on March 30, 2009
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente tells the story of four lost and lonely travelers as they journey to a strange and beautiful city, a city that exists beyond the veil of dreams. Imagine a place of surreal delights, of bizarre masquerade balls and holy churches in which odd creatures worship in utter silence. This is Palimpsest, a city that is neither dream nor reality for those who stumble into its borders. Of course, to visit isn't enough, never enough. Visitors long for residency, they desire to make Palimpsest their reality. Such desires, however, come at a cost.
For reasons we don't early know, people exist in our world who bear marks on their skin, black tattoos that appear to be pieces of an otherworldly map. These people are gateways to Palimpsest, to enter involves sex and the heavy sleep after orgasm. Those who sleep after climax in our world wake to wander the streets of Palimpsest, the part of the map on their partner's body, except in the case of first time visitors. First timers are required to visit a certain fortune-teller, a woman with the head of a frog. She sees clients only in groups of four, these four are then bound together, a family of sorts. Whenever in Palimpsest, no matter how far apart, these four strangers intimately share each other's experiences. They taste the same tastes, they feel each other's pleasure and pain. When morning comes to Palimpsest, visitors then wake in our world. New-comers also wake with a mark of their own, a new gateway to this gorgeous and sometimes cruel city. Permanent residence is elusive, but not impossible. The novel follows four characters who have lost something in our world and desperately hope to find it in Palimpsest.
Valente has created something absolutely brilliant in Palimpsest. Her decadent use of language brings so much life into a world that few have the skill to even imagine, let alone write into existence. To me, Palimpsest is an intricate metaphor for the nature of sex and relationships. Unlike any liquor, any drug, sex can take a person completely outside of their reality. In one sense, sex can be a hollow, empty act, a temporary escape from one's broken life. Yet, in another sense, sex with the right person can be a perfect sacrament. Two people inside one another creating a world of their own. Sex doesn't have to be about running away from something awful, it can be about moving toward something amazing. Sex with the right person can feel like going home after being caught in a terrible storm. Palimpsest explores these ideas with lush prose and haunting imagery. Cat Valente is definitely a singular talent at the top of her game.
Plot Summary: Four scattered individuals enter Palimpsest after having mindless, thoughtless, impulsive sex with a person bearing a map-like tattoo (ah-hem, with no consideration for gender). This unexplainable land feels disjointed and distorted like a dream. Nothing is tangible or nailed down, and horrors and pleasures wash over our characters in equal measure. Once someone visits Palimpsest, their skin is marked forever with the map tatoo, and some unfortunates get it smack on their face. I particularly envy the lady who got it on her tongue.
It's been a while since I've encountered a book I couldn't, or wouldn't finish, but when reading feels like a chore, rather than a pleasure, it's time to move on. I have a love-hate feeling for this novel, because part of me is awed by the pure poetry of the images Catherynne Valente brings forth. Some of her sentences should be framed and mounted on a wall, like art. They were simply gorgeous.
But, and there is a big BUT here, I never felt like there was something I could grab onto. I was lost in this mad, beautiful, horrible dream, and I just wanted to wake up and put my feet on solid ground again. Valente never lets the reader ground herself on terra firma, or get a sense that here is one world, and there is the other. The two worlds mix and blend together until I was dizzy and wanted to throw up.
The writing is very close to pure poetry, and it drove me mad trying to piece together the disconnected fragments of this story. It's a hard, hard read, and I need so much more structure in a story to feel happy there. I can't help wishing that the earth-bound parts of the story reflected a hard, cold reality, and thereby provide a juxtaposition between the living and dreaming. It was an intriguing vision, but one that I could not hold onto.
on March 15, 2009
Four strangers, each suffering the loss of something in their life, are drawn together in a city called Palimpsest, a place that they can only visit in dreams brought on by sex with a fellow immigrant to the city. Palimpsest is a word of magic and opportunity, but it demands great payment if they hope to live there forever. Valente's writing too is magic, painting a vibrant fantasy which is shadowed by beautifully realistic characters. Although it feels somewhat short, it is a beautiful book which transports the reader, and altogether deeply enjoyable. I highly recommend it.
If you have read Valente's other works, then you will love this--and have probably already read it. (As will soon be obvious, I've so far only read her previous series The Orphan's Tales.) Her voice lyrical and richly textured, and it rings true in the vibrant tapestry which is Palimpsest. It has also matured somewhat since the Orphan's Tales: the metaphors are better integrated, and so the text is smoother and less repetitive. Her story-telling has also improved: there is a better balance, here, between the glimpses into Palimpsest's hidden corners and the overarching plot that brings the protagonists together, and so the reader is dazzled and emotionally engaged in careful measure. The characters glow, unique and faulted and inspiring. And of course the world that she builds is magic, the sort of magic which demands blood payment for the greatest miracles. Palimpsest is grittier and more tightly focused than Orphan's Tales, but if you have loved her style before, you will love it again here. And if you have never picked up Valente's work, this is still a good place to begin--her magic will sweep you away.
