I have, by pretty much pure chance, wound up reading two strangely connected books in parallel. Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows and Brian Catling’s The Vorrh both prominently feature Eadweard Muybridge, the late 19th century photographer who pioneered the fundamentals of motion pictures. But River of Shadows is a historical essay examining the impact of photography on perceptions of speed, while The Vorrh is a novel, more or less in the realm of fantasy.
Reading the two books side-by-side is occasionally disorienting, but more than that it’s an education in form, theme, and adaptation. It seems very likely to me that Catling read Solnit, and learned the history linking Muybridge to Leland Stanford and the westward push of the railroads in America. In The Vorrh, Catling transplants that same colonizing push, driven by railroads, to a fictional and menacing forest in the heart of Africa – and sprinkles in extremely poetic magic, tragic monsters, and very strange machinations.
That transplantation to Africa has, no surprise, proven problematic for some reviewers of The Vorrh. The book fundamentally replays certain tropes about Africa as a center of mysterious and unknown forces – though it does go a great distance to make those forces more complex than mere ‘darkness’ or savagery. The mighty forest corrupts, degrades, and destroys those who spend too much time in it – shades of Conrad. But it is also rumored to be the home of God.
And through that forest cuts a railroad, just as a railroad cut through the dangers of the American West in the time of the real Eadweard Muybridge. The tension is that same as that explored by Solnit – the idea that technology can at once give us access to the strange and unfamiliar, and, at least to a degree, undermine those strange and new things.
Another consonance that doesn’t seem coincidental is that both books decenter white people, at least to the degree that makes sense. Solnit points out that the plains tribes, by the 19th century, had adopted at least two technologies of speed which fundamentally reshaped their lives – the horse, and the gun. In The Vorrh, one of Catling’s major characters is an African who places not just practical, but nearly spiritual importance on a long gun that he uses to fight against interlopers.
These consonances, unfortunately, don’t stick all that deeply. While Solnit explores the themes of time and distance with precision and subtlety, they remain subtext for most of The Vorrh. That book is far more concerned with a kind of dizzying phantasmagoria than anything firmly thematic – or, for that matter, all that precise in the plot department. It is clearly written, and moves forward steadily, but the characters don’t spend all that much time thinking in clear terms about their situations, and it’s sometimes difficult to say exactly what their actions add up to.
In other words, The Vorrh is itself like riding a train, or watching a film – a panorama of imagery and impressions, invigorating but sometimes ephemeral. Perhaps ironically, River of Shadows is much more traditionally novelistic, as a reading experience. You get to know the world and its inhabitants in a much more grounded way.
The Vorrh was late coming across my radar, but Catling has continued the project into a trilogy, with the third book due for release this year. I would guess I’ll keep going, so I’m looking forward to that release. But I’m also ambivalent – I love a good phantasmagoria, but reality, whether true or fictional, is often more beguiling.
For those interested in the history of transportation and communication, I’m reading Solnit as part of my big 2018 project on those topics. You can read more about it here.