Review by Tobias Carroll
Describing Vincent Standley’s novel A Mortal Affect doesn’t entirely prepare the reader for the book to come. In it, there are prophecies, revolutions, the lamentations of a suicidal immortal, and the constant threat of the world ceasing to exist. Yet the focus here isn’t on the otherworldly elements so much as it’s with the minutiae of daily life in this highly stylized society — and how its participants choose to interpret and study it. It’s a sort of academic comedy, then — albeit one in which several of the characters are towering asexual immortals seeking to adopt gendered traits.
In some ways, A Mortal Affect resembles Renee Gladman’s Event Factory and Jan Morris’s Hav: like them, it’s a travelogue to a society that becomes more alien and imperceptible the deeper into the narrative we get. In certain others, it recalled William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels: that juxtaposition of the familiar and the unhinged, the predictable and the jarring. Yet at the same time, Standley is also playing with the contradictions inherent in his form: he’s created an epically detailed world abounding with strange resonances with classical works, that resonates with both classic literature and certain contemporary concerns. And yet the main focus here is less on carefully-orchestrated plots or the the threat that the world might be arbitrarily restarted or the fate of the eight lost “root-races.” Instead, it’s the abounding concern with certain intellectuals for epistemology; A Mortal Affect abounds with characters whose focus is turned on their society and themselves.
To those not looking for an elaborate work of satire, the presence of so many fantastic elements and potential sources of plot tension may frustrate. Standley’s created a backstory seemingly suited to looming trilogies and instead utilized it for an entirely different purpose. Despite the book’s tendency to proceed in fits and starts, A Mortal Affect‘s ultimate strength lies in its abundance of ideas, metaphors, and surreal bodies.