Catherynne M. Valente, The Grass-Cutting Sword (Prime Books, 2006).
Reading Catherynne M. Valente’s work is always an experience: perhaps an intimate and magical one as in illuminating and visceral tales whispered in the moonlight by soft-fleshed mysteries. At other times, however, reading her prose may be like a fever dream, so many words like strange and intoxicating dishes, not always good for the stomach or the palate. Unfortunately, The Grass-Cutting Sword, a perversion of a traditional Japanese tale, is more like the latter experience than the former.
She follows a curious structure in this slim volume of a book, switching between two main perspectives: that of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, lately fallen Storm God now swathed in Man’s flesh, and the eight heads of the monster that Susanoo-no-Mikoto is destined to kill. However, it’s not just Susanoo’s and the Monster’s words, when all is told: it’s also the maidens in the belly of the beast who weave their own tales and consciousness in and around the Heads’ slowly distracted speech. Midway through Susanoo’s narrative, she inserts a clumsy segue into an unmitigated recounting of origin mythology, presenting us with a sickening, at times gripping, version of the creation of Japan by the twin deities Izanami and Izanagi. After bringing the reader up to speed on how Japan is the product of rape and suppression, born of the broken and tortured flesh of the First Woman who now rots in the Root Country and consumes all things of life and light in a blind rage, she returns to Susanoo’s perspective and concludes the story in the usual way (i.e., Hero slays Monster, seeks Mother’s Loving Bosom).
I speak dismissively of her interpretation of the Storm God’s portion of the tale. I can’t help it as I neither liked her portrayal of Susanoo-no-Mikoto nor her interpretation of Japanese myth (and what the intended subtext of that interpretation might be, in regards to Japanese culture). However, I woud like to say that I respect much of what she was trying to do with the Monsters-and-Maidens sections of the story. I delight in the manner in which she tried to subvert the plight of the young women, giving them back their voices so that they could tell their own stories in the end. Those women, not all part of the beast unwillingly, insisted their tales be told and insisted they stay together. Their tales are all earthy and limited and small, yes, but they’re entirely beautiful and real in their circumnavigation. Those girls, their relationship with the gorged eight-headed serpent, with their trees, with those eyes, with each other and their mother and themselves, that is what makes The Grass-Cutting Sword an absorbing novella.
I would also like to say that I found the brutality with which she presented the founding of the Root Country (Yomi, the Japanese land of the Dead) to be necessary in her subversion of the so-called natural characterization of women. (I can get behind the subversion of female tropes, even if I can’t get behind the exact line of subtext-questioning she points at Japanese culture.) Presenting Izanami, the first woman deity, as utterly unwelcoming, decaying and consuming, rather than the typical nurturing and warm presence was quite intriguing. Her characterization of Ama-terasu is also atypical, presenting us with a proud (yet patient) woman who has the power to bring her tempestuous brother low.
Unfortunately, this novel very much has the blush of a first manuscript. The prose is mental effluvia transmitted to paper, sticky with bile and with the contents running any which way into each other. The interweaving of monster with maiden only works at points and is mostly too chaotic to be organic, leaving the reader in a state of confusion rather than understanding. Her ever-present description is often so over-wrought as to be nonsensical and there is an overwhelming selection of unfortunate metaphors and poor word choices. I found it to be the exception rather than the rule that any of her sentences could be described as lyrical.
Of course, your tastes may vary. If you enjoyed the wordy surrealism of The Labyrinth, Valente’s debut novel, you’ll doubtless enjoy this slender book. But if you came to Valente through The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, an award-winning and gorgeous achievement, you’re not guaranteed smooth enjoyment here. For this reviewer’s part, I’m pulling out my long-desired copy of The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, eagerly awaiting the announced Palimpsest, and relegating this flawed novella to the shadowy corners of my bookshelf.
This review was originally published at Green Man Review on December 30th, 2007.