Palimpsest

by Catherynne M. Valente

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 0-553-38576-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 367

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Palimpsest opens with a description of a factory with flashing green spires sending off loops of white flame. The workers enter wearing nothing but scales, hugging every line of their body, dancing through shift changes as they tend the machines that stamp out the vermin of the city. Lizards are poured, spiders are separated in a centrifuge, and every created creature knows that Casimira loves them and holds them close. Near Casimira's factory, four newcomers enter the city for the first time in a fortune-teller's shop, dipping their feet in ink, bound together with red yarn in to a Quarto that will be linked in sensation and experience until the ink wears off their feet.

One is warned immediately that this is a book rich in description, strange and dream-like construction, and symbolism whose purpose can be difficult to untangle.

Palimpsest follows the four people who form the Quarto of the introductory passage in both that world and in ours: a blue-haired Japanese girl utterly obsessed with trains, a beekeeper named November who makes lists, an immigrant locksmith who listens to locks and keys and the ghost of his drowned sister, and a book-binder married to an expert on ink. All four of them achieve entry to the fantastic city of Palimpsest, but fleetingly and in dreams. They become part of an underground who each have fragments of Palimpsest's map tattooed mysteriously on their skin and who seek each other out, desperate to return to the city that seems more real and more rich than the waking world.

The entry to Palimpsest is through sex, which if you've heard of this book before is probably what you heard about it. Sex with someone who has been there will take you to the city and, the first time, leave you marked with a map fragment of your own. Once you've been there, sex is how you return for that night's dreaming. And where you end up in the city is determined by the map of the person with whom you have sex. As you might expect, over the course of this book there's quite a lot of sex.

That's not, however, the focus, or rather it's only the focus insofar as Valente uses it as a deeply personal transit, but also one that is invasive and often tawdry. The characters are obsessed with getting back to a city full of wonders and dream-like constructions, where every stone and insect is full of unimagined wonders, and then more deeply with finding something that only that city can give them: a train, a sister, a wife, a purpose. There are flashes of passion, but also flashes of sex as a drug. Sometimes it's a sacrament, and sometimes it's a mechanical necessity. It's present as a lurking backdrop that surfaces only in flashes and moments, and in the psychological effects and aftermath.

This book is a dark fairy tale: it's about choices, high prices paid, and about obsession, about how far people will go to obtain what matters most to them in life. It lives and dies in its characters, and there Valente does an excellent job. All four are radically different in both their wishes and in their reactions to Palimpsest, and all four are far in the margins of normal human psychology (Palimpsest seems to attract obsessives of one type or another), but I felt like I understood all four of them through the book and cared what happened to them. That hook is vitally important in this sort of book, since otherwise the reader ends up cast adrift in the sheer overwhelming strangeness of the dream-like setting. Even with strong characters, Valente occasionally lost me. But it mostly works, and there's a more coherent and cohesive plot lurking in the story than one might expect from the start.

Whether I liked the book is a more complicated question. Palimpsest has a lot in common with poetry, and as with poetry that's rich in images, I think one's enjoyment will depend heavily on whether those images strike a chord. Valente works hard throughout at using a few lines to create a startling or memorable image, and sometimes those images are exceptional:

Ludo opened his eyes to a room flooded with sunlight, all the brighter for her sparse belongings. The sunlight seemed to be unsure of what to do in the absence of a couch to fade or curtains to shine through, and so had gone helplessly nova in the center of Nerezza's living room.

But there's a lot of this, and most of it isn't as good as that passage. I've seen other reviews complaining that Valente can't write a sentence without a metaphor or simile, and indeed, this is that sort of book. If you want rich and imagistic language that's constantly trying to construct word pictures, Palimpsest is often very rewarding. If you're looking for an easily comprehensible story and fast-moving plot, skip this book until you're in a different mood.

I understood the characters but had difficulty liking them. They are, in many ways, very much like drug addicts: they give up everything in order to obtain what they're obsessed with. What they're obsessed with changes somewhat over the course of the story, but they're all deeply self-focused in a way that can be hard to swallow. But the ways in which they're self-focused are fascinatingly strange. Sei's total obsession with trains made her my early favorite, and I liked her throughout the book, but the character I enjoyed the most was November with her lists.

The keeping of lists was for November an excercise kin to the repeating of a rosary. She considered it neither obsessive nor compulsive, but a ritual, an essential ordering of the world into tall, thin jars containing perfect nouns. Enough nouns connected one to the other create a verb, and verbs had created everything, had skittered across the face of the void like pebbles across a frozen pond. She had not yet created a verb herself, but the cherry-wood cabinet in the hall contained book after book, jar after jar, vessel upon vessel, all brown as branches, and she had faith.

I suspect I would need to read this book several times to get the full impact, and I didn't like it quite well enough to do that. It missed making an emotional connection with me; the city is a bit too capricious, too mischievous and immature, and the characters a bit too self-centered and selfish. But it is, at times, strikingly beautiful and I'm happy I read it. I don't think it has any chance of winning a Hugo, but it deserved its nomination.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-05-20

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21