Last year I read The Vorrh, an ephemeral dream of a book that took inspiration from Roussel's Impressions of Africa to create a new mythical fantasy set in the early 20th century. The Vorrh, an infinite forest in the heart of Africa, fabled to have the Garden of Eden at its center, deteriorates the minds of men who spend any amount of time within it. Populated by cryptozoological beasts of Catling's own creation, and some built on historical legend, The Vorrh is the first book of a planned trilogy also featured historical figures such as Roussel himself, and photographic genius Eadweard Muybridge, whose passages about capturing motion in still image were some of the most interesting, poetic pieces of prose I'd read in a long time. And keep in mind, this is a genre novel.
I'm pretty interested lately in the intersection of genre and literary fiction because there's a burgeoning space for it. Literary writers giving great treatment to genre tropes, images, aesthetics, themes, motifs--the work of China Miéville and Mark Z Danielewski's The Familiar series would be the best examples of contemporary writers doing it now. There's a rich history of it, and genre can be great and informative when done beautifully. The Vorrh did it all wonderfully. However, this time around, it feels that Catling may have bit off more than he could chew while being unable to re-capture some of that same magic of the first entry in the series.
Firstly, the book is overstuffed with moving parts that have so much promise but never pay off. Starting with book's namesake creatures: the Erstwhile--forsaken angels who it is fabled were left in the garden to protect the Tree of Knowledge from Adam, but left behind on Earth and have just been rotting away here since. They have some interesting scenes throughout, with the primary Erstwhile character living in a mental facility in London, but there's absolutely no pay off with these beings--they foretell no plot point or thematic element other than maybe to build on/confirm the idea that the center of the Vorrh is Eden. But then why do they occupy so much page space? Secondly, with so much of the book taking place in Europe in 1924-1925 with a German Jew in London, there are a few mentions of him hiding his identity, but again, not much pay off or real use is made of it. The settings, themes and ideas don't bloom because it seems Catling may have been working overtime to pack too much into this book rather than focus on the prose. The promise of real dangers of life between two looming wars should weigh in the balance, along with the pressures of identity. The balance is lost, which is a shame because the Erstwhile known as Nicholas in the mental hospital has multiple, shifting identities as Nebuchadnezzar of William Blake's famous monotype print, but also as this angelic being from the origin of time, and a few more even more surreal ones. In all, there are a lot of fragments of ideas with just no general full thought behind them, or rhyme or reason to their purpose. Which is unfortunate, because these fragments are fully ripe with the same magnitude of intrigue that this books predecessor has, it just gets a little overstuffed and mismanaged this time around.
Which gets down to the aesthetic of the book. Where The Vorrh had an ephemeral, out-of-time and imagistic quality, less reliant on plot than themes and motifs, The Erstwhile breaks down into feeling very much like a genre book driven by an "extraction plot" halfway through. Ishmael, the cyclops-hero of the first novel must enter the Vorrh to retrieve the slave labor race of people who have wandered in and become distracted/lost in search of something. Once it turns into this sort of basic genre plot-driven affair, the prose takes the backseat, losing its love-labored poetic quality. Shed of the ephemeral features, the book sacrifices what makes it unique and becomes a catalog of "weird stuff" told plainly, which just isn't that interesting.
As a trilogy, I'm hopeful this one perhaps was acting as a setup for the final book, to get things in order, however, with so many moving parts, I worry that there's just too much to work for in concluding the final book that it won't suffer from the same loss of "magic" that this one did. Perhaps this is just the problem of some series anyway? The Vorrh perhaps was just lightning in a bottle, a beautiful moment in a glimmer.
The first one can be read as a standalone book, by the way, and I would rabidly recommend it to anyone and everyone vehemently. Reading on is up to you. The Erstwhile is still worthwhile, and I can't imagine I will skip this trilogy's conclusion when it hits the shelves.