Catherynne M. Valente, Palimpsest (Bantam Spectra, 2009)
Palimpsest runs the risk that all hotly desired lovers do — it fetches you in with a dream, teases you into a taut state of wanting, and leaves you desolate in the face of reality. Or — here, have another analogy, for this work seems to throw itself at them — like its namesake, you may fall in love with the gorgeous purity of its surface text, but flinch in horror from what lurks beneath, barely scraped away.
The plot of Palimpsest is rather straightforward. Four strangers find themselves the newest hosts of a sexually transmitted city. Each of them have slept with an individual bearing an intensely black mark that looks like nothing so much as a small part of a strange city map. Afterward, they experience a bizarre dream in which the four characters, still unknown to each other, find themselves ritually tied together in a frog-headed fortuneteller’s shop before being released to wander separately and divided in a truly bizarre otherworldly city. In this city, the vermin are manufactured clockwork creatures of dizzying perplexity and stunning beauty; canals are filled with clothes above rivers of cream; lion-headed priests silently cry aching sermons in breathtaking cathedrals; trains are wild beasts and contain rice paddies, forests, the dead, and the rabbit of the moon. The city offers amazing wonders and staggering horrors. The city is still seeping pus from infected wounds left by war. An alien and glittering tyrant wants to open doors, the city wants to be known, and the four — Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludovico — don’t want to leave this place they seem only able to enter in dreams.
The story, of course, is a thing of layers and very much complicated by the fifth main character — perhaps the only main character — of Palimpsest itself. While the novel teases us with the much larger stories of this city’s origins, its history, and its desires for the future, Valente chooses to make this an intimate, restricted tale of how four blessed and cursed individuals get to live forever in a subverted amalgamation of Never Never Land, Wonderland, and an adult BDSM convention.
In spite of the amazing images to be found in the city of Palimpsest, I found myself alienated and repulsed by the full weave of the tale. Like a certain character encountered by one of our Quartet, I find only disconnection, horror, sadness, and ruination in the city of Palimpsest. It’s a place that encourages you to abandon a world of connection for an intensely private experience in a bizarre city. Also, for much of the narrative, the only door available to those inducted who wish to travel to Palimpsest is by having sex with another bearer of the map. But instead of taking the opportunity to write a sex-positive work and examine the full range of true connection among human beings, sexual intercourse in this novel is most often relegated to something distasteful that must be done to get a ticket. The person doesn’t matter; only the map matters. Only the city and one’s private relationship with the city matters. There are very few examples of real and loving relationships between map-bearers in the story: just enough to keep me from feeling broken by the desolate disconnection everywhere else prevalent in the novel. Not enough to make me feel comforted or delighted by the work except in very rare flashes.
However, to be fair, the devaluation of sex in the novel may simply be a function of the main plot conceit. Considering Palimpsest is an invasive city that rapes your consciousness and immediately starts learning how to manipulate you into coming back, and also considering that the only method of returning is through sex . . . well, in the throes of a full addiction to the city, sex would stop being a meaningful connection itself and start being only a means to an end. While I can understand that and respect Valente being true to her conceit, this fundamental choice in execution still leaves me cold.
While I may not have enjoyed reading this novel, I must admit that it keeps you actively thinking throughout. I was writing pages of notes and engaging with the ideas behind the text even as I was feeling more and more alienated by the story that unfolded. Upon immediately finishing it, I discovered that I wanted to discuss it with others and take apart this terrifying city and its motivations. That feeling comes and goes now, almost like memories of a dream. And like memories of a dream, the compulsion to discuss Palimpsest is inspired by random life moments — seeing a painting on the cover of a magazine (Maggie Taylor’s Girl in a Bee Dress) or in the compiling of lists.
I scrawled this line out in a paroxysm of response when I was but half-way through this quick yet lingering read: reading Palimpsest is like looking at a lush and densely-rendered painting that arrests the eye but does not touch the soul.
It stands as my last warning to you, next to this: upon entering the city, upon the moment of separation in the fortuneteller’s shop, you are shown red words on yellow card, “You have been quartered.” A fitting line, for this novel can leave you feeling divided into so many disconnected and horrified pieces. If you look for a beautiful story or true connection or positive human relationships, do not look for it here. Beware all who enter the pages of Palimpsest.
I should add here that, while I can’t recommend the book, I am a great lover of the short story upon which this novel expands. You can read it online at Senses Five Press.
This review was originally published at Green Man Review on March 8th, 2009. It was also awarded an Excellence in Writing Award by the editors of that publication.