Friday, November 04, 2022

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

I've had this book on my shelf almost as long as I thought I did. In my mind, it was there before Tragic Tuesday, the day I was expelled from working in the SFF field forevermore, and maybe that I was even considering it, way back when, for that employer I can mention in passing these days, now that it's been so long.

But Palimpsest was published in 2009: that's two years later. So, not for the first time, my memory is making a better story out of the past than the facts would warrant. But good stories are the point, right? If we're talking about fiction, why rely on dull ol' truth when we can have a juicy, exciting story?

My memory is this was Catherynne M. Valente's first "big" book, after the two volumes of the Orphan's Tales series, and just before the "Fairyland" YA books (see my post on the first one) - which I had forgotten grew out of, or in tandem with, this book - at the point where she was one of the most exciting writers of the New Weird - or maybe the thing or movement that went beyond New Weird, which was getting codified and maybe dying at the time.

Again: what did I just say about memory? But Palimpsest is a strong, demanding book, that stakes out its literary territory fearlessly and sets out to tell four interlocked stories from the start, a book that swirls rather than charges forward, that entices and seduces rather than explains, a book that is definitely Weird in all the best ways and still feels New more than a decade later.

Palimpsest is a city. It really exists: it is not a dream or mirage. But it's not in our world; it doesn't seem to have any world around it, actually. Valente is fuzzy about its extent, and whether there is anything not-Palimpsest just beyond its borders, or even how its borders are defined: the edge of the city's streets, where the fields start? Further out, past the crops grown for the people of Palimpsest? Nowhere and everywhere?

There are people who live in Palimpsest. It seems that they are like people anywhere, but our story is not about them. Again, this is a New Weird book, or something like that, so there is magic or technology or things that don't obey the laws of nature as we expect them. All of the insects and little creatures of Palimpsest are manufactured, for example, under the control of Casimira, the most recent of her name, who is as close to a ruler of Palimpsest as we see.

But our main characters are all from our world. I won't say the "real" world: many Palimpsestians, and others, insist theirs takes that crown. And who am I to deny it?

Many people from our world can travel to Palimpsest. But the rules are strict and precise: they only travel at night, while asleep in our world. They cannot live or stay there - with one possible rumored exception, which comes up later. They only have access to specific spaces in that world, the ones related to their partners.

You know a person who has been to Palimpsest by their tattoo: each one has, somewhere on the body, a map of some cluster of streets, some neighborhood of Palimpsest. And from that person you can get to travel to that neighborhood. Presumably, if everyone got together, from all over the world, their skin could trace a complete map, laying bare all of Palimpsest's roads and alleys and buildings.

And how do you make the journey? You get to Palimpsest by fucking someone who has already been there. On your first trip - the time when you don't know it will happen, before you have your own tattoo - you join a group of four, who will be tightly connected forevermore, and get tattooed with your particular bit of map. Is that random - the bit of map, the group of four? I don't know. Valente doesn't say. No one questions or thinks about it: this is just how it is.

One particular group of four is at the center of this book: Sei, a Japanese woman barely out of her teens, obsessed with trains; November, a quiet beekeeper somewhere outside of San Francisco; Oleg, a young locksmith in New York obsessed with his dead sister; and Ludovico, a book-binder in Rome. They are all obsessed: that may be why they all got to go to Palimpsest. Or it may be why they were linked together, or why this group is the first of its kind to...oh, wait. That would be telling.

Palimpsest, the book, rotates around them, with chapters in our world and then Palimpsest, first in that order, and in the same order of characters, and then shifting as the book moves forward, as order reverses and Palimpsest becomes larger and larger in all their minds. They all must give up many things to stay in Palimpsest: huge things. They all have a Palimpsestian, of one kind or another, leading or guiding (or blocking or fighting) them.

What they want, what everyone who ever touches Palimpsest wants, is to stay and live there forever, to put our world firmly behind them and never have to go back. Palimpsest is the story of what they do, separately and together, in pursuit of that aim. That's all I can say. To know more, you would need to read the book.

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