The Erstwhile brings listeners back to the singular world and mind of B. Catling, continuing the groundbreaking storytelling of his hit The Vorrh.
In London and Germany, strange beings are reanimating themselves. They are the Erstwhile, the angels that failed to protect the Tree of Knowledge, and their reawakening will have major consequences.
In Africa, the colonial town of Essenwald has fallen into disarray because the timber workforce has disappeared into the Vorrh. Now a team of specialists are dispatched to find them. Led by Ishmael, the former cyclops, they enter the forest, but the Vorrh will not give them back so easily. To make matters worse, an ancient guardian of the forest has plans for Ishmael and his crew. Meanwhile a child of mixed race has been found abandoned in a remote cottage. Her origins are unknown, but she has powers beyond her own understanding. Conflict is coming, as the old and new, human and inhuman are set on a collision course.
Once again blending the real and the imagined, The Erstwhile brings historical figures such as William Blake and places such as the Bedlam Asylum, as well as ingenious creations such as The Kin (a family of robots) together to create unforgettable novel of births and burials, excavations and disappearances.
“Epic...emotionally gripping...dreamlike.... Catling weaves alternate history and retroactive mythmaking into a stunning whole.... He’s succeeded at writing a more balanced - and if this can be believed, slightly more conventional - novel this time around, which also bodes well for the trilogy’s upcoming finale, The Cloven. At the same time, The Erstwhile doesn’t depart radically from the devastating scope and dark spectacle that made The Vorrh one of the most arresting fantasy debuts in years - or Catling one of contemporary speculative fiction’s most imaginative writers.” (NPR.org)
“A dazzling psychedelic quest...viciously surreal.... The Erstwhile almost revels in its status as the hiatus between Genesis and Apocalypse. It applies the sleight of hand that many of the best middle-books do, for a shift of focus.... William Blake makes an appearance, as do Yiddish theatre, guillotines, radios that transmit from the future, premonitions of Shoah on Brick Lane, and a Ripper rumour. Some of this is part of a shared mythology of English esoterica. It’s no wonder that Sinclair, Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock have enthused over these books: Catling is using the same raw materials they do, but in a different manner.... Even in the most extreme moments Catling has an eye to the wry, to the momentous absurdity of just being a thing made of flesh in a world that is not.” (The Guardian)
“Brian Catling’s The Erstwhile, like the work of Mervyn Peake, is outside genre. The stand-alone centre novel in a three-decker, it is even better than The Vorrh, the volume that preceded it.... Again we meet a variety of wonderful, often bizarre characters.... The plot is complex, monumental, engrossing and crammed with original images. If you like Peake’s Titus Groan, Catling’s splendid novel is probably for you.” (Michael Moorcock, The New Statesman)
Ce que les membres d'Audible en pensent
- Joe Kraus
More of Something That's Never the Same
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the first volume of Brian Catling’s trilogy begins with a transformation of the feminine into the masculine. In the first, amazing scene, a dying priestess is transformed into a living bow – the very essence of the male symbol, derived as it is from Apollo as archer.
This second volume begins with the reverse. One of our male characters, discovering an abandoned infant, suddenly grows breasts in order to feed it. And we have, as well, our bow disintegrating itself into a cradle, reversing the gender implications of the original transformation.
Those opening chapters set a different tone, which changes things for a while. Then, like the first volume, this one is so magically bewildering that the tone changes throughout. We get some of the same characters back, some transformed, and we get some new ones.
I don’t think I could adequately summarize what takes place, but that’s the ultimate art of this work. Catling’s imagination is so broad, his concerns so varied, that it never settles into anything predictable. To that, I say, thank goodness. No single part of this is ever boring, and none seems entirely detached from the whole. Reading it as a perpetually unsettling experience, though, because it never hardens into something predictable and “finished.”
(In a review for locusmag – a review I’ve only started since it has spoilers for the final volume of the trilogy, Katharine Coldiron speaks of Catling making “rookie mistakes” in not answering all the questions he asks. With apologies for not yet having read all she has to say, I think she’s the one missing the point: this is fantasy unfettered. It’s fantasy that denies the fundamental mistake of the post-Tolkien genre. We’re seeing an imagination unfold into ever-new, ever newly possible alternatives. If this somehow ends with everything resolved, I’ll think it a deep betrayal. One of the major points of this is to remind us of the power of the weird. It’s not retelling some “high fantasy” kingdom’s escape from Armageddon with nothing changed but the names.)
