Palimpsest is one of the novels I’d chosen to read in order that I could have a bigger pool of novels to choose from when compiling a ten novels by women for the Clarke for Vector. Which, incidentally, is going quite well. If I’m honest, I have made it a little easier on myself by researching a few works that it was fairly certain that I would at the very least enjoy. I have read several books which have been intriguing and weren’t (I say ashamedly) immediately on my radar.
Catherynne M. Valente’s recent novel is certainly one to pique your interest. It is (and this is probably a little reductive) described as being about “a sexually transmitted city.” Though a lot of the form of the novel is not without precedent – from what I know of it – Calvino’s Invisible Cities description of a series of cities would seem to inhabit the same universe. The use of the sexual transmission framing device in this novel, however, is less obviously familiar to me (though studying The Canterbury Tales would have been more interesting had Chaucer used that device, rather than the pilgrims meeting in the pub).
When one of the characters has sex with another character who has a mark depicting a map – an area of the city – they are “infected” and receive the tattoo themselves. This allows them access to the city of Palimpsest. This journey comes to define their lives, and in many cases leaves them obsessed with the place, seeking ever deeper immersion within it.
Despite the novel being crammed with sex, it’s not a particularly erotic novel – the use of sexual intercourse as a means of transmitting the city means that often the act is joyless, as it is to fulfil a function other than that of giving pleasure. However, I can’t fault Valente for her writing. It’s almost a cliché to point out that describing sex is something that many writers (including otherwise well-respected authors) often fail to get right. Readers, I’m sure, will be familiar with the experience of reading an excellent novel only to find themselves slapped by an appalling sex scene. They might be oddly squeamish about including the scene and produce something embarrassing because their discomfort writing it, or – in an attempt to show that how liberated they are – write something sweaty and teen-aged in its attitude towards love and sex.
Were Palimpsest to suffer from this it would be pretty much unreadable (or, perhaps, in a different section of the bookshop). That the author is able to sustain things throughout the whole novel is worthy of admiration.
The importance of the physical act of love in the novel is contrasted with the loneliness of many of the characters. Even at points where characters take on a new lover to further explore Palimpsest the lack of emotion in the act fails to break down the barriers that the characters have around themselves. I noted above that poorly constructed sex scenes can be ruinous in novels. In either of the examples I’ve given, I tend to feel that the issue is that – while there may be excruciating word choices – the main problem is that the emotional aspects of sex are ignored. This is valid in instances where the descriptions are sentimental and also where they are overly concerned with the physicality of it. Neither takes a particularly adult or subtle approach (of course, there can be a place for writing about sex in novels where there is no deeper relationship, but even then, one would hope for passion).
The characters are often suffering from a deep loss (be that the death of his sister for the locksmith, Oleg, or the bookbinder Ludovico’s wife leaving him). This loss keeps the characters at a distance from the world as we understand it and opens them to the oddity of Palimpsest. This brings to the fore themes of addiction and obsession, though one might argue that the compulsion that the characters feel to immerse themselves in Palimpsest does rob the novel a little of its narrative drive.
The fantasy world constructed by Catherynne Valente is an unusual one, featuring, amongst other things, streets made entirely from textiles, where the inhabitants must navigate via gondola, or people made of bees. Writing this sentence, I have to admit that even as a fantasy, these things sound daft. Described without the context of this novel, they sound a little like the kind of thing that someone might make up if they were being facetious about this kind of fantasy. I think the fact that Valente is fully invested in the world she has created ensures that it becomes successful and, on its own terms, believable.
There is a strong meta- element to the novel; from the title itself through many of the chapter titles (“colophon,” “alphabet”) and the professions of some of the characters, both main and incidental (including the bookbinder and one of the female characters, November’s, deceased father a librarian) point to a deeper engagement with fiction and writing. The word palimpsest itself points towards the many layers of the novel and the scraping away of layers of reality to reveal something older and more primal.
Her style of writing is a rich one, often poetic. It could also be accused of being a little gaudy and certainly isn’t Spartan. If you’ve accepted everything else about the novel, however, it’s a pleasurable place in which to lose oneself:
“Zarzaparilla Street is paved with old coats. Layer after layer of fine corduroy and felt and wool the colors of coffee and ink. Those having business here must navigate with pole and gondola, ever so gently thrusting aside the sleeves and lapels and weedy ties, fluttering like seaweed, lurching as though some unlunar tide compelled them. The gondolas are rimmed in balsam and velvet, and they are silent through the depthless street. Great curving pairs of scissors are provided in case of sudden disaster, tucked neatly beneath the pilot’s seat.”
It’s not always entirely successful; although I think that, for the most part, Valente is capable of sustaining the heavy prose of this book, even I (who has perhaps a greater tolerance for this kind of writing than I suspect many others) did occasionally find it a little cloying.
The plotting of the novel doesn’t always work. I think in part this is because the layered, dream-like structure of the novel doesn’t really invite a linear narrative. Furthermore, the characters are almost defined by their desire to reach Palimpsest. This does tend to rob them of any sense of growth or of self-discovery. Further, the conclusion does open new possibilities for the characters and, as such, feels a little as though it’s a beginning rather than an end. This can be a little unsatisfying, though it is (for me, anyway) unquestionably interesting to see the quest for a door to another world as an end in itself, rather than the beginning of a series of adventures. Of course, if you’ve got that far, I do rather suspect that you aren’t exclusively driven as a reader to neat closures in your reading. Though there were, I have to admit, a couple of occasions where I had to put the book down and read something else returning later, refreshed. That is probably down to me as a reader rather than anything wrong with the novel. Provided that you’ve accepted what Valente is offering, though, her approach will ultimately reward you.
Both of these criticisms have a kernel of deep admiration for the ambition of the novel. The work takes genre writing and attempts to elevate it far beyond many of its contemporaries. It may not quite succeed the whole time, but it would seem churlish to be overly harsh on a novel that tries to do something different. As an interrogation of loneliness, loss, obsession and escape, Palimpsest is an intoxicating work of fiction.