Thursday, July 19, 2018

B. Catling's THE VORRH

Two covers for the first volume of B. Catling's trilogy seem to appear with equal frequency when a curious would-be reader starts poking around, the one at the left and the one I have reproduced further down. Both of them are maddeningly deceptive about what kind of book The Vorrh really is, for it is neither as coldly abstract as the black and white cover*, nor as lushly imaginative as the more colorful one.

Some have compared The Vorrh to the work of Mervyn Peake, whose famous Gormenghast trilogy I have started once or twice but not had the will to finish even while appreciating its uniqueness at least enough to see why this comparison is somewhat apt: Gormenghast, a "fantasy of manners" is both engaging and off-putting in its seeming plotlessness and the artificiality of its characters; The Vorrh is, perhaps, a fantasy of projections, slightly more plot-driven but also off-putting because it gives up its secrets so very, very reluctantly. And the artificiality of its characters, about which more in a bit.

The Vorrh of the title is an imaginary African forest, originally imagined by French surrealist Raymond Roussel for his Impressions of Africa, an outlandish romp through a wholly imagined version of the continent. Roussel becomes a character of sorts in Catling's book, a sketch of his story bookending the rest of the action, mostly just to remind us of how earlier generations with no actual experience of Africa romanticized it, but also to add another layer of weirdness to what is already a pretty weird tale.

For this book, The Vorrh is evoked rather than shown as an African forest of supernatural dread that just might conceal the original Garden of Eden at its heart -- and has a completely transplanted European town, moved stone by stone from one continent to another -- on its edges, thriving on an extractive economy based on timber from the forest (yes, children, this story is in part an answer to the question no one else has ever asked -- what if we started logging operations in Eden?) harvested by conveniently docile native slaves (their docility supernaturally compelled by the presence of... A pretty nasty thing I'm not going to spoil for you here though it's a perfect example of Catling's amazing ability to conjure up the truly grotesque) who are the only people who can come and go from the forest without losing their minds or memories (because they kind of don't have those to begin with? Maybe? At least according to the White Men who manage them? But maybe for reals? Maybe?). The Vorrh is also inhabited by creatures straight out of John Mandeville's fables of the kingdom of Prester John (for those non-Prester John fans out there, similar beings are visually depicted in Rene Laloux's crazy time travel cartoon Gandahar/Light Years) and by beings known as The Erstwhile, who are probably degenerated angels (?) and a sad, silent, grotesque and grey-skinned figure whose toenails have turned to horns or maybe hooves but whose human hands (the first human hands, we are told) look kind of normal and who might be Adam, as in Adam from the book of Genesis (?) Not even Roussel could come up with this stuff, is what I'm saying, but here he is, sharing some pages with them. Sort of.

Nor is Roussel the only historical figure to appear here, as a more fully developed narrative serving as a sort of mini-biography of photographic pioneer Edward Muybridge (with added steampunkish/fantastical elements and a fun interlude when he did some work for Sarah Winchester of Mystery House fame) is interwoven with accounts of Catling's own characters, which include Ishmael, a stunted cyclops of a boy raised by small bakelite robots until a pushy teenaged busybody, Gheertrude Tulp, invades the basement of the mysterious mansion given over to his care, accidentally destroys one of the robots and decides to finish raising him herself; Williams/Oneofthewilliams/The Bowman, Great War veteran and borderline white savior figure who resolves to explore the Vorrh after his shaman-lover dies and commands him to turn her into a sentient bow and two white arrows, which he fires ahead of himself to sort of (?) maybe (?) show him the way deeper into the forest(?); Cyrena, a blind woman who has her sight restored after spending a carnal carnival night with Ishmael, and many more, including a Scotsman who sort of accidentally finds out the secret of manipulating the local "hive-minded" tribesmen, another guy Tsungali,** who might be a member of that tribe but maybe it's a different tribe (the ambiguity is deliberate, as far as I can tell) who joins a host of other weird figures who have chosen to try to prevent The Bowman from crossing the Vorrh even if it means killing him, and...

Do you see?

So I can't even tell for sure if I liked The Vorrh, as such. It's overflowing with weird and neat ideas, and full of passages of stunning imagery (Catling is also an accomplished poet). None of the characters are remotely sympathetic*** but none of them are boring... And always there is the mystery. A sequel, The Erstwhile, is next on my to-be-read file, and a third book in the trilogy, The Cloven, is due out later this year. I'm tentatively on board for the rest of the set. We'll see how I feel after The Erstwhile. Which, judging from the title is going to be a bit more focused on the degenerated angels? Maybe?

Whatever. As long as the prose is still good.

*And I cannot account at all for the choice of such obvious eclipse imagery on this cover, either.

**Tsungali, who has spent most of his life as a colonial soldier and who carries a semi-sentient rifle, is my favorite character, chiefly for one scene quite early in The Vorrh, in which he visits England to serve as a living exhibit for his masters, and chances upon a display of artifacts in the British Museum that are not only the work of his own "True People" but are in fact things that his grandfather made and used, as his grandfather's ghost tells him. This is by far the most deeply felt and moving scene in the entire book, and so seems a bit out of place among the violence and willful misunderstanding and surrealism, but it made Tsungali stand out as, for me, the heart of the book.

***To be frank, all of them are awful, except Tsungali and MAYBE Ishmael, and even he is awfully creepy, even if we can understand why he's creepy. But this book is full of violence, rape, exploitation, manipulation, more violence, grotesquerie, class snobbery, yet more violence, and did I mention violence? I mean, the book starts with a guy dismembering his dead lover to make her spine into a weapon, so... yeah. Not a book to take up if you're looking for depictions of healthy relationships, honest conversations or demonstrations of the power of love and human kindness. While it's plenty critical of colonialism, it still lavishes a lot of loving detail on the mindsets that made colonialism possible and yes, this includes the female characters (which in addition only barely pass the Bechdel Test).

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