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Lost in 'The Vorrh'

The Vorrh is almost certainly unlike anything you have read before, but is it worth the considerable effort required to traverse its many pages?

The Vorrh

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 512 pages
Author: Brian Catling
Price: $11.37
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-04

Everyone knows the old maxim “Don’t judge a book by its cover” but what about judging a book by the blurb or plot summary that often appears somewhere on the back cover or book jacket? As for as blurbs go, Brian (or “B.” as the cover has it) Catling’s The Vorrh is outstanding:

Next to the colonial town of Essenwald sits the Vorrh, a vast—perhaps endless—forest. It is a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests. Sentient and magical, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend has it that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now, a renegade English soldier aims to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a strange bow, he begins his journey, but some fear the consequences of his mission, and a native marksman has been chosen to stop him. Around them swirl a remarkable cast of characters, including a Cyclops raised by robots and a young girl with tragic curiosity, as well as historical figures, such as writer Raymond Roussel and photographer and Edward Muybridge. While fact and fictional blend, and the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate hangs in the balance, under the will of the Vorrh.

The reviewer will confess that this seemed so intriguingly outlandish that it compelled him to read the novel without further consideration, for at the very least it suggests that The Vorrh is the product of an imagination of astonishing range and power. The Garden of Eden and Edward Muybridge (a 19th-century photographer and early motion picture innovator) and a Cyclops raised by robots? “Original” seems a tepid encomium at best for such a diverse and incongruous panoply of characters and settings.

The obvious question is: Can the novel itself possibly deliver on the promise suggested here? The answer is yes and no and the balance will depend on the individual reader’s disposition and patience for the work’s eccentricities and Caitling’s prose. First things first: The Vorrh is, as one might expect, a difficult work to categorize, but might best be described as a fantasy novel set in a world that is at once recognizably this Earth—replete with reference to actual places and characters who are historical persons (the aforementioned Muybridge for example)—but also radically alien.

For example, those robots mentioned in the blurb? It turns out that they are made of “Bakelite”—a primitive plastic employed for a purpose that would seem to far outstrip the technological prowess of the age in our own world from which it derives (basically the early 20th century). This and other elements of the novel put us at least on the margins of steampunk, where outmoded or antiquated technologies constitute the foundation for extraordinary achievement and inventiveness rather than the detritus of human innovation.

But—and this is a major problem with the novel—there does not appear to be much coherence in the world, and its technological culture, presented here. It's a maxim of fantasy and sci-fi that whatever world a given work depicts, it should obey an internal logic; without this essential contract with the reader, anything goes. The Vorrh has automobiles and planes, which might also resemble those of the early 20th century, but it also has magical weapons (the bow, for example), mythical creatures, and some sort of medical practice that appears to be at once therapeutic and shamanistic. Other magical systems seem to exist, as well.

Even a sympathetic reading must acknowledge that all of this is a hodgepodge. The impression is often not so much of another place as of no place in particular.

Surely, the inexactness will be interpreted by some readers as “surreal” or “dreamlike” and at certain intervals The Vorrh achieves these qualities. For example, in the sustained description of the orgiastic “carnival” ,in which two central characters first encounter one another, the novel does leave a strong impression in the way a dream does—vivid and suggestive of significance but without conforming to any particular logic of understanding. It and other passages remain in the mind long after reading them, at once stubbornly persistent and elusive.

Perhaps this is the best time to note that the novel is, apparently, the first installment of a prospective trilogy, so it has the challenge of being both a complete work in and of itself and the foundation for a much larger story. The order of business includes introducing a large cast of characters, setting key elements of the plot into motion, and establishing the basic parameters of the narrative. Alas, the novel only partially succeeds at these tasks. For example, while the (presumably) major characters are rendered with some substance, there is no strong sense of why we should care about the larger purpose of their presence. What do they seek? What problems do they confront? Is there an overarching conflict or drama in which they are all players?

So far, at least, any answers to these larger questions are largely suspended in favor of establishing relationships (friendly, hostile, sexual, various combinations thereof) between characters. Indeed, the novel doesn't really have a plot as such at all (at least not for the better part of its 500 pages), but rather, consists of a series of bizarre or grotesque tableaus and smaller, more local stories involving one or several characters.

