Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

Title: Palimpsest
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Year: 2009

Palimpsest is the last of six novels I read of those nominated for this year’s Hugo Award. I started reading without any preconceptions whatsoever (I even had to check a dictionary to know what “Palimpsest” meant), but this book turned out to be excitingly creative in more ways than one. If you ask me, it shouldn’t win the Hugo (more about the award in a another post), but I think it was more than worthwhile to read it.

The story opens up with a long streak of more or less weird scenes featuring sexual intercourse with one of the participants having a map-like tattoo somewhere on his or her body. The intricate lines describe the topology of Palimpsest, a city that can only be reached in sleep by combining one’s own map with that of another person’s. The novel opens up with a number of these scenes, which means a little bit too much sex in too few pages, but this stops as soon as the four main characters, initially separated in their own very special lives, begin to gravitate towards Palimpsest.

This novel has three merits. The first is that it is a cornucopia of small but brilliant ideas; it’s a pity they aren’t connected to form a better whole, but there are enough small wonders to make the reading interesting all the way through. The third is that the characters are unique and well-portrayed, and yet feel credible.

The third merit is that the language is poetic in a way I have seldom seen. It’s not only beautiful, but it also sets my imagination spinning. Here is an example where one of the main characters is served a small bird at a dinner party in Palimpsest:

November veils herself and takes the finch by its roasted beak, pushing it into her mouth with two fingers, her remaining blessings. It is sweet, at first, the burnished skin and meat, glazed in something like brandy and something like plum wine. But as she chews—methodically, for it fills her mouth to bursting—the organs rupture, bitter and bilious, a taste like despair, like the loss of love. And deeper, the bones shiver and crack and cut her—the taste of her blood flows in, salty as tears shed over a ruined body, mingling with the marrow, and it is sweet again, sweet as herself, herself remaining at the end of all trials. And November can see why the veil is needed. No god should bear witness to a woman devouring a meal of herself.

Here is another one, shorter, but which doesn’t need much introduction:

Sunday, as is its nature, was slow in coming, but it found her eventually, nosed her out with its beatific muzzle, and found her sitting in the seedy grass of Caracalla, waiting, her heart racing itself in circles around nothing.

The fascinating fact is that I could have quoted half the book, it’s all written like this. It’s written in a way that I would like to be able to write, and it makes the book worthwhile regardless of its shortcomings.

Alas, there are major problems with this book. The beginning contains way too much of the same thing (i.e. sex with weird people in weird situations). The pieces of the parallel stories never really fit together, giving me the feeling that this is a fantastic image of a city, but a shattered one where I have to piece the shards together to form something meaningful. This can be beautiful or effective in itself, but I simply don’t think the author has succeed in this regard.

By way of conclusion, I’m thrilled by the language in Palimpsest and by Valente’s audacity. However, I’m also a bit disappointed that these characteristics didn’t result in a novel that was absolutely stunning, which it has the potential to be. I give this book four snails, but I wish I could have given it more.

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  1. Svante’s avatar

    I think the main difference between our views of the book is that you think that the characters are unique and well-portrayed, where I find them dull and uninteresting. Therefore I don’t care about what happens to them, and thus like the book far less.

    Reply

    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In fact, I think I only like the way that the characters are introduced, not the way that they are developed throughout the story. I didn’t care very much either, especially not towards the end, but I remember liking the characters when I first met them. Perhaps they are more nice concepts that never came off to more than a good start, so to speak.

      My main reason for giving the book four out of five is still language plus ideas, though, not characters.

      Reply

      1. Svante’s avatar

        Yeah. The characters are nice as ideas (especially the guy with the dead sister), much in the same way as all the other cool stuff, but not so much as characters.

        Reply

        1. Svante’s avatar

          Not that well-developed and deep characters are a necessity for me to enjoy a novel, though. Thomas Pynchon, for instance, employs mostly shallow characters, but they make up a coherent (or not) whole. Reading Pynchon, you don’t care about the characters, you care about the way in which they make up the plot or multitude of plots.

          Reply

        2. Olle Linge’s avatar

          I agree. They would have been excellent as supporting characters, but don’t work very well as main characters. Would you be prepared to read something else written by Valente or have you given up? I would at least consider reading her again if it is convenient enough.

          Reply

          1. Svante’s avatar

            There’s a slim chance that I might, I’ve even been recommended something (that I don’t recall) and I read a short story by which I wasn’t at all impressed. There are so many far more interesting unread books, so I doubt I’ll find the motivation to read Valente again, but I’m not positive.

            Reply