When an author chooses to go by their initials only, I’ll admit that I tend to assume they’re female. A lot of female authors (particularly in male-dominated genres) have used initials or masculine-sounding pseudonyms to boost passerby interest. By page 3 of The Vorrh, I knew B. Catling was not female (and I was right; B stands for Brian). By page 28, I knew the editor and agents of this book were also not female. By page 50, I knew no female could possibly have been involved in the creation of this book. This may not sound to you like a condemnation. I assure you, it is.
This is my first really negative book review on this blog, at least since I started doing “official” book reviews. God knows I’ve said plenty of negative things about other books (primarily The Magicians by Lev Grossman, because fuck that book). In fact, the only reason I finished this book is because I wanted to do a thorough review of how bad it is (and I wanted to see the depths of awfulness to which it would sink). It’s really, really bad, you guys. I think you might read what I’m going to say about this book and be like “no, it can’t be that bad”, but it is.
I’m going to start with the technical flaws of this book, before getting into my issues with the content. People may disagree with me about the content issues of this book, but certain technical flaws are undeniable. When I was first reading this book, I texted my boyfriend that the author seems like “the type who thinks a well-turned phrase is more important than one which can be easily understood, which is a valid opinion, but not one I agree with generally.” Having finished the book now, I still stand by that statement. There’s no doubt that the book is very artistic. But I don’t read books because they’re artsy; I’ve never been able to sustain that kind of pretentiousness. I read books because I want to enjoy a story, and that’s really hard when you can’t tell what the story is. I accidentally skipped a page, because two pages of my physical copy of this book were stuck together (dead-tree-problems) and I didn’t realize until three or four pages later, when I realized that the POV character had switched. That’s not good.
I’ve read books before where I didn’t understand what was going on, necessarily. I’ve read deeply artistic books where the meaning of the story is obscured until the very end. The first that comes to mind is The Islanders by Christopher Priest, which I adored. But the key difference is that while Priest’s plot was complex and at times, convoluted, his writing was clear and precise. He understood that brevity and diction are important if the story you’re telling is, by nature, confusing. Catling doesn’t understand that, it seems. The Vorrh was full of very beautiful combinations of words that, when put together, failed to make any sense at all. It is possible that was intentional. But I don’t have to like it.
As far as I could discern, The Vorrh was comprised of four plots – two main and two subplots. It is a very common plot device for subplots to, at first, seem unrelated to the main plot only to come together later. I assumed that would happen in this book. I should not have assumed. The subplots, about two real historical figures (Raymond Roussel and Eadweard Muybridge), were meandering (though no moreso than the rest of the book) and pointless. If they were intended to reinforce the main “theme” of the book, I certainly couldn’t tell. Then again, I’m still not sure what the theme of the book is, so maybe that’s the problem. And of course, it is only now in writing this review that I realized that the two main plots were also essentially unrelated. They very briefly intersect, but their conclusions do not affect each other.
So, uh, about the content of this book. I guess I’ll throw a spoiler warning on here? And like, several content warnings, for sure (menstruation, rape, anorexia, and uh… mommy issues? Oedipus complex? Incest? I don’t even know, but be warned, friend). This is a pretty sexist book, which I suppose should not have surprised me. One of the most telling things about a book is who does the front/back cover blurbs. The front cover blurb of The Vorrh is from Alan Moore, who you already know I have complicated-but-generally-negative feelings towards. The back cover blurbs were from Philip Pullman (yes, His-Dark-Materials Philip Pullman, I was bored to tears by those books, sue me), and Jeff VanderMeer (author of Annihilation, a book I haven’t read yet but that has on principle annoyed me by being a sci-fi book shelved with general fiction for being “literary”). I should have seen this coming.
Okay, let’s dive right in. Very graphic and very incorrect depictions of menstruation really piss me off in fiction. It’s not complicated to get it right. If you’re someone who’s never menstruated, you can talk to the roughly 50% of the population that has, or if you’d rather not, we have the internet. There’s millions upon millions of resources about this subject. The first book where this seriously irked me was Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked). So I’m going to say this once, for all the non-menstruating people who want to write about menstruation: IT’S NOT A GODDAMN FIRE HOSE, JESUS, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU. AND YOU CAN’T TURN IT OFF AT WILL. This case I might have forgiven because it was also (I think) implied that there was some mystical shit going on, but the writing was so opaque that I couldn’t really tell.