What the novel has instead of linear development is a sense of the menacing and pervasive presence and, eventually, the inexorable pull of the Vorrh, the massive forest on the purlieus of which the European colonial city of Essenwald exists. Again we have an antecedent in our world: the Vorrh appears in a novel, Impressions of Africa, by the surrealist French writer Raymond Roussel (who is also a major character in Caitling’s novel).

What is the Vorrh exactly? It is too soon to say with any certainty, but at the very least it might be understood as something like the Congo, with all of its associations in the long and brutal history of European colonization in Africa, but with the additional element of an overwhelming supernatural dimension. Indeed, it is, on one level, a kind of mythopedia rendered as a geographic space with penetration toward the center of its vast expanse corresponding to a movement through different cultural conceptions of the otherworldly. For example, several characters encounter both angels (of a highly unusual kind) and cannibals that closely match the description of the mythical “Blemmyes” (anthropophagi, whose faces are located in their torsos) in Herodotus’ speculative travelogues. It seems essential, though, that the very nature of the Vorrh is to defy explanation or easy description; it simply is—inscrutable and perilous, as much an interior landscape constituted of psychological trauma and existential terrors as an external “there” that can be traversed.

Given its abstruseness, unconventional plotting, and plodding pace, much of the appeal of The Vorrh will depend on the more immediate rewards it offers as a page-by-page experience. Responses are unlikely to be ambivalent: for some readers the prose will be entrancing; for others, it will simply foreclose the possibility of immersion in the novel, whatever its other merits may be. Objectively, it's fair to describe the writing as verbose, inexact, and often not only opaque but bordering on meaningless (which sometimes seems intentional, at others inadvertent).

Here are some examples, chosen at random: “Old weapons, clothing, gods, and kitchen tools were stacked inside to be sent away, shabby totems of a discarnate history, expelled.” Since “discarnate” means not having a physical body, it would seem that the history that is being expelled here is precisely incarnate because it is constituted of material things. One has the impression that the author simply likes the sounds of the word “discarnate”, especially in proximity to “expelled”, which allows for a couple of clicking “k” sounds to suggest a brief rhythm.

And, “A low, inhuman groan rumbled constantly from deep inside her, the kind of sound that is heard at a distance, from the centre of a glacier, or lethally close, when it growls from the sleek, unseen darkness of a big cat.” First, there is some grammatical confusion at work since “groan” is the ostensible subject of the sentence, but in the final clause it is said to be growling. So, we have a groan that is growling. More importantly, do glaciers (that is, non-moving glaciers) really make any noise at all? And, if so, how could that noise be at all comparable to a cat’s growl (or growling groan as it were)?

And, at the risk of pedantry, one more: “High in the nape of the street was a clock, unworking and roughly painted out, an act of erasure that had no story. Like its blind face, the meeting below [between two characters] seemed equally gagged.” At first this passage may seem intriguingly evocative, but upon reflection makes no sense. Presumably “blind face” means something like no longer legible, since paint covers the clock, but that does not mean unseeing. I think Catling really means something like “blindfolded”, since that would imply concealment of at least part of the face of the clock and would also suggest a kind of material consonance with “gagged” in the following sentence (literally speaking, a strip of cloth could be used for either purpose). Even so, how is being gagged similar to not being able to be seen clearly? The sentences appear to suggest a parallel between blindness and muteness but the figures, the tenors and vehicles of the various metaphors at play, are entirely too messy and incomprehensible to succeed.

If the foregoing seem like uncharitable assessments, a more appreciative reading might use terms like “hallucinatory” or “surreal” or “disorienting” to describe these and other renderings. Such terms, however, suggest a control and careful calibration of effect that Catling does not appear to have. In aggregate, the volume may be said to have a distinctive and original style, but those are neutral rather than inherently laudatory terms.

The cumulative effect of sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, chapter after chapter of this sort of writing was, for this reader at least, exhausting. So many passages are like a Vorrh in miniature, a site for bewildered wandering, where the morass is language. No doubt some readers will relish the opportunity for potentially endless seeking after meaning, but more than a few will likely be content to cease their travels to and through the Vorrh at the conclusion of this volume, or perhaps sooner.


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