Saturday, February 27, 2010

Girl on Book Action: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
ISBN: 978-0-553-38576-2


Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse – a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night.

To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important – a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life – and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.


My Thoughts:

This is a very complex, sophisticated book and some of the best urban fantasy I’ve read (although perhaps I haven’t read that much urban fantasy). I would almost say that this borders on magical realism in some respects, but remains very much in the urban fantasy genre.

Sidebar: What is magic(al) realism, you ask? Well, it's a literary movement that originated in Latin America that presents and alternate vision of reality in which things we consider "magical" or "miraculous" are part of every day life. This literary movement has spread to other parts of the world as well. Some authors who write in this style are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie, but there are many more (I supply these examples because I have read books written by these three).

Before I discuss the actual novel, let me just say that its elevated style makes me think of magic realism, but that the definition doesn't quite fit, hence, it falls into the category of urban fantasy. The fantastic is not portrayed as part of ordinary life overall, although it certainly has an air of ordinariness for the main characters. I think if one were so inclined, one could try to make a fairly strong argument either way, but I don't feel it's necessary to do so - the book is what it is and that is beautiful.

Now, for a discussion of the actual story! I have a lot of really good things to say – but as usual, I will start with the negatives, or rather negative.

There are 4 characters and 8 different locations and the world of Palimpsest is very strange, so sometimes it was difficult to stay oriented within the novel. Every chapter switches between at least locations, but often the switch is between characters and location and that was a little bit disruptive to the flow of the novel for me. There were just so many jumps between points of view. I can appreciate what the author was trying to do and I think she’s largely successful, but I think that the setting of Palimpsest could have been a little more developed if there had been fewer transitions between characters and locations. I just never felt comfortable within the narrative; because whenever I settled down into a point of view it would change in the next chapter.

That said – oh my goth (tee hee), this novel was beautifully written. The vocabulary was challenging and the sentences...Well...let me put it this way: I would put this book down just to savor the way certain sections flowed. The prose is just…amazing; I almost don’t have words for it. I like to write down passages that I think are meaningful or beautiful, but I found that I couldn’t do that, because I’d have to copy down pages upon pages. I tried to pick an example for this review and realized I would write out entire paragraphs. I’m just in awe of the way Valente uses language and creates images.

Also – the concept feels fairly original to me, though I’m willing to be corrected on that point. I certainly haven’t read anything remotely like it before. And the world of Palimpsest was wonderfully imaginative in the way of fairy-tale places that we normally only reach in dreams. The mystery and wonder, the addiction and horror that a place can evoke was beautifully portrayed and made me wish that I could feel that kind of awe about traveling anywhere.

Something fairly minor that appealed to me is the font used in the chapters set in Palimpsest. I wish I knew what it was so that I could use it for things. If someone wanted to tell me I’d be rather grateful.

I feel like I’m just gushing now and not saying much of substance anymore. If you’re into urban fantasy and gritty, sexual stories (yes, there is quite a bit of sex, but it’s not obscene or pornographic, it’s not even erotic, it just happens as part of the story) I think you should pick this novel up and try it on for size. Yes, you might be disoriented at times with the frequent shifts in point of view and location, but believe me, it’s worth it at the end, because this story is simply heartwrenchingly terrifyingly beautiful.

Okay, I can’t resist. I have to include a quote. I’ll try to keep it short.

“‘Living alone,’ November whispers, ‘is a skill, like running long distance or programming old computers. You have to know parameters, protocols. You have to learn them so well that they become like a language: to have music always so that the silence doesn’t overwhelm you, to perform your work exquisitely well so that your time is filled. You have to allow yourself to open up until you are exactly the size of the place you live, no more, or else you get restless. Not less, or else you drown. There are rules, there are ways of being and not being. This sort of thing,’ she gestured imprecisely at the room, the bed, him, ‘is forbidden. It expands or contract me, I’m not sure which, beyond the…set limits. I’m not good at that, either. Expanding, contracting.’” Pg. 117, Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente

Isn’t that amazing? Beautiful? Meaningful? Profound? I think so. I’m just going to go swoon for a while now.

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