Books on GIF #92 — 'The Vorrh' by B. Catling

Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's selection is ‘The Vorrh’ by B. Catling

It’s rare that I absolutely despise a book, but I hated ‘The Vorrh.’ It’s awful. It’s an aimless mess that hopes you’ll be so distracted by it’s strangeness you’ll fail to notice that it’s pointless and boring. It took me almost a month to get through it. Every page had me like:

I picked up ‘The Vorrh’ at The Strand over a year ago because I thought the cover looked cool. The back flap had an interesting description that sounded surreal and weird (right up my alley), so I bought it. I wish I could tell you what the book is about, but I don’t really know. Here’s my best attempt at a rundown. There’s a big forest in Africa called the Vorrh that has magical powers or something that causes people to lose their memories and go nuts. The Garden of Eden is in there, allegedly. So’s Adam. (Yeah, that Adam.) So are weird man-eating creatures that have no heads, but possess an eye and a mouth in their chests. Next to the Vorrh is a colonial town called Essenwald. In the town, a young cyclops named Ishmael is being raised in the basement of a house by one-eyed robots. Later, his magical penis cures a woman’s blindness. Williams, a man with a bow and arrow constructed from the dismembered corpse of his lover, a shaman woman, sets out into the Vorrh on an unclear quest. He is pursued by a bounty hunter named Tsungali, who’s trying to stop him. Another bounty hunter named Sidrus is trying to stop Tsungali from trying to stop Williams and he sends some kind of ghost that’s created by stillborn or aborted fetuses or something, which ends up killing the friend of the Frenchman, a character who has no other purpose in this book but to have a friend who’s killed by the ghost thing. Then there’s Muybridge, who’s a photographer, and I’m not sure why he’s in the book at all. The purpose and motivations of each of these characters is muddled. Also, the time period when this is all taking place is warped; some of it seems to be happening at the turn of the 20th century, some of it mid-century. Who knows. Nothing is explained. Everything is confusing. This book gave me a headache, like:

While I was reading it, I grew increasingly concerned that this was a bad book. So I checked the inside and back covers to see who wrote blurbs to recommend it. They were all men, including Alan Moore, Terry Gilliam, Jeff VanderMeer and Tom Waits. Interesting fellows, but if you can’t find a single woman to say something nice about your book:

It’s probably because there are no interesting female characters in ‘The Vorrh.’ It also contains disturbingly nonchalant violence against women. I’ve already mentioned the bow and arrow thing, but in another example, Muybridge murders his wife in an act that has no consequences for the character or the narrative. Another character performs pointless mental experiments on an anorexic woman. It seems that women exist in this book for little beyond being harmed or for sexual purposes, doing more to arouse the several huge erections I had to read about than to advance what plot there is. Take Ghertrude, an uptight rich girl. When she first meets Ishmael, the cyclops, she is repelled by him. Two pages later, she’s having sex with him. Then there’s Muybridge again, this time photographing some crazy feral woman he’s got locked up in his studio. He doesn’t really want to have sex with her, but after he straps her head into some kind of machine she becomes a nymphomaniac so, sure, why not? I was like:

Maybe I missed something here. Maybe this book isn’t as juvenile and shallow as I think. Maybe it’s meant to be ironic. Maybe because it’s the first in a series everything will be explained later. Maybe, but:

I usually try to say something nice about a book even when I don’t like it. But this one is tough. A friend told me she liked ‘The Vorrh’ because it was ‘different and out there.’ That’s fair, the book is unique. But she also said she could see people ‘hating it quite passionately.’ Yep. I’ve already put my copy in the recycling bin.

How it begins:

The hotel was ponderous, grand, and encrusted with gloom. Its tall, baroque rooms were grudgingly fortified by vicious light that desperately tried to penetrate the heavy curtains and starched formalities. The Frenchman’s room was a suite, the hotel’s finest, but drab and without the illusive flair that sometimes makes audacious architecture appear natural.

He stood naked and shrivelled in the marble bathroom, the last feeble surface scars on his neck and wrists throbbing red, the deep plucking of his other wrist stitched back together. The dose of barbiturates had done nothing and he was being mocked by flights of gilded putti and ignored by the wafting indifferent female figurines that shared the room. He stood with his cock in his hand, trying not to see his reflection in the gigantic mirror before him. He was small and prematurely old. He could summon no image to instigate the action, even though he had witnessed many and imagined more. He knew that Charlotte, his maîtresse de convenance, and his servant were waiting for him in the next room. He knew that the chauffeur might have brought him some fruit of the gutter or the docks to arouse him. He knew that they were as bored as he. He knew that he had invented everything in their lives. Maybe in the world. Sometimes he thought he had dreamt reality itself. Dreamt it outside of sleep, which now eluded him continually.

My rating:

‘The Vorrh’ by B. Catling was originally published in Great Britain by Honest Publishing in 2012. It was published in the United States by Vintage in 2015. 500 pages. $15.25 at Strand Book Store.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #91 featured ‘Masks’ by Fumiko Enchi.

What's next: In two weeks you'll get a review of ‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli. Also in the queue are ‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué, ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh and ‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso, among others.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,