Hugo Review: Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest

The first time I heard about Catherynne M. Valente’s Hugo-nominated novel Palimpsest, all I knew was it was about “a sexually transmitted city.” I thought, “Holy crap, what a cool idea!” I’ve now read it twice and that’s still pretty much how I feel. (Note: Palimpsest the novel grew out of a short story by the same name, which is not to be confused with Charles Stross’ short story, also called Palimpsest, and also nominated for a Hugo.)

I’m finding it very challenging to review. A lot happens in the story, in a swirly dreamy way, but that isn’t really the cause of my problem (and I tend to avoid big recaps of plots anyhow). The problem is that I am so in awe of it that my review attempts turn into a gushing love-fest and fail to encapsulate what about it impresses me so much. I’m going to give it another try, though. (For a less gushing review, look here. Also check out what Lee Mandelo had to say about it recently, in her post on the Lambda Awards.)

I think that each and every lover one encounters in life brings with him or her a thread of connection to his or her past lovers. Whether this is obscured or obvious, and whether the emotional aspects of sex are intense or negligible, varies. But in any case, there is a web of intimate connections formed. It’s like what Tom Waits sang in “9th and Hennipen.” “You take on the dreams of the ones who slept there.”

In Palimpsest, this connection is made physical (and metaphysical). A mark is left, described early on as “a spidery network of blue-black lines, intersecting each other, intersecting her pores, turning at sharp angles, rounding out into clear and unbroken skin. It looked like her veins had darkened and hardened, organized themselves into something more than veins, determined to escape the borders of their mistress’ flesh.” The mark is transferred between lovers, and that mark grants access to another realm (and the mark is in itself part of the realm), a dreamlike and occasionally nightmarish otherworld that Valente renders in poetic swirls reminiscent of Bosch, Alma-Tadema and Hirst. See? A few short paragraphs in and I’m in full gush-mode already. The story is told from the perspectives of various interconnected lovers as well as lush descriptions of the remarkable city of Palimpsest itself.

Imagine a mixture of the structure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the dark dreaminess of Tanith Lee’s Tales From the Flat Earth and Clive Barker’s Imajica, a liberal dose of Anais Nin’s erotic lyricism and the honest intimacy of Pablo Neruda. Gush, gush, gush again, comparing Valente to five of my favorite authors of all time. Pardon me. But swoony or not, I think it’s an accurate description.

To provide a sample of Valente’s fantastical and sexual imagery, without spoiling anything, I’ll share a scene early on in the book. Here, a beekeeper named November first comes to Palimpsest and is greeted by the local fauna.* “She brings the bee to her lips; its wings hush against her. Slowly, as if to prove the deliberateness of its small deed, the creature presses its stinger into November’s mouth, pauses for a moment on the tip of her tongue, stiff against the taut flesh of it, and then eases into her, piercing her tongue deftly and perishing in a paroxysm of venom and religious ecstasy.”

*(You could call that bee-d-s-m, but that’s such an awful joke, I’m not going to make it.)

“Palimpsest” means a parchment that’s been written on and scraped away and reused, several times, perhaps imperfectly leaving traces of earlier letters. And the suffix “sest” is reminiscent of “cest,” bringing in a sexual connotation. And sex, after all, is largely what this book is about, though not in a merely titillating way, or in a moralistic or cautionary sense. It is refreshingly removed from puritanical clichés of sex: you know, sex is evil, so evil is sexy, pleasure and self-expression will cause your inevitable downfall, sooner or later you must pay for every orgasm, etc. I don’t mean to imply that nothing goes wrong for the characters; that would make the book pointless. What I mean is that punishing the characters for their sexuality is not what this story is about. Rather, the need for connection—the reverberations and harmonics of intimacy—is the central concern (at least that is how I see it; the review I linked to earlier disagrees). All the protagonists have unusual obsessions and pains and desires, and each contributes to the puzzling city in his or her way and sex is both a motivation and a transfer medium.

If I can say anything kinda sorta critical of the book it’s that I did on occasion get a bit lost, in a sensory overload sort of way. This threw me out of the immersion of reading, at times. But even that confusion I enjoyed, and it felt appropriate to be overwhelmed now and then, as the characters feel that way frequently. Euphoria isn’t linear or rational, so in a book that so often deals in ecstasy it makes sense for the descriptions to be more poetic than concrete. Years ago, when I visited Venice for the first time, I got hopelessly lost and found beautiful fountains and old courtyards with every wrong turn. There are moments in the book that feel very much like that. And yet again I gush, even when trying to be critical.

When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.


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