If you missed them, check out Part I and Part II!
Now, on with the review!
Mirkwood Schmirkwood: A few days a week, publishers send the store a box of uncorrected proofs, advance reader copies of books, for us to read before they are published. I’ve found a few great books through these ARCs, including Gary Corby’s Marathon Games. In January, I opened a box of books and pulled out something interesting; The Vorrh. The title alone caught my eye at first and I flipped it over for a quick plot summary.
I smiled large and announced to my co-workers, “Oh this has Andy written all over it.” A quick summary from the back promised a mythical forest in colonial Africa filled with demons and angels, a Cyclops raised by robots, and the blending of fiction and real historical figures.
Fantasy, a little bit of science fiction and a dash of historical fiction- just the way I like my books. You can keep your stories of a husband losing his job and confronting who he is and what kind of man he wants to be, I’ll take the Cyclops, thank you very much.
The author’s bio also caught my eye. “B. Catling is a poet, sculptor, painter, and performance artist.” That was interesting. Catling is obviously an artist fueled by creativity; I anticipated a wide breath of imagination and passion in this work.
Well, The Vorrh certainly has that, but it felt more like an art exhibition than a complete novel. Did I like the book? Yes. But I didn’t love it.
Let’s discuss the plot before moving on. The book opens with four lengthy quotes, an important part of any book worth reading and pondering. They act almost like acknowledgements in a work of non-fiction; a bridge not only into what the work will explore, but a glimpse into where the author drew both inspiration and what the author feels is most important to frame the work. Catling quotes Zen in the Art of Archery, German Ethnologist Leo Frobenius’ Paideuma, Heart of Darkness and Rudyard Kipling’s Gertrude’s Prayer.
We then open with a “naked and shriveled” Frenchman in a hotel bathroom. Great. My favorite. The man is revealed to be Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and poet. He then dies.
So! Off to an exciting start.
I realized something very quickly when I began the novel:
It was going to take 100 or so pages to really get into. This is a result in the novel focusing more on character than plot. In fact, the book lacks a traditional plot; each character plays out their own story, with almost all keeping The Vorrh, the dense magical forest, as a center of their story. Books like this always take a while to immerse the reader because they rely on character development but take a long time to introduce and develop each character.
This is not a bad thing, but it can be a bit tedious. Imagine a story that is centered more on plot than characters; something like The Empire Strikes Back. We are introduced to many characters through the story, but we see how each relates to the plot set out before us; that is, we are not introduced to Yoda at the beginning of his story, but rather in the midst of a plot involving Luke. We as an audience must identify with Yoda’s character quickly and are allowed to do so because he plays a direct part in the action currently going on. Catling’s novel does just the opposite because, well, there really is no action at hand. There are events, but not an over-arching conflict that each character is introduced to, so we don’t have to immediately connect with a character.
In the first chapter, Catling writes in first person. This is reserved for one specific character, a renegade British soldier named Peter Williams, but this doesn’t follow through the whole book.
Joining Williams in the forest is a native man who led a rebellion against the army Williams served, Tsungali. Also in the forest is William Maclish, leader of the slave workforce of the forest, the Orm. Part of his success he owes to Doctor Hoffman, who, in a strange scene, offers Maclish’s miscarried baby to the Orm, gaining their trust for Maclish.
There is also the mysterious Sidrus, a Voldemort-like man who holds some sort of incredible powers, but also wants Williams to cross the forest safely.
On the outskirts of the forest lies the fictional city German mercantilist city of Essenwald (the words for ‘eat’ and ‘forest’ combined in German). In it, we have: Ishmael, a Cyclops who lives in a large, abandoned house and is raised by robots, Ghertrude Tulp, a rich young woman who discovers Ishmael, Sigmund Mutter, caretaker of the mysterious house, Cyrena Lohr, a blind woman who finds her fate intertwined with Ghertrude and Ishmael.
Catling uses two real people from the time period, Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and explorer and Eadweard Muybridge, a real life English photographer.
Eadweard Muybridge and Raymond Roussel.
