Catling’s The Vorrh, previously published in England and released in the U.S. from Vintage this month, is not shy about announcing its ambitions. Before we reach the first chapter, we have been greeted by epigraphs from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Gertrude’s Prayer,” as well as two quotes from German ethnographer Leo Frobenius, one drawn from Paideuma: Umrisse einer Kultur-und Seelenlehre and the other from The Voice of Africa, Vol. 1. As you might gather from that heady list, the novel grapples with some formidable themes — colonialism, violence, and the nature of history chief among them — and the early consensus seems to be that The Vorrh has risen to the challenge. Niall Alexander, writing for Tor.com, called the book “great,” while Alan Moore, in the foreword to the U.K. edition, declares that the “corseted and hidebound” fantasy genre is “insufficient to contain the vegetable eternities of Catling’s Vorrh.”
Setting aside the genre-bashing, is The Vorrh a great book? Certainly, it contains flashes of what look, at first, like genius. Catling is a poet as well as a novelist, and he has a poet’s gift for making the ordinary strange. Early on in the novel, Catling describes the city of Essenwald, which has been transported from Europe into Africa and reassembled stone by stone. As the city grows, its new residents use local materials to build houses that mimic the decaying grandeur of their neighbors’ resurrected homes. I can think of no better metaphor for the unsettling mixture of the near and far, the familiar and the foreign, that characterized the unheimlichkeit of the colonial endeavor, and insights like this surface regularly throughout the novel. Catling mixes real-life figures (the photographer Edward Muybridge, the poet Raymond Roussel) in among the robots and the angels and the monsters that populate this teeming novel, as though to remind us that when one is writing about colonial history, even the most horrifying of inventions may lie disconcertingly close to fact.
When speculative fiction writers take on a topic as brutal as the European incursion into Africa, I tend to prefer it when they confront the subject head-on, as Catling does, rather than regaling us with the adventures of the Bleuropeans in Schmafrica, or printing all the maps upside down. I also think it’s important that books that grapple with these difficult subjects be accorded the freedom to describe real ugliness, and even to hit the occasional false note. After all, if a novel’s use of history’s violent subject matter sometimes makes us feel uneasy, surely that is preferable to offering up yet another comforting Just-So story about the past.
And there is no doubt about it: this book is unafraid of ugliness. The Vorrh opens with a scene of a man cutting up his lover’s body, and the passage lingers over descriptions of her glistening viscera, dismembered limbs, and decapitated head. Other reviewers have praised the beauty of Catling’s descriptions, but I thought the prose was most effective when it went straight for horror— a scene in which an undead fetus opens its eyes and blinks at the doctor who aborted him is gruesome and indelible. That sort of grotesquery, however, exists alongside a more disturbing kind of darkness: the novel partakes of the language, tropes, and imagery of the virulently racist colonial narratives with which it is in dialogue, and it contains several nightmarish depictions of black bodies in the grips of mute suffering, religious ecstasy, rabid violence, and uncontrolled sexual frenzy. These descriptions come to us filtered through the warped consciousness of the colonists the book portrays; opinions on whether this lens provides sufficient distance will no doubt vary depending on the reader. I found myself exhausted by them, and, eventually, by the book as a whole, but the truth is I might have been more ready to think critically about these elements if The Vorrh hadn’t lost me for other reasons early on.
In The Vorrh, a silent hunter, a well-meaning colonist, a decadent homosexual, and a devoted guide wander through the forest and weird things happen to them, but none of those events quite are as bizarre as the way these characters behave. Here is an example. One of the book’s other main characters, Ishmael, is a shrunken, pale, not-quite-human teenager with one eye set in the middle of his forehead. He has spent the entirety of his life in an Essenwald basement, being raised by robots, one of whom, Luluwa, occasionally has sex with him. Shortly after we meet him, he is rescued from the basement by a young woman named Ghertrude, who takes it upon herself to bring him upstairs and take over his education. Ishmael, who is as entitled a brat as one might expect of a child reared by machines whose sole function in life is to serve him, soon asks pettishly when Ghertrude will take over the job of his sex robot and mate with him. This exchange made my skin crawl, but I didn’t mind that. What I minded was the fact that Ghertrude enthusiastically agrees to this charmless proposition, with no explanation given beyond a suggestion that Ishmael is unusually well-endowed.
This is a problem, because you can transport me to a distant planet and tell me we’re in Schmafrica and print all the maps in reverse and upside-down, and I will still not believe for a second that the prospect of screwing a stunted, basement-reared adolescent Cyclops who calls sex “mating” would ever arouse a woman, no matter how many lewd hints are dropped about his penis size. Worse, the encounter between Ishmael and Ghertrude has a much more disturbing counterpart later in the book, when an African woman, in the process of escaping captivity, pauses to violently rape the photographer who has imprisoned her. These are only two of dozens of instances where the book’s characters act in ways that defy any good-faith attempt at explanation.
In the end, for all that it gestures towards the facts of history, The Vorrh is not truly interested in exploring what it was like to be either a perpetrator or a victim of colonial violence — but its deeper problem is that it’s not sufficiently interested in exploring what it’s like to be anyone at all. The book’s characters are secondary to its plot, acting in ways that defy belief as soon as the plot demands it of them. The story, in turn, functions primarily to move us through a series of surreal set pieces: a sentient bow hewn from a woman’s corpse, a forest where angels walk, a gibbering anthrophophagus, a man whose hands are removed and sewn back on upside down. Many of these images are stunning — and a few of them will stay with me for a very long time— but in the absence of believable characters, that is not enough to make a book great. Despite its beautiful language and admirable ambition, The Vorrh is all gaudy surface, empty at its heart.