For all that, Palimpsest isn't perfect. It feels short, not because too little happens but because the book ends at the very moment of a great event. It's still a complete story, but since it ends on the very brink of change, the reader's last thought is to look forward--and there is nothing there. Perhaps a literary accomplishment, this is still incredibly frustrating. Still, if my loudest complaint is that I wish there were more, that still counts as a successful book. I enjoyed Orphan's Tales more, as a longer and broader story that it is, but Palimpsest is an incredible read and I am sure that I will come back to it. Valente is the sort of author who make me pause often, taking the space between each chapter as a chance to put the book down, breathe deep, and savor the words and imagine myself into the pages. That is the truest fantasy that I could wish for, and so I love her work--and recommend it with all enthusiasm.
on March 1, 2011
I hated this book. In fact, I hated it so much that I only made it 1/3rd of the way though, and this is a very short book. The reason this book fails is because it isn't actually a book, it is a annoying exercise in descriptive poetry. The author is in love with her own voice and decide to make every sentence a simile or metaphor. Here is an example:
"The rain started suddenly, forcing John to run the last few steps to the door."
See that? That was a very plain, very informative sentence. It wasn't artistic, it wasn't award-winning, however it did convey my message fairly succinctly. John was in danger of getting wet from the rain so he ran to the door. You will notice perhaps that you didn't have to read that sentence four times to fully understand the meaning. That is as it should be, seeing as this wasn't that complex an idea. Now I'm going to rewrite that sentence in the style of Palimpsest.
"The Almighty rent a long tear in the blue black firmament of the angels. Droplets escaped their cumulus prisons like dying souls searching for purgatory and hurled themselves down, down, down with endless shrieks of joy as they sought the embrace of Gaia's skin. John was caught unawares, soon his body would be awash just as his soul was soaked through with the ersatz indigo of another's pain. Firing himself along a sodden path he desperately sought the longing embrace of a warm place and knew that the joy of the sun's warmth lay behind the oak mouth of the towering behemoth before him."
Now if you read that second sentence and your first thought was something along the lines of "wow, that was a mix of gibberish and stupidity" then this book probably isn't for you. However, if instead you thought "wow, that was great. I would love to read an entire book composed of nothing but sentences like that!" then baby have I got the book for you.
I found the premise of this book intriguing. Stripped down to the basic, it's the story of four people who end up having spontaneous sex with a stranger and enter Palimpsest. The experience will change their lives forever.... And that's it. There is no other scrap of plot in the whole story.
The only thumbs up I can give echos the other reviewers, Catherynne Valente has a truly musical quality to her writing. She can definitely turn a phrase. And it is a pleasure to read her construction. But it's not enough....
That being said though, that's all she does. Palimpsest is more like a drug trip hallucination than actual story. I'm not really sure she has a plot in mind at all. The problem is that while you at first enjoy listening to the musical quality of the story, you eventually become frustrated when you realize it's not going anywhere.
When I first started listening to it I tried to compare it to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. I figured I would appreciate it for the artistic quality even if I wasn't wowed by the story. But no, it's no Dark Side of the Moon either.
So overall I have to say I am really disappointed in the work. I would love to give it more than a 1 star, but a book has to have a plot that makes it worthy of reading. If not ultimately it ends up being a pretty little piece of garbage. And this is what Palimpsest is.
How do you write a review for such a fascinating and interesting experiment, even if the experiment is one gone so horribly wrong? Let me say that I wanted SO MUCH to love this book. The idea was fresh and interesting, and one gets the idea that the author must be a fascinating person to talk to...but mercy, please. I beg you. Somewhere, Hemingway is lighting himself on fire.
Palimpsest is a novel designed to take full advantage of the English language in all its breathtaking complexity. It stretches the length of sentences and ideas to their limits, at its best playful and erotic, extravagant and wanton. Unfortunately, while each individual sentence or paragraph may be maximally lovely, in the end, it comes across as an overly baroque exercise in semicolons, rivers of cream, and atmospheric bees. Aside from the almost comically rococo curlicues of the language, the author has replaced character development with character description--something to be enjoyed for a time, but then leaving a giant blank in your understanding.
