Attempting to summarize B. Catling‘s novel The Vorrh is something of a challenge. Within it can be found a period adventure story, in which one determined man sets out on a strange quest, and an equally determined man sets out to stop him. There are also real-life figures, including Eadweard Muybridge, whose actions and obsessions act as a counterpoint to the sections of the book largely set in colonial Africa, in and around the forest that gives the book its title. There’s also a character named Ishmael, a cyclops raised by robots, who may be the book’s most well-adjusted character. I spoke with Catling over email about the process behind the novel, how it connects with his art, and more.
There are numerous elements in The Vorrh that command attention, from the quest into the center of the forest that begins early in the novel to the forest itself to the peculiarities of Essenwald. Where did the novel begin for you?
It became with the word VORRH, a single sound for a great writhing mass of non human life. Raymond Roussel’s forest in Impressions of Africa. He never describes it and uses it as a backdrop to his unique series of tableaus. At the same time I saw the sequence of the bow being made from a dead female shaman who had instructed every detail of the construction. those where the twin seeds that implanted my forest.
The cyclops is a figure that’s also figured in to your art. Do you see Ishmael’s arc in The Vorrh as being connected to your overall body of work?
It’s impossible for me to separate subjects and obsession other than in the process of their invention. Paint, words and actions have different demands of energy and form. I am continually walking into the wall of the limitations of my imagination and need different tools to loosen the plaster and bricks.
There are several real-life figures who are worked into the plot; how did you balance them with the entirely fictional ones?
Who would dare invent a believable character that was an introverted loner who traveled the badlands only with an empty box to capture shadows in, who was a cold blooded murderer and one of the accidental fathers of cinema, by inventing cameras that trapped the movements of animals, invalids, dancers and workmen and himself naked at the age of sixty swinging an axe, who posed late in his life for a series of portraits in which he postures the appearance of a vengeful patriarchal God, who when he retired moved in with relatives and started digging huge holes in their garden. When somebody finally had the nerve to ask what he was doing, replied “I am making a scale model of the Great Lakes of North America”??
You’d mentioned on your site that the edition of The Vorrh that’s out now has been reworked from the version that appeared a few years ago; what were the extent of the changes that you made? What inspired the revision?
The first version had clunky, sticky bits in the narrative, Kind of attic and fruit cellar debris; narrative awkwardness that came from inexperience of writing prose. I knew it was there , but could not find it. Tim O’Connell’s brilliant editing found all the lumps and crack and elegantly re-aligned and intensified them. We worked over the last summer to surgically re-enhance The Vorrh.
Writing about periods of colonialism can pose its own hazards; did you have any difficulties balancing the more fantastical elements of your novel with the realities of the period?
The answer to this is not unlike the one about real people. I had read a lot and seen artefacts from Cargo Cultism and was moved and inspired by the velocity of mistake; the histories that both sides of an invasion needed to construct to explain each other and themselves.
Do you have any more prose works looming in your future?
The Vorrh is book one of a trilogy. After that I wrote a quartet of Westerns. Then another couple of things that walked in opposite directions away from each other. There are also some faint but pointed scratchings inside my head, that might just be Vorrh Four???
Photo: Gautier Deblonde