The plot of the novel moves in different places; we follow Peter Williams as he attempts to transverse the Vorrh using his bow, once his priestess wife, as a guide. He is pursued by Tsungali, hellbent on stopping Williams, and by Sidrus, hellbent on stopping Tsungali.
Meanwhile, in Essenwald, Ghertrude discovers Ishmael the cyclops one day after breaking into the house where he is kept. She boards off the robots who raised him in the basement and becomes his teacher. But Ishmael wants more, and a mardi-gras style festival allows him the chance to get out, in disguise, where he changes Cyrena’s life in a dramatic way. They have their share of dealings with the Doctor and Maclish, who, deep in the forest, face a slave revolt.
Catling also turns to a bit of historical fiction, using the aforementioned Raymond Roussel and his expedition into the forest. He leaves his assistant, Charlotte, behind and enters the forest with a local guide. When Roussel is separated from his guide, he finds the forest takes more than it gives.
Then there is Muybridge. Catling weaves fact and fiction into the photographer’s life as he quests for a life devoid of other humans but full of perfect photography.
To go into more detail about each plot would end in me giving you a play by play of each chapter, which is something I’m not going to do. The Vorrh is one of those books where a good deal happens but it’s not all connected or entirely clear what everything means. There is a little bit of everything in the book; there is some action, some adventure, romance, history, class struggle, science, fantasy, religious allegory, horror, and a bit of comedy. Catling is adept at bringing these elements together, and it is part of what makes the book interesting, it’s just that the novel doesn’t do any of this really well. I felt immersed in the book, but not connected to it.
Catling’s characters all seem particularly cold and distant. I found the only character I liked was Williams, but his story was sparse and a bit slow moving for me to really connect. In fact, connection is something that The Vorrh severely lacked for me; the book has so many plots that intertwine, but there is no sense of an overarching through-line between the characters. The themes and imagery run through everyone’s story, but I really missed some sort of large climax that touched on every character. Even the characters have a hard time connecting to each other. Each one comes across as sort of an ugly portrait of themselves.
This ugliness is frustrating because Catling can certainly immerse the reader in the picture he creates. He is a great writer who colors his landscapes and characters in so much depth, but the plot does not share this depth. My only complaint about Catling’s writing is that it tends to be unnecessarily graphic and crass sometimes. I’m not a squeamish person when reading, violence doesn’t bother me, but there was one scene that was so graphic in its violence it left me feeling uncomfortable. What’s worse is that I finished this scene riding the subway to work and had to leave the train as I closed the book on the violence passage. I needed to keep reading to reset my brain a little bit, but I instead went into work with this feeling washing over me. It was a strange first half hour at the store.
There was no other time when the violence got to out of hand for me, but I did feel that sometimes Catling was being a bit too graphic for the shock value. The best example is a scene that takes place in a bar. Sidrus has come trying to find the assassin on Williams’ trail. In the midst of the action of this scene, Catling stops to enter the mind of a sleeping dog. The passage is awkward, and I quote it to show this, “The tension in the stuffy room was congested with human silence and the twitching of the dog’s dream. Sweet pushing inside her pushing pumping the bitch clasped hard by me pushing over and over again…its smell twisted backwards my cock facing out she the other side of me now tail to tail pumping…uncontrollable reflex air fuck bending bending fucking…” and so on. This dream goes on and on and while I must say that Catling captures what a dog’s brain must surely be like, the dream advances the plot in no way and is a jarring interruption. It feels placed there for shock value; as if Catling just wanted to find a reason to write ‘cock’ and ‘fuck’. Perhaps it fits into the theme of nature’s dominance the book has, but if this scene were not in the book, we would not lose anything. We then move on from the dog after that, its psyche never explored again. What was the point of that?
I found myself asking that question a few times while reading and it led me to a frustrating conclusion. Nothing in this book is an accident; there is a definite structure to the way Catling wrote the book. Each choice I had a problem with was deliberate. This may be his first book, but Catling comes from a background as an artist, and it is clear that he put a good deal of thought into how he wanted to book to be constructed. What frustrates me is that although I recognize this, but it does not make the book better for me.
