Unlike anything I’ve read before, The Vorrh is best described as a postmodern fantasy novel. This is an ambitious and artful prosaic blend of multiple characters, perspectives, and timelines written with an originality that is at once confusing, bewildering, and beautifully enlightening with a totally unique and inspiring voice.
My praise is hard-earned.
When I began this book, I was quickly disappointed by what appeared to be a jumbled mess of unrelated characters and inconsistent narrative tangents. In other words, my first impression in the first 50-70 pages of The Vorrh was that this was nothing more than a piece of crap that wasn’t worth my time. Since I’m discerning in my reading tastes before ever beginning a book, I am a fairly patient reader able to give most books that I dislike a chance to grow on me and help me discover why I was initially drawn to its text. Considering this: a book that I begin must be completely atrocious in order for me to abandon it unfinished, yet after beginning The Vorrh I was closer to abandoning this book than any other I can recall.
The book began with a prologue describing a man apparently committing suicide in a bathtub and then jumped into what was a completely unrelated yet graphic description of a hunter crafting a bow from the skeletal and muscular remains of dead but mystical woman. The hunter is being hunted by an aboriginal bounty hunter within the heart of the mystical forest called the Vorrh. From here there is a disjointed introduction of a young cyclops living in the basement of an aristocratic home and raised by robotic puppets. And then the book jumps from the oddly unrelated narrative of the cyclops back into the heart of the Vorrh, describing an unnamed Frenchman who aims to be the first man to cross through the forest guided by a spiritual shaman. All of this jumble was starting to get on my nerves because it promised directionless nonsense.
Just as I about to give The Vorrh the quits, I was captivated by the introduction of the real-to-life photographer Edward Muggeridge who “was a hollow man. Born that way. A camera without an aperture” (63). Muggeridge, also named Muybridge, seemed to have nothing to do with the Vorrh and its fantastical world of mystical forests, living archery bows, cyclops, and robot-puppets. That disassociation from the novel’s namesake forest is what oddly drew me into the temptations of The Vorrh as Muybridge’s story took place in the apparent real world of 19th century American exploration, far away from the mystical pseudo-colonial European/African fantastic vision of the forest. Muybridge represented a real man with real problems of self identity and purpose. His problems of identity are satisfied as he finds purpose in the photography of the American west. It wasn’t just his story that drew me in, it was the richness of the prose that described the scientific development of the art of photography with an air of mystical poeticism that bridged the fantastical of the earlier stories with the realism of his stories:
“He was very different. It was said that he was hunting stillness and that instead of picks or shovels, guns or maps, he carried an empty box on his back, a box with a single eye, which ate time. Some said he carries plates of glass to serve the stillness on. He would eat with a black cloth over his head, licking his plate clean in the dark.” (71)
That description of “hunting stillness” tied him to the hunter with the bow, the “guns or maps” tied him to the Frenchman exploring the forest of the Vorrh, and the “single eye” tied him to the cyclops. Suddenly, with the introduction of the late 19th century history of the development of photographic arts, the thematic vision of The Vorrh began to come to focus. This wasn’t just a book of purposeless narrative. It had a greater vision that was realized using imagery of the dichotomy of reality and photographic negatives. The Vorrh sought to explore the rich dichotomies of bilateral themes of colonialism and traditionalism, civilization and the wild, science and spirituality, technology and agrarian-mysticism, destiny and circumstance.
With further reading, the earlier disjointed stories began to grow in richness and significance as their themes were flushed out with increasing clarity. As the mystical power of the forest The Vorrh revealed itself as a place that erased the memory of the travelers who entered its area seeking either the riches of its resources or the revelatory promises of its spiritual heart, it became apparent that the mystical forest was a metaphor for the conflicting promises of the dichotomies of power. Be it a conflict of science versus spirituality or colonialism versus traditionalism, or the natural versus the constructed; all is at risk of being forgotten in the blend of time and place, narrative and understanding.
The many disjointed timelines and stories that make up The Vorrh don’t ever come together in a concise package, but that is the postmodern significance of this story. The world, even the fantastical world, is a complicated place with dichotomous and diverging perspectives that both defines and disappoints standard expectations.
“Rumors tend to spread like ripples, circular waves moving out from a point of incident. In cities, they stop for a moment when they reach the outer walls, especially when the city in question is circular. Against those arcs of fact and protection, they are questioned, the hard litmus of stone, straw, and lime interrogating their origin and validity, in the same way as those who camp outside, dreaming of entrance and stability, are made to prove their origins. If the story stands, it is filtered to the outside world in muted or fragmented form.” (259)
What started as a book that I hated blossomed into a book that I loved. The Vorrh is truly original. There is a richness of prose that drives the novel along and the criss-crossing plots each culminate with an individual climatic summaries. With that said, this isn’t a perfect book. Even though I forgave its originally foggy start in favor of beautifully crafted prose and engaging narrative development, it is hard to forgive the chauvinistic narration that includes many female characters but fails to allow any one of them to be the master of her own destiny. The bow is a woman turned object only powerful in the hands of a man, the cyclops gifts vision to a blind woman through copulation during a carnival of masks, and the cyclops also “mates” and impregnates his former friend and protectress. The wives of the Frenchman and several other characters each act as background setting to a larger narrative vision and the most complicated and likable character, Muybridge, is both disgusted and appalled by women as though he is a victim to their desires since his wife had cheated on him and he is later raped by a crazed slave-woman who was the subject of his photographic experimentation.
Never once in the story is it possible that a female character is offered the possibility beyond objective focus. B. Catling additionally invests a considerable amount of descriptive attention to phallic obsessions and violent copulations. I realize that the sexualization and objectification of woman is part of the canon of fantasy writing and that they exist here within the pages of The Vorrh to tie this book to that cannon of the fantasy style. I mention this as a weakness of The Vorrh because it risks damage to the universal appeal of a truly original and engaging novelistic vision. These errors do not fail the book for this reader, but they may distract more sensitive readers from the larger themes explored in these pages.