A Mortal Affect, Vincent Standley’s debut novel and the latest release from Calamari Press, is all about creating a world, inventing a vocabulary, and then approaching a proposed conundrum of what it would be like to have a portion of the world immortal, and a portion not. Full of Dante-esque circles of assigned living, painted blue welfare blocs of housing, Rooters (the mortal creatures that populate the novel), and Malkings (the immortals who vie for appropriate living throughout A Mortal Affect), this is a book that attempts to grow a universe, roots and all, in a mere two hundred pages:
Not so long ago I regarded immortality a blessing. Malkings are the immortal mortals; they are bound to Earth but will never die. They will know their author once in the beginning and never again thereafter. The Malkings have no adoptive parents. No one to offer instruction and assurances in times of doubt. No cradle or loving caress. No surnames. And of course in the midst of all else, these orphans will never know an end.
A Mortal Affect loosely follows a handful of characters from start to finish, including Lob, who quests for a new kind of cooking method beyond toasters, deluxe toasters, toaster ovens (the required preparation tools of the Rooters), Dorthea, whose hidden patriarchal name creates stress in and around her life in the housing units, and the narrator’s constant and eventually failing search for a way to be free, for a mortal affect:
Initially, I executed a series of exploratory attempts to determine the most promising methods. Decapitation came after numerous failures—gas, asphyxiation, poisoning, produced enormous discomfort and disfigurement but, obviously, not death. Since none of my earliest attempts resulted in the complete separation of the body from itself, decapitation had come to stand out as the last hope. Alas.
As with any novel that attempts to create or envision a world unlike our own, there is the task of defining all necessary items in order to make the imagined feel as tangible as possible. This, unfortunately, is Standley’s greatest pitfall. While A Mortal Affect does have a through-line of plot, it is scattered and often lost by the desire to flesh out the life and times of these Rooters and Malkings, spending nearly half of the novel explaining and outlining where this world came from, how it functions, and the ‘reality’ of living in it. This leaves A Mortal Affect feeling at numerous occasions like a technical manual or clinical guide, like governmental transcripts from filibusters or footnotes to long-lost historical studies, instead of a tightly wound novel:
Four books composed the Archaic Record: the “Book of Creations,” the “Book of Discoveries,” the “Book of Details,” and the “Book of Predictions.” Any inherent power could at any minute be toppled by a breakthrough in AR hermeneutics. If the “Book of Discoveries” contained an analog to the power in questions, the inherent power became an inherited power. Those who believed all knowledge came from the Scriptures replaced inherent with placeholder.
This kind of literary-slash-fantasy writing, the borderline of genres, it takes a gentle hand. David Ohle’s cult classic Motorman and subsequent serial volumes, including Calamari’s own release of Ohle’s The Camp / Boons, is a prime example of how this tender coaxing can work, creating a world we’ve never seen but one we can feel the reality in, and one that remains focused on well-developed characters and a driving plot. Vincent Standley’s A Mortal Affect shows the other side of this attempted cross-genre leap, where so much time is spent establishing norms of a non-existent world that we don’t quite get to feel at home with the characters or moved by their plots—instead, we are balanced in the in-between, trying to glean a story from without, attempting to find the narrative threads.