Well, it was a good joke the first time around...
[some spoilers ahead]
Brian Catling is an artist and poet who has expanded into fiction, which probably explains a lot about The Vorrh, his first novel. It's poetic, impressionistic and filtered through Catling's own interests, idiosyncracies and predilictions.
It's also a sprawling, incoherent beast of nearly 600 pages that - if it didn't astound and horrify as much as it does - would at times be ejected out the window with force.
The Vorrh of the title is a Conradian heart-of-darkness rainforest in a fantastic colonial Africa, the name borrowed from Raymond Roussel's 1910 avant-garde travelogue Impressions of Africa. Roussel himself features in the book as one of the main characters, under the reductive alias of The Frenchman.
The forest is a place of revelation, mysterity and insanity, as well as a source of income for the settlers of Essenwald, the timber town at its edge. Catling uses both as a common thread for five overlapping stories, although one of them, concerning Victorian photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge is barely Vorrh-related at all and seems almost to be a palimpsest of an earlier work.
Well, I did mention this was a sprawling effort, didn't I?
It might be written in the fantastic mode, including magical weapons, angels, wise women, mythical beasts and cyclopses (Catling loves him a cyclops), but The Vorrh is a long way from the genre mainstream, however it's been marketed. Far better points of reference for the reader are gothic horror and magic realism, both of which I'm fortunately very much down with.
For a couple of good reasons, this is one of those books I dare say I will end up reading again. First, there are some plotlines in The Vorrh which
are beautifuly told, working as short stories (existential horror,
usually) in the broader narrative. The sections involving Roussel, making a
creative pilgramage to the forest, are universally good.
Second, there's a lot going on here, as you might expect from a professor and polymath like Catling. He's happy to throw in a reference to this or that esoteric, technological or historical datum every few pages, such that I inevitably didn't get them all first time around.
But, and you have probably sensed some buts on the way throughout this review, this is one of those books where the author is clearly throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks. Not all of it does - the dream monologue of the dog is a particularly low point, and generally the sex is your average bad literary sex. The prose too, verges on the purple at times; Catling's poetic instinct to try and knock every sentence out of the park is endearing, but not every description, not every metaphor works.
Not much of the plot is wrapped up by the end either. The presentation of the Vorrh as a part one of a trilogy might be more commercial contrivance than fact, and I suspect we're probably dealing with one epic 2,000 page novel here.
Tropes and traps
It's also hard to not write about The Vorrh and not address the challenges inherent in writing an 'African fantasy' from a white European perspective. To his credit, Catling rises to the challenge: his perspective is pretty clearly anti-colonial, and to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge no specific cullture is being bowdlerised in the name of fiction. The strand of the novel involving Roussel is a good critique of literary tourism, among the many other things that it is.
So a lot of obvious traps are avoided. Yet there are still problematic tropes here, in particularly the use of the forest and its inhabitants as a stand-in for the African Other: mysterious, magical, dangerous and unknowable. Catling isn't immune from cliche in his African magic either, and his use of a white character who goes native in one of the stories makes sense in context but is a bit of a tired substitution. Plus, the only black protagonist a) is a bit of a bad 'un b) is impressed into servitude c) dies.
None of which to say that The Vorrh isn't a good book, in some places an excellent one, nor to say that Catling isn't aware of the issues - I believe he is and has tried to make sure the novel includes its own critique of these stereotypes. But this may be a sticking point for some readers - each of which will reach their own judgement as to how much he gets the balance right.