The Cat That Therefore I Am: On Robert Repino’s ‘Mort(e)’

morteWritten in the third creature, Mort(e) by Robert Repino is an interspecies war novel that hews closely to the actions and thoughts of a cat named Mort(e). First known as Sebastian, Mort(e) is inspired to change his name after a singularity-event brought about by a race of intelligent ants.

I’ll let Mort(e) explain:

With his thumb, Mort(e) rubbed the smooth surface of his St. Jude medallion. It made him feel a little better, until he was finally ready to speak. “Do you want to hear how I picked my name?”

She did not answer, even though she had to be awake.

“Lieutenant?” he asked. “Do you want the explanation?”

Wawa moved into a sitting position. “I would like that,” she said.

“It’s from a book I read. Le Morte d’Arthur.

Let me remind you again that Mort(e) is a cat. Nevertheless, he has chosen his own name on the basis of his fondness for a work of Arthurian literature. This makes sense. It’s a gentle subversion of Aristotle’s famous maxim: “Man alone of the animals possesses speech.” It’s a thought experiment rendered in fiction: I wonder if by giving voice to a cat, I could decenter and defamiliarize the human race, thus demonstrating its brutality and stupidity.

The answer is “yes,” and Mort(e) succeeds largely on the basis of its flatline prose. How else to deliver page after page of militarized, talking animals? By its conclusion, the novel registers as neither a neat allegorical study, in the mode of Animal Farm, nor an epistemological or existential exploration in the style of Kafka’s many animal stories, although it does somehow resemble “A Report to an Academy.” Repino is aware of these precedents, and the ridiculousness of his enterprise means that he must nod to them shamelessly:

“Captain Mort(e)?” she asked.

“You have found him,” Mort(e) replied.

“I am Lieutenant Wawa. This is Special Bonaparte.”

Mort(e) smiled. “Napoleon was already taken?” he asked.

“Many times over,” the pig said.

Much of the unencumbered joy of Mort(e) stems from the absurdity of its plot, not to mention the easy empathy of, well, loving animals. There are ants, bombs, love affairs. It’s also true that Repino’s gifts for pacing and revelation are literary, even if the novel tries to hang glide over the no man’s land between literary and genre novels. Still, as the novel moved away from its first third, I found myself missing Repino’s less genrefied voice. When Mort(e) is Sebastian, there is an existential curiosity, a wonderment at what it’s like to be an animal — as when Sebastian, convinced there is another cat in the house, discovers mirrors. I wanted more Kafka, I guess, and less Orwell.

Mort(e) is funny, smart, well-written; it’s already among the better debuts of the year. But it’s also interesting for another reason: it’s an extreme act of pattern recognition and haphazard empathy. It represents an oppositional pole in American novel, one pitched far from autofiction, which its author, by all accounts, despises. “My MFA program at Emerson College saved me from spending years working on a dead-end autobiographical novel,” Repino writes in the acknowledgements. “For that, and many other things, I am very grateful.” One of the novel’s blurbs, too, (on the website), disparages “our age of first person diary-like-entry novels.”

In the scheme of things, writing a novel about a thoughtful, weaponized cat isn’t altogether light years away from writing an autofictional novel that interrogates, for example, human wreckage of the environment, like Ben Lerner’s 10:04 or Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper — both are concerned with negotiating the Anthropocene. Nor is Mort(e) absolved of the theory-damaged concerns of Teju Cole’s Open City or, again, Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. Remember animal studies? It’s hard to imagine this novel without years of post-structuralist and post-post-structuralist treatises from writers like Agamben and Derrida, the latter being all over this book. The reason I picked up the novel, in fact, was because its cover reminded me of Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, which he was prompted to write because of a staring match with his own pet.

To be sure, the floodgates are open. More cat and dog and tree and ant novels will follow. Might Mort(e) foretell the end of human-centric fiction? Maybe not: it wasn’t written by a cat. In any case, if a singularity has been crossed, I’m more interested to see what Repino will do on the other side.