#CBR4 Maneuver #24 – Palimpsest

Target: Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest

Profile: Fantasy, Weird Fiction

Summary: From goodreads.com, “Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.”

After Action Report:

I know just enough about H.P. Lovecraft to say four things and get three of them wrong.  It’s not that I don’t like the author, or the genre he helped shape, rather that the critiques of his work are such that a literary dilettante (me) will find them somewhat difficult to get at.  Of his works, I probably enjoyed his “Dreamlands” sequence most of all, and it was those stories that popped into my head while reading Palimpsest, though the resemblance is passing at best.  Valente’s novel is almost painfully postmodern, built out of rambling streams of consciousness and suffused with mysterious and nonsensical imagery.  But it is these modes of writing that best capture dreaming, and the world she describes, while garish and gaudy, draws its inspirations from Lovecraft’s Celephaïs and Baharna.

The narrative is split five ways between the four protagonists, Sei, Oleg, November and Ludovico, and a mysterious narrator who speaks directly to the reader and acts as a tour guide to the dream city of Palimpsest.  The four protagonists are brought to the city at the same time by various unrelated sexual experiences and are bound together in such a way that they are peripherally aware of each other’s surroundings, even while separated.  The novel explains that the only way to get to Palimpsest is by having sex with someone who has already been there, regardless of gender or, evidently, sexual act.  People who have been are typically desperate to get back, creating a culture of anonymous sex and a sad, desperate search for new conquests to unlock new sections of the city.

Valente’s story has a very visceral quality to it.  It’s the sort of thing that leads people to speak in metaphor and verse, as if you could describe the taste of a novel or the quality of light it conjures.  That same ephemeral nature makes it somewhat difficult to really get down to a review of the book.  More accurately, it is very easy to describe the novel as ‘dream-like,’ or ‘intoxicating,’ but these nebulous, personal descriptors do little to communicate empirical quality or literary skill.  Suffice it to say that Valente’s book features excellent world construction and strong if somewhat one dimensional characters.  Palimpsest, the city, is well conceived and compares favorably to China Miéville’s body of work, both in detail and design.  The writing, which verges on poetry in places, shouldn’t prove to be an obstacle to enjoyment, but may prompt closer reading.  As with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, the other Valente book I’ve reviewed, listening to an audio book is probably not the way to go for Palimpsest.

The word Palimpsest refers to an ancient technique of scraping text from a document in order to reuse it.  The resulting scroll or parchment, called a palimpsest, would have ghost images of the previous writing.  Unsurprisingly, Palimpsest is a story about new beginnings and transformations.  The attractive aspect is that Valente doesn’t just solve her character’s problems.  These people are flawed in the real world and remain flawed in Palimpsest.  Valente reject the much sought-after perfection that plagues fantasy novels and injects a very real piece of the human condition into her resolution, something which I find very refreshing and satisfying.

More and more I find myself turning these final paragraphs into ‘your mileage may very’ disclaimers.  It’s a bit of a copout, and one that probably weakens my position as a ‘critic of things.’  Still, there is something intensely personal about a book recommendation.  As someone who is effectively recommending (or not) the things posted here, there needs to be a bit of accountability.  I compared Palimpsest to both H.P. Lovecraft and China Miéville in my review, but this book is like neither of these authors.  What it is is a little unique in style and outlook, and well worth taking a bit of a chance on.

Posted on July 25, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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