That scene took place in part of the main plot that turned out to be inspired by Heart of Darkness, and it’s the one I hated the least. I don’t like Heart of Darkness, but I can accept that it exists and it is considered important because of Reasons. “Heart of Darkness but in a magical fantastical forest” is a totally valid premise for a book. It was the other main plot that I had a lot of issues with. I keep trying to think of something to create a parallel with, and I honestly can’t. I’m sure things exist that can be compared, but not things I’ve experienced (possibly due to intentional avoidance). So I’m going to do my best to sum it up here:
“A teenage cyclops was raised from childhood by a few robots designed to teach him. His mom-robot was equipped to teach him about sex when the time came, and he became obsessed with having sex with his only mother figure. A human woman ‘rescued’ him from the robots and took over the role of his teacher. Then, obviously, they also start having sex. He eventually uses sex as a means to dominate and subdue her, starting with actually raping her. During totally-not-Mardi-Gras, he has sex with her, gets out, and has sex with a blind woman whose sight is restored by this act. The two of them spend the rest of the book trying to find him, and the first woman finds out that she is pregnant by the cyclops. At the end of the book, she gives the child back to the teacher robots, possibly perpetuating a cycle or something.”
Yeah, I don’t even know, you guys. In every book, there is an author viewpoint character: the character who the author feels most closely aligns to them and thus, will align most closely to the audience as well. It is clearly, in this book, Ishmael the cyclops. When I finished the book, I read the author’s bio and he’s got some kind of obsession with cyclopes, which makes it even more obvious. This concerns me, for obvious reasons. I don’t want to read books that sympathize with rapists. I don’t want to read books about dudes who want to fuck their mom. Maybe I’m not artsy and enlightened enough to understand it. I am a simple girl with simple tastes. I don’t always know what I like, but I know I don’t like this. It’s not that sex in books bothers me, to be clear. I am no prude. I think a good bit of depravity can do great things for a book. But there is evidently such a thing as too much depravity. (And perhaps this is shallow, but based on the descriptions, I’m not sure that B Catling has ever had sex in his life – there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think some research here could have benefited him as well)
The Raymond Roussel subplot was mostly just… boring. There was some generally awful, offensive content, but I think by the time it reached that point, I’d been so desensitized by the rest of the garbage content of this book. The Eadweard Muybridge subplot, however, managed to pierce through the protective shell I built around my brain to keep from throwing this book across the bus. Long story short, he becomes obsessed with anorexic girls, thanks to a psychologist who treats them. Of course, this psychologist characterizes anorexia as an affliction of vanity, and admires the extraordinary willpower of the young women he meets who eventually succumb to it. And obviously, to do his tests on how to treat them, he first has to actually induce eating disorders in countless “patients”.
I get that this very well may be “accurate” to the early days of psychology, and I get that eating disorders are still grossly misunderstood by many people. I also don’t particularly care. Fetishizing anorexia (images of “pro-ana” tumblrs still run rampant in my mind) is disgusting and unacceptable. It is a disease that kills and glamorizing it does no favors to anyone. This is a fantasy world where artificially intelligent robots and cyclopes and magical forests exist, so I don’t particularly care for “accuracy” arguments. I’d say that this is another case of Catling’s refusal to do research that might impinge on his artistic vision. This book is a prime example of a desire to be “literary” at the cost of telling a good story. And I do think there was potential for this story. The execution, however, was so bad that it wasn’t worth it to me to try to dig through the bad writing for a scrap of plot or characterization.
Brian Catling’s author bio says that he is, first and foremost, “a poet, sculptor, and performance artist.” One Goodreads reviewer said, rather scathingly, “I guess I’ll stick to reading books by authors now,” and I can’t help but agree with that assessment. People think that just anyone can write a novel, and that is blatantly untrue. Not everyone can write a novel (but as in Ratatouille, a great novelist can come from anywhere), and The Vorrh is evidence to me – not everyone should.