I would quite happily read Catherynne Valente’s shopping lists. Happily, though, I’ve got enough of her books yet to read that I don’t have to.
And so, Palimpsest. It’s fantasy, of course, and an absolute joy to read: Valente’s lush prose is very much on display here, and it’s the rare kind of book that I wanted to read only in short bursts, to savour it and make it last longer. It’s accomplished and nuanced in a way that fantasy very rarely is – I found thinking about Palimpsest as challenging as I usually find thinking about literary fiction.
It’s the story of four strangers who all, one way or another, have sex with someone (four different someones) who is marked with a strange tattoo: black, and shaped like a tiny map. The following night, they end up in the titular Palimpsest: a strange, dreamy city not unlike Valente’s Fairyland (indeed, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making started life as a reference in Palimpsest), where the insects are made in a factory and the rivers run with cream and commuting is an extreme sport. From here on in, the novel alternates between Palimpsest and our world, between dreaming and waking, following our four strangers as they struggle with their new reality and what it means, and as they try to find a way to stay in Palimpsest for good.
What makes Palimpsest so wonderful? It’s the very fact, I think, that it’s so difficult to pin down; its slipperiness, the way it shifts in front of your eyes. It resists interpretation: as soon as you’ve constructed a reading of it, some small but impossible-to-ignore detail obtrudes and contradicts it.
For example: the novel is clearly fascinated by ideas of textuality, as its name implies. Many of the names of Palimpsest landmarks, quite apart from the city’s name itself, are textual: one of the train lines is called the Marginalia Line, for example, or we have Colophon Station. The city wants to be read, it seems, and for a while I found myself thinking of Palimpsest as a novel about fantasy reading, the terrible lure of wonder. The tattooed people who can travel to Palimpsest form loose clubs so they can keep sleeping with each other and returning; all four of our characters, and in in particular a Japanese woman, Sei, end up interacting with these networks in one way or another, and for those who are part of them it seems that sex has become transactional, a matter of form rather than of joy, a way to travel rather than a destination – the pull of wonder, of fantasy, has consumed their waking lives, almost like an addiction. It’s only when our four strangers find each other that they find a way to travel to Palimpsest permanently – only when they form a connection in the real world that they can find fulfilment in fantasy. But this reading elides the fact that Palimpsest isn’t there just to be read: it functions as a character in itself, it has agency, it shapes its own future.
There’s also a rather insightful review of Palimpsest in Strange Horizons by Matt Denault, which suggests that Palimpsest is “a land in which each of these underpinning myths of modernity [trains, maps, factories] exists in their romanticized, meaningful form”; that is, a land where everything still means something. Early in the novel, another of Our Heroes, muses on the meaninglessness of New York, in such stark contrast to the lush colours of Palimpsest:
“What rose now on the island of Manhattan was no more than the silver-white echo of all those millions of words expended on its vanity, the afterimage of all those endless photographs and movies which broadcast it to anyone who might live ignorant of its majesty.”
This is a persuasive reading; and yet –
“This is Palimpsest, November. This is the real world.”
The people of Palimpsest are quite clear about the fact that their city is not just symbolic, and certainly not just a shadowy counterpoint to our world. It is something in its own right. And Palimpsest is never directly textual; there is plenty in the city that feels like it should be referring to an old myth, but no referent you can ever quite pin down.
The city feels like a far more enigmatic presence, essentially unknowable: we see it through the eyes of tourists, who only see its wonder. We see it only as a place of being, not of doing, its inhabitants frozen in their strange Gormenghastian rituals without giving us a sense of what life is actually like there. The city is everything to everyone – characters throughout the book make strident claims of ownership which cannot be defended: “This is my place now, it’s not yours, it’s not.” The real clue to the nature of Palimpsest is in the children of its aristocracy, who are born faceless and identity-less, to be literally licked into shape when they grow up; a process that prevents any one family from ruling Palimpsest for more than a generation. It scrapes the face of the city’s politics clean so it can be written on again. So the city is rewritten by everyone who visits it – Palimpsest is, like the novel which bears its name, what we make of it.
Which is all very well; but what is the point of these symbolic games? What makes Palimpsest different from the self-absorption of its tattooed, fantasy-addicted tourists?
I think the novel is a meditation on ownership, and a meditation on how we narrate our lives; how everyone’s story is subjectively true, even where that contradicts other narratives. (For example, each of our four strangers thinks to themselves that they have given up so much to allow the other three to pass into Palimpsest freely.) In other words, our lives are palimpsestic: no one experience or narrative is true, and no one is false.
I’m still not sure this is an adequate reading; I’m not sure I have the skill to construct one. I do know, though, that Palimpsest is personal, lyrical, subversive and utterly gorgeous.