Monday, September 2, 2013

Palimpsest - Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest is my ninth read in the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge. I picked it mostly because Valente had caught my eye a few times in the last few years but I never got around to reading anything by her. I remember this novel being well received when it was published. It was nominated for the Locus SF, Hugo and Mythopoeic awards and took the Lambda Literary Award home. Quite an impressive list. The novel also served as an inspiration for Valente's crowd-funded novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011) and it's sequels. In other words, more than enough reasons to have a closer look at it.

Palimpsest is a city unlike any you've heard of. It is a city of wonders, a mystery and a curse at the same time. Only a few people can gain access and only for a single night at a time, before being flung back into their mundane existence. Those who make the passage are marked forever but finding others to help them relive the experience isn't easy. The city keeps pulling them in however, the lure of Palimpsest is irresistible, and for a lucky few, permanent residence in the city appears possible. If they can overcome that challenges the city sets them.

The novel follows four main characters who have been introduced to the wonders of Palimpsest in their search for the city an each other. There is a Japanese woman, an Italian bookbinder, a Russo-American locksmith and a beekeeper from California. Each of them have been introduced to the city though sex with a stranger and it remains their portal throughout the novel. As a consequence their is a lot of sex in the book. Sex in all manner of places, sex between people of the same gender, sex with more than one person at a time. Valente is is poetic in her depictions of the act. Rarely very descriptive or unnecessarily explicit but if you don't like sex scenes in a book Palimpsest is not for you.

Some people have described the novel as erotic but personally I didn't really think that was the case. The four main characters are driven by a need that is not unlike a heroine addiction. They are constantly looking fro the next partner, the next trip to Palimpsest. Some of it is erotic but quite a lot of it is lusting after the city rather than the partner they are with. There is something compulsive about it. Something decidedly sordid. Sex as a price to be paid for what you really want, or, as some have observed, the city as a sexually transmitted disease.

As the story progresses and the obsession of the main characters with Palimpsest increased, a lot of the scenes become downright tragic. the characters cease to care about heir life in our world. They lose jobs and partners, the city disfigures them or drives them to physical and psychological extremes. For much of the novel we are reading about characters on the verge of destroying themselves. One might wonder if the city is worth it.

The characters seem to think it is and Valente does create a mysterious city, full of surreal cityscapes and strange inhabitants. I found it vaguely reminiscent of MiƩville's New Crobuzon. Valente adds to that by her use of language. There is lots of imagery and de descriptions are very poetic. Some sentences practically beg to be read again and again. To an extend it distracts from the terrible process the main characters are going through. The story features lost of symbols having to do with finding passage to another places. Trains, keys, maps and dreams to name a few.

Palimpsest is clearly not without its dangers but attracts the characters at the same time. Each of them is damaged in a way and it provides the city with the leverage it needs to draw them in. While they have their own motivations for looking to escape to Palimpsest, they share that none of them makes much of an attempt to function in their own world. The novel doesn't show their own lives at all. They don't interact with anybody not involved with Palimpsest in some way. Their isolation and obsession is pretty much complete.

Valente takes her time in shaping the plot. Introducing the city and all four main characters take up quite a few pages. Just looking at the plot, the novel is a bit thin. Each of the characters is introduced to Palimpsest and ends up wanting it more than anything. Then they find a fairly straightforward way to get it. Not much of a story line for a novel really. If you are a very plot oriented reader than Palimpsest is probably going to be a tough read for you.

I must admit I'm not too fond of novels that use beautiful language for the sake of it. It took me a while to read it as I can only take in so much of this style at a time. Puzzling out the the language is challenging and this is one of the few novels I've recently read that make me feel I'm a second language English speaker. At some points I think Valente does go overboard on the poetic descriptions. Despite that, I enjoyed the novel more that I thought I would.  Novels like these are rare in fantasy and especially in the urban sub genre, overrun as it is by sparkling vampires and sexy werewolves. Valente has created something special here, but it will certainly not be everybody's cup of tea.

Book Details
Title: Palimpsest
Author: Catherynne m. Valente
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 367
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-38576-2
First published: 2009

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