Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Laboratory Mouse as Character in a Novel

 For as long as you can remember, you've held the common house mouse in the highest esteem, a fondness that grew upon your discovery that your mother was, as she put it, "Not the species most ardent advocate."  In greater fact, the appearance of a mouse caused her at least a shiver of fright.  You understood in later years how the appearance of a mouse in your mother's house translated somehow as a negative report on her housekeeping skills.

This last aspect was a carryover from the fact of your father sweeping a young Jewish princess off her feet and into early marriage well before she, your mother, learned kitchen skills.  In the equation, your paternal grandmother, a superb cook and, for some time, the single-handed source of raising her brood, variously as a bootlegger, saloon manager, and pastry chef.  In the simplest of terms, your mother considered any mouse a likely presence to be reported to Grandma Lizzie.

In consequence, several times during the arc of your mischievous little boyhood, your mother discouraged you from strategies involving the enticement of one or more mice to linger in your presence.  This of course made the mouse--any mouse--seem all the more desirable as a pet.

Matters remained at that stage of detente until after you were married and your wife had other ideas about rats and mice as pets.  But you remained, mousse and fond, not giving the matter much thought until you became the acquisition editor of a book, The Cholesterol Controversy, 

by an M.D. author with whom you got along quite well, to the point where, during one of your many conversations tangential to the editing matters, Dr. Pinckney introduced you to the concept of what he called the stress mouse.

Since that conversation and subsequent reading on your part, the stress mouse was given its release from being a laboratory mouse, used for medical and biological research, and into your imagination as an excellent metaphor for any given character in any given story.  The laboratory or stress mouse, a close relative of the house mouse, is raised to be used as an actual participant or a statistical presence in some double-bind checking procedure.  

Because of its close parallels to the human genome, the lab mouse can become the medium for observation or experimentation.  You could not resist the temptation to label the laboratory mouse as the guinea pig for psychological, physiological, pharmaceutical, and other forms of observation to see how much, how little, or if at all a human might respond to the equivalent stress put upon him or her.

To your knowledge, and thanks to Dr. Pinckney, there are waltzing mice, who walk in circles due to mutations with adverse effects on their inner ears, so-called Murphy Roths mice, with even more accelerated reproductive properties than the standard mouse's fifty-day cycle; oncomice, who are more likely to get cancer than non-oncomice; and immunodeficient so-called rude mice, lacking hair and thymus, not to forget the Doogie mouse, which is even brighter at solving problems than your average laboratory mouse, which you might well have suspected, is already of considerable brightness.

In a real sense, you could argue how laboratory mice were participants in most of the significant scientific discoveries of our times, a fact bound to disturb many animal rights activists who are not satisfied to learn that laboratory mice are well fed, have drinking water and clean sanitary facilities available, and are not crowded into circumstances similar to those animals being raised for food.

You cited only a few of the possible permutations available in laboratory mice, some of them having their particular "stress" arranged by genetic splice before they were born.  Thus they come forth with their stress already in place.  The list of possible stresses for characters is infinite, and in the bargain,not all of them by any means are free from worry about where their next meal will come from or what kind of roof they will have over their head.  Sometimes, in your imagination, you visualize a facility for stress mice who have served their purpose and are now free to live out the remainder of their life span of about two years.  

Compared to the estimated four-month life span of a mouse in the wild, two years seems a luxury, even given the fact of the mouse taking on the particular stress for which it is employed.  Even writing about such behavior reeks to you of experiments and agendas pursued by the National Socialist Party during World War II.  Comparing such behavior to the three- or four-month life span in the wild does not make the life of the laboratory mouse seem comfortable, and so you attempt to use grim humor to cover the concept.  
In this grim humor mode, you liken the retired stress mice as the elderly retired you sometimes see here in Santa Barbara, perhaps at lawn bowls or cards or comparing the fortunes of their grandchildren as a way of advancing their own status over that of another.  "My grandson walked circles all the time,"  "Ah, but my grandson was genetically modified to be smarter.  He was always escaping from mazes or finishing tests before the others."  And of course the inevitable, "Help, help, my grandson, the medical mouse, has fallen in the swimming pool and drowning."

The onus to devise experimental, moral, philosophical, and spiritual stress for characters weighs heavily on writers, causing us from time to time to hold back, go easy.  But the works in where the author's forbearance to apply stress rarely squeeze through the slush piles of submissions, into actual publication.  Readers want characters who walk in circles, have albino traits, are too smart for their own good, eat too much, get too fat, drink too much and in due course coagulate their liver.  Readers want characters who are more than just a bit romantic; they want as many square inches of the whole nine yards that we can supply.

When a characters comes your way, promising to tell you a remarkable story, if only you will listen, the first thing you look for is the possibility of a limp before you say, "Come on, we're going off for a nice, long walk,"


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