Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
IN HIS DEBUT NOVEL Mort(e) — the parenthetical in the title is clue prima facie that we are in the realm of experimental fiction — Robert Repino offers a sweeping, apocalyptic war story in which animals undergo “The Change” and rise up against their human masters. Behind the scenes and deep underground, a mutant queen ant a la James Cameron’s Aliens has produced a hormone that enters the world’s water systems; it changes animals on contact, giving them mental capacities and self-awareness equal to humans, and also morphs them physically. Just one drop and dogs and cats grow to human size, become bipedal, and their paws mutate into hands.
A neutered housecat turned ragged frontline fighter, Sebastian, joins a unit of strays led by a violent bobcat, Culdesac, and campaigns for nearly a decade against the human resistance, all the time searching for a dog named Sheba he once loved when he was still a simple housecat, locked in a suburban home, resting in a patch of sunlight and licking himself.
This is earnest stuff; Sebastian has given himself the non de guerre “Mort(e)” — he intends to drop the parenthetical “e” at the end of the war and revert from Death embodied on the battlefield to just “Mort,” an average, everyday bipedal, thinking, talking man-cat. Sebastian as Mort(e) is torn throughout the long novel with an identity crisis — was it better to lie in that patch of sunlight even though there was no freedom in it than to bear the stress and responsibilities of self-awareness?
Repino tends to write in summary; there are many battles to report on here, many changes in the very structure of the Earth itself that must be covered, and he manages to imbue character complexity into his various warlords and cat soldiers through long flashback and scene. Repino also valiantly keeps the novel well-imagined; it is interesting to think of cats, dogs, bears, etc. anthropomorphically and fighting hard scrabble Liberia/Balkans/Syrian-style bloodbath street battles with the deceptive and vicious humans (the humans employ such ghastly tactics as wearing the skins of slain raccoon fighters to infiltrate the animals’ ranks). But one wonders why text was the best medium to convey this story: shouldn’t it have been a graphic novel? Repino tries for a science fiction The Red Badge of Courage; what we get is a Saturday morning cartoon. Readers who grew up in the ThunderCats era will have those well-muscled felines in mind; Repino tries to invoke Orwell’s Animal Farm through allusion — a pig is named Bonaparte — but literary readers will be stymied by the same disease that infects all genre, the silliness.
That’s not to say the novel will not have its champions or its place among the nerds; fans of Starship Troopers, Tremors, steampunk, Blade Runner, cosplayers, furries, and countless other subculturites might find a happy home here. Perhaps this novel will help answer the question of whether enough of this market can read without the help of pictures to sustain all-text novels like Repino’s.
Here is a sample from Mort(e), indicative of the rest of the book:
“Luff-tenant,” someone said. Wawa knew right away that it was Archer, a raccoon who had followed Culdesac’s soldiers around for days before the colonel finally relented and allowed him to join the Red Sphinx. Archer insisted on using the weird British pronunciation of Wawa’s rank. When asked why he spoke the way he did, he claimed he hid in the basement of the main branch of the New York Public Library after Manhattan was evacuated. He spent months learning the classics, watching documentary filmstrips, learning things the ants could not program into his brain. Wawa had once seen him pick a bullet out of his thigh with his claws, wipe his hand on his tail, and keep fighting. He had earned the right to be a little snooty. Even though he still ate trash on occasion — a trusty survival skill, she had to admit.
If one enjoys this sort of thing, one will find it here.
Robert Repino served in the Peace Corps in Grenada, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His fiction has appeared in The Literary Review, Night Train, Hobart, The Furnace Review, Ghoti, Word Riot, JMWW, Juked and elsewhere. He is a senior editor at Oxford University Press.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) lives in Florida. His novel Whiteman was recently optioned for film by the French production company, Les Petites Lumieres. Another novel, Mule, continues to repose at Warner Bros.