Review: Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente

The wound of the 'sexually-transmitted city'

In a recent blog entry Catherynne M. Valente offered a sardonic reply to reviewers who have used phrases like "not for everyone" and "dense" to describe her work.

"'Not for everyone' is certainly one--dude, no book is for everyone, why does this need to be said, even the most popular books have entire cultures of hate around them, if books were either black or white, for everyone or no one, then there'd be five books published a year and that would be it. No one would have to write reviews."

Having now read the Hugo Award-nominated Palimpsest, I find it hard not to echo the phrase, "not for everyone".

Palimpsest is far from your average genre novel, and a reader seeking from it the comforts of the familiar is likely going to wander away confused and disappointed. Palimpsest does not boast a standard plot or setting and features no obvious hero or villain. And then there's the language ...

Worse then the lazy descriptions of her work as "dense" and "not for everyone", says Valente, "is the oft-repeated saw" that she writes "more poetry than prose".

Valente's second objection is simply correct. Her prose is complicated and artful, loaded with imagery and metaphor, but it is not poetry, stealth or otherwise. It is presumably sometimes mistaken for poetry because Valente dares to dance from present tense to past, from second person to third (and back again). She is a writer willing to play with language, to push and pull it into new and interesting shapes — almost always, I am happy to say, while keeping in mind that she is first of all telling a story — however (ahem) difficult or even "dense".

None of which make of a piece of writing, poetry, any more than inclusion of parts for viola and bassoon of necessity make of a piece of music, a symphony.

All that said, is Palimpsest a good novel?

On first-reading, yes it is. Very much so.

Click here to catch a glimpse of the 'sexually-transmitted city' (no significant spoilers).

Bold ambitions, much success

By Catherynne M. Valente
Bantam Spectra, 2009
367 pages, $16.50
# ISBN-10: 0553385763
# ISBN-13: 978-0553385762

Palimpsest the novel is about Palimpsest, the city: a fantastical urban landscape that can be visited only via sex, the physical congress of one body with another — a concept one website credits Valente herself with having called a "sexually-transmitted city". The disease (if disease is the right word; affliction may be more apt) manifests through physical stigmata, a portion of a map of the city which blossoms upon the skin of those who have visited it.

As you probably imagine, Palimpsest is a novel drenched polymorphously in sex, but it is not about sex, nor is it particularly erotic. Sex is the vector to the story, as it were, but not the story itself.

As that story opens, we are introduced to the city, Palimpsest, and to four inadvertent visitors, who have nothing in common but that they have been infected at the same time and so find themselves "quartered" together, like members of a tour group arbitrarily placed in the same cabin. They are: Sei, a young Japanese train-enthusiast; Oleg, a Russian-American locksmith with a questionable grasp on reality; Ludovico, an obsessive Italian book-binder; and November, an American beekeeper.

Each has entered the city via the embrace of a different lover; each encounters a different area of it; and each develops a powerful and not necessarily healthy connection to Palimpsest and, so, to one another. That is the concept and, to a large extent, it is also what serves as the the plot.

As with an addictive drug, a wilful madness, a sexual compulsion, these two men and two women are drawn back, again and again, to the dreamlike city, at a sometimes enormous cost. But the road for Valente's story is neither straight nor is its destination obvious. Palimpsest offers no monster or villain to be defeated, no hero or straightforward quest to cheer on. Instead we follow four surreal characters struggling to understand and even to control the inexplicable roads onto which they have wandered.

I won't pretend that I know what Valente intends me to take away from her vision — if she means for there to be a particular "correct" reading of the story at all. There might be one over-riding metaphor or (worse) allegory behind it all, but I suspect not; Valente seems too interesting a writer for that kind of reductionist's fiction. Rather, I suspect that she too was visiting her creation, exploring it, even while she was creating it.

Valente's Palimpsest brought to my mind somewhat of of Peake's Castle Gormenghast, an awful lot of Delany's Bellona (a city I would be surprised to learn Valente has not visited) and even, maybe unaccountably, a sliver or two from Melville's Pequod.

Honestly, I'm hesitant about making such comparisons, especially since I've only read Palimpsest the once, but it does seem as if it's in dialogue at least with the first two of the triptych mentioned above. In any event, though my library copy is overdue for return, I have ordered a brand new copy for myself and fully intend to re-visit Palimpsest in the expectation that, like a city, the novel will reward at least one re-reading.

Whether it will warrant a third or fourth, I am not so sure, due to the novel's major flaw: its characters. I named the four protagonists earlier, but had to check the back cover-copy to do so. For all the fascination of Palimpsest itself, its human visitors never came fully to life for me, but seemed as the human-shaped figures at the base of architectural drawings, rather than portraits of living human beings.

While I believe Valente intended the reader to feel for Oleg's shame and longing, for Sei's existential aimlessness; for Ludovico's obsessive love and for November's ... for whatever it was that characterized November — I don't remember what that was, which is the point. Valente's prose is powerful and her vision unique, but I never quite believed in her characters' reality and so, was never convinced me that their story mattered.

Palimpsest deserved it's place on the Hugo short-list; but I think it's right that it didn't take home the prize. Nevertheless, Valente is a writer I'm going to follow from now on and I don't hesitate a moment to suggest you do the same. And I won't be at all surprised if, in a week or three, I write about it again and find I have very different things to say.

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