.

Sometimes Carroll will use the term "murine" to describe the general profile of a large group of species that we often run together, and one can see why. Mice and rats, when individuals get into your house, can behave in such basically similar ways that it scarcely makes a difference which species they belong to. Both can make good pets. On the other side, there are voles and shrews and other small deer that gradate in size down from the mouse and are basically interchangeable when they scurry through your flowerbeds. Your cats don't care much at all about field identification.

But in English-language cultures, rats and mice are quite distinct, rats being almost always despicable (with here and there a beloved or heroic exception), and mice being cute and simpatico (with some rotten exemplars that prove the rule). That's individual mice, of course, which I can testify are darn cute. Infestations of dozens are not quite as cute.

Carroll takes a mystical approach to the mouse for most of this book, stressing the many meanings that mice attract. They are pests, and have been since humans started storing food. They're ineradicable en masse, and proverbially prolific. And starting from those selfsame reasons, mice can be adored or reviled, destroyers or guardians, symbols of death and of life, of reproduction and of decay.

Mice are so protean that it's even hard to pin down what they mean at a particular place or time. I spent much of my childhood identifying with various cartoon and children's-story mice, and at the same time relatively scared of the real things and happy when a trap would go off and dispatch another one to mouse heaven.

Carroll spends quite a bit of time considering the fancy mouse and its descendant, the laboratory mouse, by now a creature almost entirely designed by human beings. These are insightful passages, where the author meditates on the boundaries between the real, the wild, and the artificial.

At times the book gets so mystical that it edges into dubious territory. I couldn't follow Carroll's argument at all on p. 103, where she connects the Native American Dene group to Uighur Turks, and identifies central Asians of the time of Christ as ancestors of the Cherokee and other Indian tribes. As best I can tell, these references are sourced from online pseudo-knowledge that should have been taken with a whole shaker of salt.

There's also an odd treatment of Mickey Mouse as emblematic of early-20th-century Jewishness – which I suppose may or may not have been true for various individual Jews. Hitler apparently was no fan of Mickey, who did often represent the underdog (mouse?) before his more recent role as the rodent face of a dominant and ever-expanding animatronic empire. Art Spiegelman adopted mice as personae for the protagonists of Maus (while alluding to Mickey), and apparently Carroll draws many of her connections from Spiegelman's synthetic representations.

Mighty and Jerry get brief mentions, but not Pixie or Dixie or Itchy, and the greatest American cartoon mouse, George Herriman's Ignatz, never appears. I can't pronounce a book on mice in popular culture complete without the li'l ainjil.

Carroll, Georgie. Mouse. London: Reaktion, 2015.