Review of Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
by Catherynne M. Valente
Books create whole other worlds, and nowhere is this phenomenon more explicit than in fantasy and science fiction. More than just telling a story, great books transport the reader to a new setting, one where the rules might be different. It takes impossibilities and makes them possible. The author, then, is more than a storyteller—he or she is an architect, a craftsman executing a careful and intricate design. This is what we often mean when we speak of worldbuilding.
Depending upon how the term is used, worldbuilding can entail praise of an author's mastery of the art, or it can be a consolation prize for a perceived lack of plot. Indeed, many of the reviews I've been reading of Palimpsest use the term, or its equivalents, in the latter way. The city of Palimpsest is a beautiful setting—and character—but the book has a thin plot, thin characters. There is too much prose, too little substance.
It is true that Palimpsest is a very unique and bizarre creation. Catherynne M. Valente's writing is laced with appositive subtleties and allusive similes. As a result, the book itself is of an artistic and literary flavour that favours imagery and metaphor over the straightforward pace of narrative. I found Palimpsest difficult to embrace at first because of this atmosphere. It was too dream-like—too much like an actual visit to Palimpsest, minus the sex gateway—to catch hold of my imagination. Lacking an anchor, I floated aimlessly through the first part of the book, unable to connect with the characters or even understand their plights.
Valente's sexually-transmitted city is a masterful work of fantasy but not something I would consider true worldbuilding. Rather, Palimpsest is like a myth, or perhaps even an entire mythology unto itself. It has an origin myth. It has rituals regarding how to travel to the city, how to recruit new immigrants. There are myths pertaining to permanent residency in Palimpsest, complete with the tragic sense of loss possible when one comes so close to achieving this only to find the gates barred. Palimpsest itself is not much of a world, for we only get glimpses of its structure and society. As an idea, however, Palimpsest is fascinating. Valente hints at the beginning of the book how different Palimpsest is from our own world—clockwork vermin, for instance—but the true scope of the difference only becomes apparent by the very end.
Palimpsest is like that as a whole. It starts off strongly, stumbles, only to recover near the end and improve a great deal. Valente adheres rigidly to a four-chapter, four-intermission structure for each part of the novel. Each chapter/intermission pair focuses on one of the four protagonists and their visit to Palimpsest. After such a strong beginning, the story foundered because the protagonists were not sufficiently connected, and I was not much interested in their isolated, pathetic attempts to return to Palimpsest. The book improves noticeably once November and Ludovico discover the method for emigrating to Palimpsest, find each other, and try to find Oleg and Sei. Suddenly there is a purpose to all this purposeless sex; suddenly, there is plot.
There is so much sex in Palimpsest. It has a functional purpose, and Valente makes it clear that, for most immigrants, this is a matter of need. They need to return to Palimpsest; indeed, those who reject the city find it necessary to self-medicate in order to keep from dreaming about it. Palimpsest is somewhat like a drug, but it is even more generally an obsession. Oleg becomes obsessed with finding the simulacrum of his sister, who died before he was born; Ludovico becomes obsessed with finding his wife, who left him for another woman; Sei becomes obsessed with staying on board a train in Palimpsest that seems determined to adopt her; and November finds a mentor in the mysterious, dangerous Casimira. Their obsession overrides their need for comfort in the real world, hollows them out, makes them shells of their former selves. Oleg loses his appetite, becomes skeletal and even more withdrawn than he was before. Sei's need to have sex with the right people to stay on the train route makes her feel degraded. November sacrifices fingers and her face in order to achieve some form of power, while Ludovico sacrifices his tongue to secure them chance—the merest permission to attempt—to emigrate.
For all of the empty sex and mentions of how New York City is an ersatz vision of itself, Palimpsest seems to lack many real relationships. Lucia leaves Ludovico after nine years; the other three protagonists are recluses to one degree or another. Oleg and Ludovico both accept simulated people as replacements for those they have lost. November and Sei focus their affection on non-human objects, bees and a train, respectively.
In this respect, Palimpsest belies the biggest myth of all, that of normality. There is nothing normal happening in this book, and that is for the best. From its story to its characters to its style, Palimpsest is a bizarre, mythical creation. It pays a price for this artistry, of course; many who are more comfortable with the conventional narrative of a novel will not appreciate this book's unconventionality. It needs someone stronger than me to appreciate it on those terms. For my part, Palimpsest is interesting in execution and effort, but such a very empty experience.