Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Early in Vincent Standley’s intriguing, elaborately constructed book about knowledge, bureaucracy, freedom and its constraints, there is included a lengthy quote from a scholarly book review, written by a mortal Rooter in response to a book written by one of the immortal Malkings who control society and, thus, the academic industry, the intellectual complex: “...and half-way through the second chapter,” goes this review, “my attention waned. However, after washing the dishes and completing my Mortal Occupant renewal forms I resumed In This Medium We Speak. I read to the end of Chapter Three, then took a nap. What could make a book so sleep inducing?” Well, the review goes on, eviscerating but also of a piece. Academic reviews, as a genre, involve conservative forms self perpetuating, jargon summoned to dismiss jargon or to parse jargon out, to deconstruct by reveling in, critique the obscure particulars by reinforcing the hegemony of assumption. These are the sorts of concerns at the labyrinthine heart of A Mortal Affect. The modes of discourse that constrict or determine knowledge, meaning; the means of rationalizing political oppression via taxonomy and speculation along a spectrum of pseudo-science and metaphysical fetish—these are the girders from which Standley constructs a massive structure, a world—serious and palpable—of beings and ideas, of abstract debates and concrete consequences.
Yes, there are immortals, and telepathy, and the trappings of either a sci-fi saga or a ribald satire, but Standley takes pains to play it straight. To enter this book is to enter into the systems it describes, by which I mean, for instance, banalities such as “According to the Archivist Code Manual regarding box specifications, two presentation boxes must fit snugly inside a single archive box; further, a correct two-boxes-in-one box configuration must result in five interior sides of an archive box (A) contacting four exterior sides of each presentation box (B, C). The code did not, however, specify the dimensions of either kind of box, leading to variations between boxes depending on the manufacturer.”
Such minutia might be “sleep inducing” to some readers, but if you let the style here seduce you, you’ll be trapped, and the reward will be a shifted perspective regarding the minutia of our own, mortal, everyday lives, our own approaches to community and conceptions of freedom, our own kneejerk dependence on interpretations of history, our own even deeper impulse toward categorization, sorting as means of sense-making. “No one is free,” one character says to another in an early, Orwellian scene. But when we say “Orwellian” we flag some aspect of our existence via the gift of perception Orwell’s writings granted. To alchemize the familiar, hand it back strange and startling, demanding fresh consideration: that is very much the goal here, and this is a novel, I feel, driven by intent as much as by deep attention to style and obsessive consideration of ideas. Religion, myth, the invisible hand and the welfare state, the morphologies of gender and sexuality and their play in the various constructed ecstasies of the disco, knowledge as currency and its use as tyranny—you can line up themes from within this book and they’ll look like dissertation topics or parodies thereof. But the novel functions because, as a novel, it casts a spell. All the data, the jargon, the academic prose and posturing, the discourse about discourse or discourse presented so as to make its discursiveness visible, apparent, the tautologies and the hot air masked as thick with fact or the facts that stand so nakedly earnest they seem like so much hot air (“The brevity of examples is also a factor, as we found no discussion of the langer in excess of five hundred words, with the majority just over the two hundred word minimum. While not strictly an issue of accuracy, the shortness of the examples does weaken their statistical robustness.”) doesn’t just flavor the text but acts as the real subject. While there are individual characters, the exchange of information and the uses (and abuses) of that exchange become like characters here, too.
And when there is a break from all that—from the lecture hall, the presentation boxes—it comes with such force, such violence. The mortals, we learn, like carnivals, particularly the darker sorts, “after hours in the black market districts,” featuring mutilations, tortures. Again, a fun house mirror: our world, smelling suddenly—for Standley can drop, guillotine-blade-quick, from the knotted nuances of academic prose to crystalline poetic descriptions—of cracked bone, of blood.
Official Calamari Press Web Site