That’s the funny thing about art; some people find a real connection to a piece of art that others don’t. Much in the same way a record can be a friend’s favorite but just seem okay to you. It’s the same way I feel about Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. It’s not that I don’t like it and it is a great album, it just doesn’t touch me in any way. I just think it’s a solid album. I feel a deep connection to Kurt Vonnegut’s work, but some people can’t really connect to it.
I can see that Catling put a good deal of effort into constructing all elements of this novel in a certain way, it’s just not something that pleased me artistically. I enjoyed the book and I am glad I read it, but I most likely won’t pick it up again. It was good, but not a favorite of mine.
I found that after reading it, I just couldn’t place my finger on what Catling was trying to say. There was a definite theme of Man vs. Nature, a one sided bout in Catling’s book that he used to drive home the point that no one, especially humans can conquer nature; nature is constantly conquering the characters in this book and they are powerless to stop it. There was also some sort of religious symbolism I couldn’t quite grasp. In the novel, it is said that Adam, the first man, lives deep in the Vorrh and that creatures called the Erstwhile are actually angels. I felt these plot points were added in to flesh out the world a bit more but failed in doing so. It seemed more like the angels were dangerous and that Adam was bigfoot; does this make religion also no contender for nature? Does Catling mean the two manipulate each other? Again, it was lost to me.
It wasn’t the sort of book I found fun to ruminate upon after I finished as well. Unlike Murakami’s work, which also leaves the reader with the same sense of loose ends, The Vorrh was too muddled for me to take anything from.
My version did not come with an introduction, but I did find the book’s introduction, written by Alan Moore, who says of the book “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy and ranking among the best pieces every written in that genre…” I highly, highly disagree with this. We’re fifteen years into this century, forget that fact that I don’t think this is that epic of a work, we haven’t had one landmark piece of fantasy? I know a few writers who would disagree with that. I also don’t feel it is among the best pieces ever written in the genre. It isn’t even a truly fantasy; it bridges a few different genres. I feel that it certainly doesn’t hold up to Tolkien or Pratchett or even the world J.K. Rowling created.
And yet, even with all of this, I must say I do recommend the book if it sounds like something you’ll like. If any of the characters or plot elements I discussed intrigue you in any way, pick it up. It’s not one I’ll recommend to just anyone, but The Vorrh is the kind of book that has the potential to make a large impact on the right person. Somewhere, sometime, this book will be someone’s favorite book. For me, it’s just a novel. It reads like Heart of Darkness with a hefty dose of strange and wonderful characters.
And so, in the end, where does The Vorrh fall? Science Fiction or Fantasy? It’s really both. I don’t think there is enough of either genre in the story to tilt the scales. There is the highly imaginative setting of the forest and the creatures within, but there is also a good deal of technology. Ishmael the Cyclops may make it seem like fantasy, but he is one of many characters and doesn’t stand out enough to make it pure Fantasy. I don’t think it has to be either, and that’s where the strength of the novel lies. Maybe The Vorrh is the perfect book for the ever ambiguous Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelf in bookstores all over the world.
Unrelated book thought of the week: Spring is finally here after a harsh…well, February, really. One thing I love about living in New York City is that I can finally experience four seasons. I grew up in Central New York, a place that doesn’t seem like the weather would be too bad. But where I grew up, winter lasts through April and May doesn’t really offer much spring. I have memories of going away for Spring Break in April with snow on the ground and returning to the same. I remember snow on Mother’s day a few times. And Fall is much the same; we get Fall in October then November is winter.
In New York City, however, spring comes in April and Fall lasts so much longer. Sure the summers are hotter and the whole damn city smells like garbage, but I love having a Spring and a Fall, not 90 degree weather that falls away into 30 degree weather.
It’s amazing what a few degrees of Longitude can do for you. I love having four seasons.
Next time on the Whale and the Petunias: I take a trip back to college and examine and old favorite author from my days as a History Major: Bernard Bailyn and his new work Nine Essays Concerning History. You heard me everyone, back to college! Time to drink Scotch while everyone else is drinking crappy beer and some sort of blue alcohol, blast Fall Out Boy in my apartment and make everyone listen to it, walk through campus at 3 in the morning to print out papers, and seriously what the hell was that blue stuff everyone was drinking!!!?