The Vorrh by B[rian] Catling is an odd book. Not the strangest one I’ve ever read – that distinction still belongs to Moby Dick. (The Vorrh, probably not coincidentally, also includes a character named Ishmael.) It is very worth reading; its imagination, language, and storylines are all compelling. It’s smart, sophisticated, and nakedly elegant; there are words I didn’t know, which is a rarity in fiction for me, and complexity and variation on the themes of cultural memory and of what it means to be human, and the prose has a lushness which in the hands of a different writer would tip into being overwritten but mostly doesn’t here. Adjectives are essentials, not accessories. It also has flaws, none of which are fatal, but the biggest of which left me feeling at the end that the novel had looked into the book it could become and shied away.
The title element, the Vorrh, is a huge, ancient forest somewhere in Africa that exerts force over physical elements – airplanes won’t overfly it because it messes with the electronics, and time and space and memory are all twisted or erased within it. It stands at the center of several different narratives which overlap only a little with each other. It’s hard to say how many different narratives, because as the book progresses new point of view characters get introduced with their own narratives. It reminds me of a chambered nautilus, different portions of it spiraling together yet still separate. The time of the book has its own elasticity; it has a nineteenth century flavor, but some scenes seem to be in the twentieth century. There are anachronisms and myths and magic.
Built against the edges of the Vorrh is the colonial city of Essenwald, the older portions of which were imported from Europe and rebuilt brick by brick. Essenwald survives by logging the Vorrh; in one splendid line, Catling describes the logs as carcasses, which really brings to bear the idea of the forest as alive. The city of Essenwald has its own strangenesses; whether this is inherent or is the influence of the Vorrh is not made entirely clear. I don’t want to go into detail here, because spoilers. The storylines (with one notable exception) essentially consist of people leaving Essenwald or its vicinity and going into the Vorrh, or following someone who has gone into the Vorrh. Things happen.
The novel is imbued with the grotesque. A blurb on the back from Jeff VanderMeer describes it as “like a long-lost classic of Decadent or Symbolist literature,” which is apt. It had me thinking about Baudelaire. Most of it is written in an omniscient narrative voice, which again has a nineteenth century feeling – the contemporary author it most reminds me of is A.S. Byatt. One chapter includes a carnival, and there is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the book: it is in some ways a freak show. Catling uses a lot of body imagery, including destruction and twisting of the body, some of which is downright disturbing. His imagination goes into creepy places that I won’t soon forget.
It is also a novel about colonialism. Catling signifies this in the very beginning with a quotation from one of the more horrific passages from Heart of Darkness, describing the natives as “bundles of acute angles.” The journeys into the Vorrh should certainly be taken as parallel to Marlowe’s and Kurtz’s journeys into the Congo, into the “heart of darkness,” but they don’t overlie perfectly. Conrad’s novel, lacking the supernatural elements of Catling’s, is simpler and maybe rawer. In The Vorrh, the forest exerts its own power on intruders in a way that Conrad’s Congo never did, even upon Kurtz. The primal nature of the forest is superhuman and can’t be colonized.
The colonialist aspect of the book is somewhat problematic, though. (Perhaps depictions of colonialism never can be anything but.) Only one of the point of view characters is a native black African, and though he was the character whom I most sympathized with – he seemed to be the most decent person of the bunch, as well as the most ordinary – he may in some aspects be a cliché. I think Catling sees the Africans as people in a way that Conrad never did – particularly telling is a scene about a visit by a tribesman to a museum where he sees the sacred objects of his people displayed – but the book still has a Eurocentric flavor to it and elements of Othering. On the other hand, when you’re writing about culture clashes, you’re writing about the process of Othering and what comes from it. It’s a pretty complicated issue, and if Catling had tried to tell more of the story from the point of view of the black Africans, he might have fallen into the maw of cultural appropriation. In addition to this, there is a difference between colonizing a forest and colonizing a people. The Vorrh “wins,” but that doesn’t mean the native Africans do. I think I would need to reread the book carefully to have more well-developed thoughts on this, so I leave the discussion here as a marker.
The novel could also cause cognitive dissonance for feminists. The female characters are well-developed and feel as real as the men, with independent thoughts and judgments and actions; they are also primarily caretakers. They have sexuality without lengthy descriptions of breasts; yet the sexuality of the book is overall a male (cishet) sexuality. There are more descriptions of penises becoming very large than I was interested in, and the scenes in which female orgasm occurs are largely described from the point of view of the watching male. The women are not victims of the male gaze, but they are certainly subject to it. There were also some rather detailed descriptions of guns which gave the book a more masculine flavor than it would otherwise have had. The reader blurbs and the section epigraphs were all by men.
Structurally the book held my interest – the different narratives were different enough that they did not get confused, and there was mostly internal coherence to each. The book includes several chapters from the point of view of Edward (or Eadweard) Muybridge, the nineteenth century photographer famous for showing that all four feet of a horse are off the ground at one time. He also developed early techniques of motion pictures. Some of the most disturbing scenes in the novel involve his photography of a black woman, who seems to give consent but is also unmistakably a subject of white male manipulation. (Without digging deeper than a superficial internet search, I can’t say if these scenes are real to Muybridge’s life or fictional.) His narrative was interesting and grotesque in its own way, but it never linked with the stories of the Vorrh. Technically this is a flaw, but generally it worked for me. I’m not sure why. There are thematic and symbolic connections, mostly related to light and seeing and the representation of the body. In a novel about grotesqueness and the human body, it seems appropriate to include a narrative about a man who was interested in how we see the body in motion. Muybridge is in his own way an explorer. His story in relationship to the rest of the book has a figure/ground illusion quality to it. But a reader who seeks structural tidiness will be disconcerted by the inclusion of the Muybridge narrative.
The novel’s biggest failing lies in the achievement of its ambition. I’m reminded of a scene in Harry Potter where Dumbledore says that because he is greater than most men, he makes few mistakes, but the mistakes he does make are correspondingly greater. The Vorrh tries so much and goes in so many odd, powerful directions that it can’t ultimately live up to all of them. I read the first few chapters slowly, getting grounded, then around chapter 6 or 7 got into Can’t Put It Down mode. But about 80% of the way through, the book lost its edge for me. Things began resolving neatly, without tragedy, and it puttered to a halt. The intensity, the imagination and weirdness of the novel, are dialed up so high from the beginning that it is perhaps inevitable that they peter out. It reads like a book that is seeking to explore the dark, tragic places of human beings and then finally flinches from what it sees.
This is not a reason not to read the book. I suspect that if I were to reread it, I would see shades of complexity in the ending(s) that eluded me. I am also personally drawn more by the macabre than by redemption. Many genre fantasy books end with someone losing/forsaking magic and power (Off the top of my head: Ged in Earthsea, Bran in The Dark is Rising sequence, Frodo and Gandalf leaving Middle-earth, Merlin becoming a hermit in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books), and I’m always kind of disappointed when the more than human is supplanted by the human. What I see as The Vorrh losing steam someone else might see as a triumph of humanity.
What the novel does offer me is a revelation into where my own boundaries are. What limits does Catling transgress that I don’t even see because I’m not close to them? It makes me as a writer feel that I am tame and safe and solid and gives me impetus to push forward in ways that I haven’t risked yet. The Vorrh takes chances and strips away ordinary ways of seeing and stretches my thoughts about the world, and all of those outweigh its flaws immensely. Writers should read it, to learn where they could go and to get the impetus to push themselves there. Readers who are not writers will find it challenging and compelling and thought-provoking. The strangeness the novel depicts is a strangeness that pushes one outside one’s comfort zone and will haunt the memory for some time after the book is closed.