The dreamlike atmosphere, once more a lovely idea, ultimately also becomes a hindrance. An entire novel with poorly motivated characters, difficult to comprehend world rules, and magical realism influenced logic would be a challenge at best, but ultimately, this novel collapses in on itself like a giant creme brulee served by a beetle to a woman wearing a fur and green eyeshadow, who previously had been in the whirlwind, the aching whirlwind of desire and phantoms, with beestung lips and maps of forever between her hands.
Lastly, the narration was painful. I hope never to listen to this reader again. She took a complicated text and imbued it with all the immediacy of a used pair of knee high hose, morose and boring at every turn. Her accents were laughable, her voices almost indistinguishable. A text as labrynthine as this deserves a brilliant reader to bring it to life, but instead, it hung limply in midair.
I wish this book had lived up to its promise. Ultimately, however, it was a slog to get to the end.
on May 18, 2009
It's rare that I cannot finish a book, but I gave up on Palimpsest about a hundred pages into it. I found the concept compelling, but I was annoyed by the execution. The author seems incapable of writing a single sentence without using some form of metaphor or simile. While I understand that's a stylistic decision, it's not one that works for me. Because of it, her work strikes me as being gaudy and rococo, as being about rhetorical display rather than telling a story. Essentially, read many of the reviews of this book (which are, uh, imitative of her style), and imagine them expanded into several hundred pages. If that appeals to you, go ahead. If it doesn't, buy another book.
on February 24, 2009
I respectfully disagree with the prevalent trope that reading is a passive pursuit wherein you are imprinted with the artistic stamp of your favorite author. You can read like that, sure, but it's the literary equivalent of aspiring to couch potato status. Some books deserve better. If they transfix you, you transfix them right back. [grin] It's a dynamic gestalt. Great books deserve the best reading that you can give them, and what you get out of the experience can in part be determined by what you bring to it. I've just finished one such, Catherynne Valente's "Palimpsest". I started the book in the company of strangers, suspended ten thousand feet above the ground with clouds under my feet. It's a good beginning to a story about liminality and transition. I carried the book with me onto the train and read its gospel of transit in context. It's a book about chance occurrences that aren't, and the book and I had vegetarian egg rolls and fortune cookies in a Chinatown cafe. It's a book about sex, and I read it naked in the bed of my absent lover, curled up in her comforter with her miniature snow-leopards purring at my feet and hip. It's a book about connection, and I read it out loud and by turns with a friend I have known since she was in high school, chapter for chapter and verse for verse, spanning two cities with one story. It is a book about complicated emotions, and I read it over the bodies of the unconscious and behind the backs of the dreaming, and when I had picked over the themes of its bones I sought them out and gave them what I could here and now. I'm going to buy seven copies of it and leave them in my wake, stashed under pillows and on end-tables, indelible for those who read them. Art deserves nothing less; I loved this book.
on March 29, 2009
I recently bought a box full of fantasy books from ebay. I looked through them and I found maybe three that I wanted to keep. The rest were the dreck of fantasy literature past. They were full of magic items, dragons, quests, big wars, kings and all those Tolkein tropes. I remember that when I was a kid I used to love these things, but I have since grown. I also have a harlequin romance novel on my desk which is full of cliches and sexist silliness. I can see how it can work on a particular fantasy but its not my fantasy.
As an adult, I want more out of my fantasy novels. As a man, I avoid the romance novels that are less than true. This novel is a fantasy. A romance. A creation of pure beauty. Very rarely do I find a novel that makes me want to sit back and just savor the prose. I found myself underlining passages, showing it to friends, posting excerpts on my blog with the goal of making people read it.
From the beginning with the factory that creates vermin to the separate tales of the four visitors finding their carnal paths into the city, this is a novel of poetry and beautiful imagery. Images that remain in mind include the mating of the subway cars, the post-war hospital where everyone is part animal, the mad Russian walking naked through Times Square in the snow and kiss in the Chinese restaurant.
The novel begins to fall apart towards the end when the author brings all these scens and images to bear into an actual plot with a conclusion. It's just a little unsatisfying, but by that time you don't care. And maybe I don't like the end because I really didn't want it to end. I loved this book so much that I practically begged the writer to contribute a story to She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror
Beautiful book. Buy it immediately.
One note: I would recommend buying the book and reading it. I didn't like the audio book because the narrator used the POET VOICE and the more beautiful the words, the less they should be sold. And the narrator definitely oversells it.
on December 27, 2010
Valente's vaunted "lyrical prose" is little different than rightly-derided purple prose. None of the characters was likeable, and the city of Palimpsest was a dreadful, horrible place, and I can't understand why anyone would want to go back.