In this case, Catling is concerned, among other things, with the warping effect of colonialism on the colonizers. The Limboia, the zombie-like figures needed to harvest the timber on which the city of Essenwald depends for its wealth, have been lost. A major thread here concerns our “healed” cyclops, Ishmael, as he sets out to help find them. In the harsh caste system of the place, he’s in-between. He isn’t fully “white,” but he’s been accepted by them as a lover and a servant, and he has hopes of achieving more.
We also have Gertrude, who has thought herself fully born of the timber barons’ caste. It turns out that her history is deeper, though. A bit like Ishmael, she is the product of a different genealogy – though fully accepted by her new family – which makes her encounters with the mechanical Kin all the more bewildering. She may be someone/something they’ve produced, and her daughter – eventually kidnapped – may have a powerful role to play in the forest of the Vorrh.
There’s also a newly introduced priest who, in a thread that’s haunting and still unfinished, is compelled by the young girl of the beginning to write a message with his own blood and flesh. As he writes, the letters draw a seething group of ants who bring them to life as they pass back and forth in the contours he has drawn. (Modest spoiler from the first few pages of the final volume that I have just begun: we meet the real-life intellectual Eugene Marais who’s book, Soul of the White Ant, may offer an explanation for ant behavior.)
And then there’s the new character, Hector Schumann, a Jew who’s come from Germany to interview various institutionalized figures whom he comes to think of as fallen angels, the Erstwhiles of the title who were supposedly called upon to guard the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Having failed in their duty, they’re a kind of abandoned group. They have nothing to do but fade slowly from the world.
One of those characters, Nicholas, has found a way to become something closer to human, though, and he and Hector become allies for inscrutable reasons. Eventually Hector has to hide out from an increasingly anti-Semitic German government, and he takes shelter with a Jewish gangster, “Rabbi” (an ironic title) Solly Diamond. And this whole plot-piece takes place a decade or more after the events in Essenwald without, so far, a clear connection between them.
I’m moving sideways with all that, recounting what happens but not effectively describing how it feels to experience it happening. That’s the joy of all this and, in the case of Nicholas, a clue to the origins and ambitions of Catling’s project.
Nicholas speaks often of his “Old Man,” the poet William Blake who was the first to encounter him after he awoke from almost two millennia sleeping below the Thames. (Does any of that quite make sense? Of course not. And that’s the magic.) In fact, the opening scene of the novel – and apparently the cover image – involve Blake interviewing and sketching Nicholas for his work.
Even before such an overt reference, I found myself tracing the Blakean influence here. Like Allan Moore’s Jerusalem (and, though we forget, like Tolkien himself) Catling is a kind of neo-Blake, someone intent on seeing beyond the world as it presents itself. As Blake put it famously, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see things as they truly are: infinite.
That’s ultimately what this project strikes me as being about. Like Moore’s Jerusalem, it’s about consciously imagining an extra dimension to the world, about dreaming that we what we see is only the beginning of what our minds might apprehend. Katharine Coldiron – and Orson Scott Card and so many others who have big sales in the genre – want to imagine a world that, looking different from our own, ultimately answers to the same trajectory of narrative. Catling and Moore deliver something much more, something that leaves us feeling smaller for the glimpse we get of an imagined space so much larger than the world we know.
I enjoyed Vandermeer's exploration of "Area X." I attribute this to my early life in a estuary. I spent alot of time alone in the natural environment. "The Vorrh" was recommended to me. I read it. There was alot to work with for the remaining two books of the trilogy. I would have preferred it if the book never ventured to London and the story remained at ground zero. I would have preferred a greater emphasis on biology than religion. This just isn't something that appeals to me. If you are fond of alternate genesis stories, or historical fiction or "Our angels are different than yours" this may be what you are looking for. best luck.
- Chuck P.
Picks up right where The Vorrh left off and is the perfect bridge to The Cloven, the final book in the trilogy. This series is one of the most beautifully written that I've ever read. B. Catling is like David Lynch, Frank Herbert and Samuel Beckett rolled into one. If you love the english language, this book is for you. The narration is second to none. I'll be searching out more books read by Allan Corduner.