Palimpsest, by Catherynne Valente, adds to the growing list of urban fantasy books whose setting isn’t mere background but plays a major role in the story. Valente brings the same lushly poetic style and sense of myth and fairytale that characterized The Orphan’s Tales, creating a more abstract and surrealistic version all her own. As well, rather than do a simple job of world-creating, she also plays with a more traditional staple of fantasy — the other world some lucky few in our own get to enter, whether it be via a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a magical book, or some other rare portal.
The eponymous city, Palimpsest, is reached not through any of these randomly benevolent and neutral “doorways” but instead through sex; the doorway to Palimpsest is basically an STD, and like some STD’s, it leaves its mark, in this case a map of a small portion of the city on the body, like a tattoo. Have sex with someone “infected,” and during the sleep afterward you’ll be carried into that part of Palimpsest that appears on your partner’s skin. You can only explore that section, however; to move beyond it you must find another “carrier,” who will most likely be happy to run into you, as you now carry your own personal map somewhere on your body — a new place for them as well.
Your first time in the city, you are “quartered”— you enter a sort of customs’ house room with three other tourists who become connected to you before entering their appropriate section: you don’t know them, they may be half-a-world away in our world, and you may never see them again here or there. But they play an important role, as they are the means of permanently emigrating to Palimpsest.
The novel is multi-stranded via a seemingly omniscient narrator who can enter places usually off-limits. We follow four visitors: Amaya Sei is a ticket-seller in Japan’s rail system who has an obsession with trains and also must deal with the memories of her dead mother. November Aguilar is a beekeeper who lives near San Francisco, close to where her dead father is buried. Ludovico Conti lives in Rome with his wife Lucia who helps him publish small-run, often specialized, books until she leaves him. The final member of the quartered group is Oleg Sadakov, a Russian immigrant locksmith in New York City who is haunted by his drowned sister.
It doesn’t take much to see the connection between them of loss and grief; all are lonely, unhappy individuals. They become the typical “small band” often found in these sorts of portal stories — the children of Edward Eager, C.S. Lewis, or Madeline L’Engle — and several of the usual roles are played out: the determined leader, the frightened one, the lost one. As is often the case, the group has some sort of action their newly-discovered land requires of them to be saved.
But, as the sexual doorway clearly indicates, this is not a children’s tale. And the “quest” is not the usual drop a ring into a volcano, defeat the Dark Lord quest. It is slowly, tantalizing revealed and is nowhere near as simplistic or fantasy-mundane.
The story moves back and forth between each character’s experiences in our world and in Palimpsest, and they eventually intertwine. Each character’s story in Palimpsest opens up with our omniscient narrator introducing us to a new section of the city, almost as a guidebook does.
And what is the city like? Strange. Beautiful. Dangerous. Enticing. Mundanely urban. Phantasmagoric. Bosch meets Gormenghast meets Narnia meets Prague. Trains are alive and wild (commuters have to literally “catch” them) and long to fly but bees are made in factories. Houses grow like a child and other houses sometimes have to pack up and stroll away grumbling when one decides to expand. Inhabitants have shark heads, giraffe necks, cloven feet. Somewhere a cartographer “places her latest map on the windowsill like a fresh pie and slowly, as it cools, it opens along its own creases, its corners like wings, and takes halting flight … it has papery eyes, inky feathers, vellum claws.” Elsewhere, “Zarzaparrilla Street is paved with old coats. Layer after layer of fine corduroy and felt and wool … and [people] must navigate with pole and gondola, ever so gently thrusting aside the sleeves and lapels and weedy ties, fluttering like seaweed, [carrying] great curving pairs of scissors in case of sudden disaster.”
Everywhere are wonders, but there is also the usual urban fare: shops and noise and transport and hoity-toity restaurants and schools for the upper class and a financial district and fountains, etc. And there are dangers — gangs and groups opposed to tourists or immigrants. And there are veterans of a war whose important purpose and scale is only slowly revealed.
So how does Palimpsest succeed as a novel? It is lushly, often densely, poetic — an arch formal sort of style — rich in simile, metaphor, and imagery. This is both blessing and curse. Blessing just for the sheer pleasure of so much of the language — Valente’s poetry background shines through clearly and, given free reign in terms of fantastical subject matter, it sometimes takes your breath away. Curse because I thought the story too uniformly such. Not only are the descriptive passages of Palimpsest the city so poetic, but so are the descriptions of the characters and our world and, more problematically in my view, so is the speech. The characters too often spoke like poets and while I could make an argument that only a certain sort find their way to Palimpsest, I really couldn’t buy that. I wanted more differentiation in voice and style. This is more of a problem in the first half than the second, where we spend more time in Palimpsest itself and also where plot speeds up a bit to distract somewhat from style.
I also though the sexual aspect came too easily or quickly to the characters, especially when the sex is other than what one of the characters would consider “normal.” We’re told at times that the decision to have sex to get back to the city is troublesome, but it never feels that way. Nor did I feel the addictive nature was quite fully nailed down. It relied a bit too much on the reader trusting that Valente’s beautiful linguistic descriptions made it obvious why people would be so desperate to return, but that felt a bit too abstract and distant and too much a “built-in” reason rather than an organic one.
The characters’ needs also feel “built-in” — unhappy as they are, the desire to emigrate to Palimpsest is almost a no-brainer — what are they giving up here after all? I would have liked to have seen someone who would actually be faced with giving up a life of contentment or even happiness, or someone with a family. And their inevitable coming together happened too easily.
In general, I thought the first half of the book was less successful than the second half, once we start spending more time in Palimpsest. At that point the book began to win me over and by the end I was reading it ravenously. Some will be disappointed that it ends too soon or abruptly. It isn’t an ending that resolves itself fully — the characters and the city are still growing and changing — we’ve seen only the beginning of a few choices and what the ripples of those choices will be is left for us to ponder; Valente isn’t giving them up.
Palimpsest didn’t blow me away as did The Orphan’s Tales, but in some ways it pulled me in deeper. So, highly recommended, with strong encouragement to, if you’re struggling, try and reach that halfway point and see if it starts to also win you over.
Now, about the audio version, which I read later:
Catherynne Valente writes more poetry than prose, even in her ostensibly prose novels. The language teems with metaphor and simile, with rich sound quality and lush imagery even as it also employs poetry’s concision and elision.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Brilliance Audio’s version of the book, narrated by Aasne Vigesaa, is absolutely fantastic. It’s even possible, and this is something I don’t believe I’ve ever even considered, let alone stated, that the audio version might even in some ways be a better “reading” experience. Vigesaa wraps her tongue round the rhythms and lushness of language, rising and falling in tone and volume and emphasis so that one is drawn, perhaps, even more fully into the realm of Palimpest. And one of my complaints in my review of the print version (below), that too many of the characters speak in the “arch-poetic” style, becomes less of a flaw and more of a strength in the audio version.
Because of the generally dulcet or melancholy or elegiac tone, and the density and richness of language, this is an audiobook that truly needs to be listened to, not simply heard. It isn’t something to put on while you’re cooking or running that quick 10-minute errand in the car. It’s the kind of audio you wish you could pop in and then drive for long distances across a relatively empty landscape (despite its urban setting), say, across the red rocks of Utah or the flat isolation of the Dakotas.
I wouldn’t give up reading the book for the audio because I loved lingering over some of the lines and passages in Palimpsest, but I would happily read the book, then “reread” it via audio for the enhanced experience.