Cats and Guns: The Sublime Strangeness of MORT(E)

Article by ben

The first time I heard about MORT(E), I didn’t believe it existed.

“Seriously,” Keaton, the Brazos book buyer, said, tossing me an advance reading copy.

Sure enough, there it was, the story of a housecat named Sebastian that, like the other animals of the world, grows huge and self-aware when affected by a certain hormone--a hormone spread by a race of giant ants bent on punishing humanity for its sins. In the midst of the war between humans and animals, Sebastian becomes a hero and casts off his “slave name,” calling himself Mort(e) instead, all the while searching for Sheba, his canine friend from before the carnage began.

What?

MORT(E)’s author is Robert Repino, a graduate of Emerson’s MFA program and an editor at Oxford University Press. This is his first novel, and the story came to him in a dream. “I keep a notebook by my bed,” Repino tells me over the phone. “I’ve written a couple decent things from it. Seven years ago, I wrote a story about an artist who floods her house until it’s filled like an aquarium.”

Are there any dreams that he wouldn’t transform into a story?

“Some ideas would’ve turned into really cheesy action/cop stories. I’ve had dreams where I was a hitman, and I’ve thought about [writing a story] for a few days, and then been like, ‘No, I can’t pull that off.’”

Part of the impetus behind MORT(E) was to create a sci-fi epic like STAR TREK or STAR WARS, but Repino’s novel is much darker than that. Take, for instance, the novel’s opening scenes, before Sebastian has transformed into Mort(e), when he is merely a housecat that belongs to Daniel and Janet, a married couple. Janet begins an affair with a neighbor, and when Daniel discovers this infidelity, he becomes violent, threatening his wife and child with a loaded weapon--until Mort(e) grows strong, steals the gun, and kills his former owner.

In the current publishing landscape, where does such a book--simultaneously silly and brutal--belong? It’s not quite YA, not quite sci-fi, not quite fantasy.

Repino acknowledges this challenge: “I knew I had a real mess on my hands.”

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In light of this, the publication of MORT(E) feels somewhat miraculous--not because the novel has problems, but because Repino was so certain of what he had at such an early stage, and such certainty can confuse some people. He found this when he first began sending the book to agents. “One told me that if I already had five books under my belt, then [MORT(E)] would be a great change of pace. But for a debut, it’s too weird.”

Repino’s book finally landed with Jennifer Weltz, an agent at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency Inc. When I ask her whether MORT(E)’s weirdness attracted her immediately, she says, “I do go for the unusual,” laughing. Weltz laughs a lot when she talks about MORT(E), as though she can’t quite believe this is part of her job: to talk about a book that stars giant cats with guns. “It’s hard to find a story that’s completely different from anything else you’ve read,” Weltz adds.

But like much of the best sci-fi and fantasy, MORT(E) uses its absurd premise to address bigger subjects--something that also drew Weltz into Repino’s world. “It was fun to follow, yet it also had depth. It was about friendship. It was about religion and politics.” In this way, it reminded Weltz of classics like DUNE and WATERSHIP DOWN--novels that elevate fantasy to the level of allegory.

In a sense, MORT(E)’s appeal reminds me of those old sci-fi/horror movies from the 1950s--corny ones like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THEM! (which Repino himself mentions) that addressed Red Scare through aliens and nuclear ants, respectively. But what makes MORT(E) startling is that, despite the sometimes silly content and reference points, Repino never makes fun of his inspirations, instead treating his absurd subject with the utmost gravitas. “There are only a few moments that are trying to goof on things,” Repino says. “But when the first chapter involves murder, and the second chapter involves genocide, that sets the tone pretty quickly.”

In MORT(E), much of the violence comes in the name of war--war between humans and animals, in which the animals are looking to punish humanity for its sins. So does Repino agree with the animals when it comes to the sins of humanity? “I don’t agree with their methods,” he says, “but I share Mort(e)’s understanding that there are certain flaws hardwired into us through evolution: fear of people who are different; a tendency to follow alpha males and violent, strong leaders; resorting to tribalism. And if animals were intelligent, most of them would view their status as slavelike.” Repino mentions one character in particular: a bobcat named Culdesac, who is particularly vocal about humanity’s propensity toward evil. “Even though he makes unfair generalizations,” Repino says, “you can understand where he’s coming from.”

But, perhaps hoping to reassure me, Repino also says, “I’m a nice guy, though. I don’t commit acts of violence.” He chuckles. “I’m too small.”

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When faced with a book this dark and strange, will readers understand? “That can be challenging,” Weltz says. “I tested it in my office, giving it to readers who don’t usually like books about talking animals. They couldn’t put it down. That’s when I knew I had something that could reach a wider audience.”

But she admits reaching that audience posed a challenge. “It’s not the kind of book I could send to just anyone. A lot of publishers would be like, ‘What the hell are you sending me?’” Weltz laughs--that laugh again, the joy of this book. “When you have a debut author,” she says, “there’s a lot more to factor in. Hopefully it’s the beginning of an exciting career. As an agent, you feel that responsibility--to make sure you’re getting the author somewhere that will have a vision for the book and value it.”

MORT(E) finally ended up with Soho Press, a New York-based independent publisher. When I ask senior editor Mark Doten about what drew him in, he lists three other recent Soho releases that feature anthropomorphic animals. “I guess I just enjoy those books,” he jokes.

Like Weltz, Doten feels very optimistic about MORT(E)’s chances in the marketplace. “I think this book is a weird one,” he says, “but I can’t think of one I’ve worked on where the basic pitch gets people more excited. People like cats with guns fighting an apocalyptic war.”

Then, Doten mentions perhaps the most telling detail thus far about MORT(E)’s roll-out: “Someone already got a tattoo of it.” By it, he means Kapo Amos Ng’s back cover art: a big cat facing down an even bigger ant, both of them drawn in bright orange.

When I ask Weltz about this, she’s enthusiastic but also unsurprised that the book has sparked this sort of fandom: “Either you love it or you don’t get it. There’s no middle ground.”

The specificity--the utter strangeness and uniqueness--of MORT(E) has paid off, it seems. But the tattoo has certainly raised the bar. “I’ve been joking,” Repino says, “if you want to come to one of my readings, you have to get the tattoo.”


Mort(e) Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9781616954277
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Soho Press - January 20th, 2015

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