(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).
What’s it about? The Vorrh Trilogy is an immense creative work (1,390 pages spread over three books in its initial American print run) that takes its name from a massive, mysterious forest at the heart of the African continent, which may or may not host within its confines the Garden of Eden and/or various flesh eating monsters and/or angels buried in the soil and/or vast wealth to be exploited by European colonialists, among other things. Few visitors can be quite confident of any of these things with any certainty, because the Vorrh erases the memories and time senses of those who penetrate its depths, thus requiring the Europeans to raise and employ an army of baby-eating ghouls to work its plantations. The colonial community lives at the periphery of the Vorrh in the city of Essenwald, transported in toto, brick by brick, from Europe (where other segments of the epic are set), and riddled with its own mysteries, including a house where brown plastic robots raise a human cyclops with loving attention and care. A dizzying assortment of characters (including some non-fictional ones) and plot lines come and go, some returning later to advance the narrative, some never to be seen, heard from nor resolved again. It’s such a sprawling web of content, context, and confusion that, at bottom line, any attempt to answer “what’s it all about” must ultimately default to this: The Vorrh Trilogy is about The Vorrh Trilogy.
Who wrote it? B. Catling (the initial stands for “Brian”) is an Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art, with an accomplished career history as a poet and artist, in both the visual and performance realms. The Vorrh (2015 in its U.S. edition) was his first novel, taking its title and inspiration from a forest mentioned in Raymond Roussel’s proto-surrealist novel Impressions of Africa (1910), a fantasia carefully composed via a series of arcane rules of Roussel’s creation, its setting bearing no semblance to any other Africa, real or fictional. The first book of Catling’s trilogy prominently features a nameless analogue of Roussel as a core character, along with a variety of Victorian era (and earlier) historical figures, despite the fact that the trilogy’s nebulous chronology regularly includes inventions and devices that would seem to place it in the first half of the 20th Century. Catling followed The Vorrh with The Erstwhile (2017) and The Cloven (2018), extending the trilogy’s narrative both forward and backward in time, and across continents, rich with language that often leaves it feeling more like an impressionistic stream-of-madness poem than a linear prose work. After completing The Vorrh Trilogy, Catling published a novella, Only the Lowly, and his next standalone novel, Earwig, will be published in the United States in the summer of 2020.
When and where did I read it? By 2015, I had (somewhat sadly) already transitioned to the point where I did most of my reading on a Kindle, rather than actually getting the tactile enjoyment of holding paper and ink in my hands, so on the random occasions when I did amble into a bookstore, I was usually looking not to buy anything, but rather for ideas on what I might download later. When I first spotted it, The Vorrh had been recently released in the United States (it had came out two years earlier in England), though it wasn’t (and isn’t) enough of a blockbuster to be prominently placed in the “New Arrivals” section, but was rather tucked away unobtrusively in the Science Fiction and Fantasy stacks. I honestly have no memory of what drew me to pick it up (perhaps just the weirdness of the name?), but the glowing endorsement quote on its cover from The Southern Reach Trilogy‘s Jeff VanderMeer (which and who I adore) quickly sold it for me, no additional questions asked. I remember reading sizable chunks of The Vorrh on my Kindle in its waterproof sleeve while soaking in our back yard hot tub in Des Moines, and I also remember that it took some perseverance to reach a point where I had opened myself to the experience and began to feel the book’s narratives and rhythms, wherever they went, and whether I understood them or not. Soon after I finished The Vorrh, we moved to Chicago, and I acquired The Erstwhile and The Cloven there upon their respective releases, though I was such a road warrior for work at the time, that I read sizable chunks of both books in hotel rooms scattered coast to coast across the country.
Why do I like it? If you’ve read any of the prior nine installments of this occasional book review series, the answer to this question is probably obvious: The Vorrh Trilogy is big, audacious, immersive, surreal, grotesque, written in gloriously florid language, and screamingly unique in just about every way imaginable. I relish epic weirdness of that stripe, deeply valuing the authors who can create it, and the persistence of vision required to birth such fully-formed beautiful monstrosities from their forebrains. The experience of reading Catling’s work is akin to being presented with a vast accretion of elements, amalgamated from the wide range of his varied creative pursuits, at times feeling like a poem, at times like a sculptural assemblage, at times like the script from a deranged performance piece, at times like a treatment for a wordless experimental film. It’s big enough that you can never really look at the whole thing as a singular entity, but instead you must circle around it, never quite sure what the next facet will present, and never quite sure that you can remember what you saw two turns ago. I remember reading one less-than-enthusiastic review that referred to The Vorrh Trilogy as “a mess,” and I actually agreed with that assessment on some arcane plane, considering it to be a compliment when applied to something as gloriously, explosively over-the-top as this intense and immense work.
A five sentence sample text: “This is where the man-beast crawls, its once-virtuous body turned inside out, made raw and skinless, growing vines and sinews backwards through the flesh, stiff primordial feathers pluming in its lungs, thorns and rust knotted to barbed wire in its loins. Guilt and fear have gnawed the fingertips away to let the claws hook into talons, sharpened by digging a home in the shallow grave. It is seen on all fours, naked, and worse across the broken ground on sharp knees that are red raw from chiseling the earth to gain some purchase. Prowling inside a trench blinded by stark glares of explosions. Another bellowing flash sculpts the rippling muscle of its back and arms and the thick prophet’s hair that has become soured by warfare into itching dreadlocks, mud-filled like the beard of dribble and tangled ginger grit.”
ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:
#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)
#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)
#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)
#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)
#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)
#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)
#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)
#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)
#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)
#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)
#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)